An MBA Application timeline is not just about the deadline of Early decision/1st/2nd/3rd round. It should be counted from the date you decide to apply for an MBA program until you get the final decision from the last school. Hence, this newly-defined timeline can last for a year or more, depending on your personal plan to prepare for an MBA. 

To better describe factors that impact on your MBA application timeline, we will divide it into two components:

MBA application overall timeline

MBA Deadline

Planning for your preparation

– An out of control factor and are defined by b-schools

– All b-schools plan their deadlines 2-3 years ahead. Therefore, you will know your deadlines in advance

– An under control factor and you can layout the timeline by yourself

– However, a lot of candidates often underestimate this part, leading to under-planning

We will deep dive into both factors in later parts so that you can be most-prepared for your upcoming MBA application journey.

1. MBA Deadlines: the out-of-control factor 

As I shared before, most b-schools plan their deadlines 2-3 years ahead. Therefore, you can access your target schools’ website and look for key milestones to plan everything following those dates. You have no control over the schools’ deadlines, but if you know pretty early, you can prepare for those more thoroughly. 

Normally, B-schools have 2-3 admission rounds. Some schools call them Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3. Some change the names slightly by labeling them: Early Action Round, Round 1, Round 2, etc. UVA Darden, Duke Fuqua and Columbia (CBS) are some prominent names that have Early action rounds.

European b-schools often have even 4-5 rounds: INSEAD, London Business School (LBS), Oxford Said have 4 rounds of admission while Cambridge Judge organizes 5 rounds in total. 

In general, Early Action/Round 1 will be in September/beginning of October every year. Round 2 of most US b-schools will be in the beginning – mid of January while 3rd round will be around the end of March – mid of April. 

For European schools, Round 1 will be in September, their 2nd round will be in October/November, the 3th round will be in January and 4th round will be in March every year. Basically, while Europe MBA programs organize the 1st and 3rd round at the same time as do US counterparts , old continental schools add one more round in between. 

1.1 Why do b-schools organize so many rounds?

The question here is why b-schools have to organize that many admission rounds. 

After talking to several Admission Committees and also apply for several notable b-schools, I believe that having several rounds create more pros than cons, for both the schools and applicants

For B-schools:

It helps the admissions process:

The schools can manage resources and workload better while reviewing all the applicants with a thoughtful manner. This process will be harder to manage if all the application forms are submitted at once.

It helps the schools ensure diversity in a cohort.

Normally, b-schools would like to have a class with diverse backgrounds. Therefore, they can aim to look for candidates with non-traditional background to ensure that factor.

For MBA applicants:

Different strategies can be applied for different sets of school options.

Different strategies can be applied for different sets of school options.
You can plan your application depending on your school prioritization. We will dedicate one part to talk about this strategy later.

It’s helpful to manage your time and effort for each school.

Believe me, it will be a nightmare if you have 5 deadlines in the same month. Furthermore, it is also a burden for your recommenders to finish all of those forms that all schools send to them.

1.2 Which round I should apply for? 

If you ask the school’s Admission team this question, their answer is always: “Apply when you are ready the most”. My interpretation for this answer is that: apply when your GMAT is at least equal to the school’s average score, your language certificate can reach the requirement and you can dedicate time to write application essays. 

They are not wrong, to be honest. However, my advice to you is slightly different: “When you are ready, apply as soon as possible”. In my opinion, not only readiness but also timing should be a major factor.

Statistically, the number of applicants in Round 2 is often the highest while the number of accepted candidates is the same as that in Round 1. It proves that your chance is lower, the later you apply. Furthermore, if b-schools already recruited candidates with similar backgrounds and similar personal stories as yours, you would have more disadvantages. 

This rule can be loosened for candidates with non-traditional backgrounds. However, if you also aim for scholarship, then apply as soon as possible. A lot of schools state clearly that scholarship is only available for applicants in certain rounds. Do check with your school carefully before making up your mind which round you will apply. 

2. Planning for your preparation: the under-control factor

2.1 Why do we need a plan? 

I have known several people who dropped their MBA plan because they cannot achieve acceptable GMAT scores and still do not want to apply for schools that are not their initial targets. I do understand their “make it or break it” standpoint and I respect that. However, I believe they can do better if those individuals have a better plan and execute it properly. 

Disclaimer: I do not mean that having high GMAT will save you a seat in your dream school or having a lower-than-the-school-average-score will zero out your chance. My point of view is that: if you still have time to prepare, you should minimize all the risks. 

Applicants for MBA programs often have 3-4 years of experience. It means that each of them still works 8 hours/day, 5 days/week in the office while fulfilling all the requirements: GMAT, English test, Networking with school alumni, Write the essays, etc. To be more precise, they have around 3-4 hours/day during weekdays and 10-12 hours/day during weekends to work on those side tasks. 

Hence, I would recommend you to prepare for your MBA 9-12 months before the earliest deadlines. If you feel less confident, 1.5-2 years preparation is still fine because the GMAT score is valid for 5 years. 

2.2 Here is the plan 

Here are some notes that you should be aware of before we go into the detailed plan. 

  • B-schools that start their school year in September will organize 1st round in September/October. There are other schools that start in January; so, if your target school is in this category, remember to change the plan accordingly. 
  • My assumption is that the earliest deadline is in Round 1, around September/October every year. If you plan to apply from Round 2, you can adjust this timeline to fit your situation.

These are 9 steps to apply for an MBA program

Step 1: Identify your target schools

Step 2: Study GMAT/GRE 

Step 3: Get English certificate (IELTS/TOEFL) – not compulsory for all applicants. 

Step 4: Network with your target school 

Step 5: Prepare other materials 

Step 6: Write your resume

Step 7: Choose your recommenders. 

Step 8: Write your application essays

Step 9: Prepare for the interview. 

#1 Identify your target schools:


September – October (one year before R1 deadlines)


Identifying your target schools can help to form your targeted GMAT scores and IELTS/TOEFL iBT scores; and you can have time to build your personal story when writing the essays. 


There are several ways to do it:

  • Think about the industry that you want to be in post MBA and choose schools that can support your goal via their network.  
  • Set up a call to talk to school’s representatives. After several discussions, you will have an idea about which schools like you more than the others. 
  • Profile evaluation service from Admission Consulting agents. It is a free service that a lot of agents are providing. You can utilize those to better understand the school’ insights and how your profile fits to that school. 

Spend a reasonable amount of time for this step and don’t be too stressed about having the right target schools immediately. You can change this list along the way by adding/removing some schools. 

So what?

Your target schools can be categorized into 2 groups:

  • Group 1: 3 – 4 “safe schools”: you have a high chance to be accepted to those schools. 
  • Group 2: 2 – 3 “dream schools”: you have lower chances to be accepted to those MBA Programs.  

You should apply to 2 safe schools and 1 dream school in round 1. If you can manage your time to apply for more schools, you can increase those numbers. 

In this plan, Round 1 is prioritized for safe schools because Round 1 often receives less number of applicants than Round 2 and I aim to increase the chance. My assumption here is that your GMAT is ready to apply for those schools. 

#2 Study GMAT/GRE

Timeline: September – July. It is recommended to finish your GMAT 2 months before the MBA deadlines. 

Why? Studying GMAT/GRE is one of the very first challenges you have to face. Some people can reach their target scores after 3 months of studying but some have to spend 6-9 months. Therefore, I put here 10 months for this step. Furthermore, plan to make several test attempts before July so that you know how much effort is needed to reach your target score

How? You can self-study or joining online classes for GMAT/GRE

#3 Get English certificate


You can do it before starting GMAT/GRE or after finishing GMAT/GRE. If you take it before GMAT/GRE, bear in mind that those English certificates are only valid for 2 years. 

I don’t recommend doing the English test and GMAT at the same time as GMAT often requires all of your focus. 


It is not a compulsory requirement for all applicants and only applicable for applicants from non-english speaking countries or do not attend a university in an english-speaking country. This certificate is to prove that your language skill is enough to pursue the MBA program, which is taught completely in English. 

The two most common tests are IELTS and TOEFL iBT. Most schools nowaday accept both but, still, there are some that only accept either IELTS or TOEFL iBT. Therefore, Do check with your school as this requirement varies case by case and school by school. 

#4 Network with target schools’ current students/alumni and professionals in your post-MBA industry

Timeline: March – May

Why? Networking with your target schools’ current students and alumni can help you understand and experience the school’s culture and value. Furthermore, embedding those into your essays and interview can emphasize your passion for the schools.   

Talking to people who are in industry that you aim for post-MBA program is to build up your long term and short term career goals. This is a must-have question in all applications. Having those insights definitely lay the foundation for questions such as why you choose that career path. 


There are many ways to network but here are some available resources that you can leverage in this progress:  

School visit

Can provide you a real experience about the school vibe. Even some programs allow visitors to join their classrooms and stay for 1-2 hours if you register in advance. One note is that: don’t pay that visit during summer time as everybody will be out for the internship

School’s recruitment events

This is also an opportunity to talk to both the Admission team and current students. I highly recommend you to join those online and offline workshops if you can do school visits. Furthermore, some schools even offer vouchers to free your Application fee during those events, which can save you $200-$300/school. 


This platform is too famous when mentioning a social network for professionals. You can write email to people who are or used to be in your target industry and also graduated from your target programs. Of course, the conversion rate for LinkedIn is not too high – you probably have to send hundreds of emails but are able to set up 1-2 calls only.    

For each school, speak at least to the admission team and one current student. If you apply for 5 schools, it means that you have to talk to at least 10 people. If we also include people whose career is the same as what you want post MBA, you should talk to 12-14 people in total.

#5 Prepare other materials

Timeline: April – May


This is a minor step in the whole process, in which you collect your transcript and degree scroll, scan them and save them in your pc. Some universities can deliver an e-transcript to you, which is quite convenient but it will take them around 2 weeks to process. Hence, prepare all materials in advance or at least be familiar with the process and how long it will take to get those papers. 

#6 Write your resume

Timeline: June – July


Having at least 2-3 review rounds with friends or colleagues, especially ones who are or graduated from a similar MBA Program. 

In my opinion, you should do it early because this is kind of a self-reflection your whole 3-4 years of working experience. From here, you can pick and choose responsibilities/project to answer questions such as: your strength and weakness, your most memorable achievement, an experience when you learned the most about leadership, etc. 

#7 Choose your recommenders

Timeline: July – August 


When you layout your resume, you can also look back and choose your recommender. If you apply to 5 schools, your recommender probably has to write 5 letters of recommendation. Therefore, talk to them about your MBA plan, how many schools you want to apply to and the timeline also so that they will not be shocked with the workload later. 


A lot of people believe that a good recommender should be a high profile person. However, I believe that your line manager or any supervisor who worked closely with you from 6-12 months can become your recommender. 

In LOR (Letter of Recommendation), recommenders often have to talk about the relationship between the recommender and the recommended person; therefore, choosing someone who has worked with you for a long time will increase the credibility of the recommendation. 

#8 Write your application essays 

Timeline: July – September


An MBA application is full of self-reflection. That is why you should give yourself enough time to think about your past experience, pick up valuable stories and put them down in the application form. 

Imagine that each question, each essay will reveal a piece of puzzle in your life, what picture do you want the Admission Committee to see after they go through all of your writings? How does that picture fit into the school? How does that picture, with other pictures in the cohort, diverse the MBA program?

#9 Prepare for the interview   

Timeline: September onwards


If you can get the interview invitation, schools normally give you 2 weeks to prepare (or even shorter). Therefore, if you are not too confident about your interview skill, early practice is the key to ace the interview


Before making any mock interview, re-read your application several times 

For sure the interviewer will start with some questions such as: Introduce yourself, Walk me through your resume, why MBA, etc. Therefore, you can prepare those questions and practice. 

I always recommend people to self-record when practicing so that they can review and adjust both the answer’s content and body language. If you even don’t like your answer, other people won’t. 

After self-practicing several times, you can conduct some mock interviews with friends and colleagues and get their feedback. If possible, ask them to think about an odd question that you have never thought about before.  

3. Overall timeline for MBA application process


  • As Step 3 is not compulsory for all applicants, we do not put it in this timeline
  • This timeline is for schools that start their program in August/September. If your school start in January, you can adapt this timeline accordingly
  • The assumption here is: the earliest deadline is in September/October. If you aim for Round 2 only, you can also change this plan to suit your personal arrangement. 

Final words

Getting in an MBA program is a long journey. Some people can do it in only 3-4 months but most of us have to spend 9-12 months to prepare for them. Therefore, do prepare yourself, both mentally and physically for this process. The key success here is to layout all key steps, put them in the timeline and make sure that you execute that plan. Spend 3-4 hours/day to study GMAT, spend your weekend talking to b-schools, current MBA candidates, think about your personal story, etc. Hard work will pay off!. 

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