The Round 3 MBA Application

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: October 14, 2019)

I was admitted to Harvard Business School as a round 3 candidate, and although it made things quite difficult, I’m glad I didn’t postpone my application another year (I was already in my thirties when I applied to Harvard).

Like Harvard, most leading MBA programs in the U.S. still maintain a third admission round (R3) and frequently reiterate that they keep a few spots for truly outstanding applicants. While odds of admissions may be lower in R3, a decent 5% to 10% of any incoming class at Harvard Business School is assumed to originate from the third round. Round 3 should therefore be considered a suitable option for very strong candidates (with a good GPA and 700+ GMAT).

How to increase your chances of success in Round 3?

We recently held conversations with successful round 3 applicants from the HBS class of 2013. Based on their feedback and my own experience, we have compiled a list of 5 things you should know in order to maximize your odds of success as a round 3 applicant.

1. Be ready to explain why you did not apply earlier.

Applying in round 3 means that you are willingly taking a chance to receive a ding from your favorite programs, no matter how strong your application. Unless you have compelling reasons to select this round, the admissions committee might, at best, question your judgment.

Did you postpone your application because of a demanding project you were assigned to at work? Did you go through some personal issues that you believe the adcom should be aware of? Some military applicants may have to wait until they receive their release documents, a prerequisite to be able to submit their application. In any case, consider explaining the drivers for your R3 submission in the “additional information” box of the application form. Furthermore, you might be asked to elaborate on “why round 3” during your interview (the vast majority of our interviewees were), so be ready to be challenged then as well.

During my interview, I explained how a recent job transition had prevented me from applying earlier, which apparently was a good enough explanation for my interviewer. Kurt Ramirez, one of my classmates at HBS, told the admissions team that his company “was in the midst of a reorganization that had kept [him] busy”, and that as a consequence he “didn’t think [his] essays were as articulate as they could be by the R2 deadline”.

In any case, be honest. Another classmate and 2013 HBS graduate had made a genuine mistake and decided to be upfront about it during his interview: “Believe it or not, I wrote down the wrong date for the Round 2 deadline, and I did not notice my mistake until after the deadline had passed. In one of my better attempts not to procrastinate, I got on the HBS admissions website so early that they were still showing the Class of 2012’s admissions deadline which happened to be a few days later in January than the one for the prospective class of 2013. I ran my whole application planning process from a document where I wrote down that wrong date.” His interview still went very well, and his story certainly added a somewhat lighter touch to his conversation with the admissions officer.

2. Prove that you’ve planned things carefully

When I applied in 2011, Dee Leopold, the director of admissions at HBS, had just published a short blog post about the implications of applying in round 3:

1. The best housing options would be gone.
2. Obtaining a student visa by the matriculation date might prove challenging and stressful.
3. There would be no Admitted Student Weekend (ASW).

I therefore made sure to address these points in the additional information section, explaining how I had thought of everything already, and what my detailed action plan was in order to:

1. Secure housing (I had friends in the Boston area who could help me look for an apartment, and even host me if necessary).
2. Obtain my visa before the end of the summer (I was aware of deadlines at the embassy in Paris, and knew that the whole process would take less than 2 months after receiving my admissions letter, so I had no reason to worry).
3. Make my decision between HBS and other programs should I be admitted… I explained that I had done enough research already to be 100% sure that I would join HBS if offered a spot.

At some schools, round 3 applicants are not eligible for scholarships. If this is the case, you may need to also clearly explain how you intend to pay for tuition and other expenses.

3. Demonstrate outstanding motivation.

Often, candidates whose applications are rejected in round 1 and 2 decide to submit round 3 applications to programs they did not consider highly initially. Unless you are applying to top 10 programs, your round 3 application may seem like a Hail Mary attempt to get into an MBA program this year.

Round 3 candidates should therefore clearly demonstrate that they have conducted extensive research about the particular school they are applying to and that they understand what makes its MBA program unique. The goal is to proactively answer the following question that the adcom will be asking itself: if we offered this person one of the few spots we have left, would he/she accept it? If the answer is not a resounding yes, the school may decide to send you a ding letter.

To increase your odds, try to mention specific classes you plan to attend, clubs you intend to join or even lead, members of the community who have encouraged you to apply, or events you have attended in the months leading to your application. Show that you have a clear vision of your long-term career, and how that specific MBA will perfectly complement your pre-MBA experience to help you achieve your goals.

4. Explain what makes you unique.

Not only do you need to show the schools that you’ve done your homework and know precisely what you can get out of their MBA program, you also need to tell the admissions team about the features that set you apart from the rest of the class. As the admission team tries to put the final touches to its upcoming class, you need to help them see what you are bringing to the program, that no or few other students will be able to offer.

Many of my HBS classmates who were admitted in round 3 had either untraditional profiles or compelling reasons for not applying earlier (e.g. military applicants). They came from somewhat exotic industries (journalism, mining, offshore oil drilling, military equipment manufacturers, etc.), had worked in underrepresented functions among MBA students (e.g. sales), or had access to outstanding personal or professional networks.

According to a class of 2013 graduate and former editor at the Washington Post: “It was (…) up to me to sell myself in the application, and to make it clear how my unconventional background would be valuable to the class. [If you are applying in round 3] make sure that the adcom knows what makes you unique, and what you’ll bring to the class. If your application could be confused with anybody else’s, stick to round 1 or 2.

Similarly, Kurt Ramirez (HBS’ 13), a former energy industry expert who had spent most of his time working at oil refineries, explains: “I imagine my energy background helped, especially following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but I also felt like the questions that were asked in the essays and interview catered to my ‘core’ work and life experiences. I leaned on those and it worked out. [As a R3 applicant you should] make a conscious effort in your application to describe how you’re different and how your fellow classmates can learn from you. Odds are the majority of your class will be filled and you need to articulate why you’re a unique plug into the last few spots.”

Another graduate from the class of 2013, who was a former consultant for a boutique firm prior to joining HBS, explained to us: “My full time work experience was three years as a consultant for a small firm that specialized in turnaround and restructuring. While I came from a very common industry in consulting, I think the boutique restructuring experience was a nice differentiation particularly since I worked there during the downturn.”

We could not find many examples of investment bankers or pure strategy consultants who successfully applied in round 3. HBS and other top programs indeed receive thousands of applications from bankers and consultants with very competitive profiles, and are therefore forced to reject extremely strong candidates in the first 2 rounds. Although there are exceptions, these types of candidates should therefore seriously consider waiting until the start of the next application cycle.

5. Hedge your bets

As discussed, you might have a very solid application package with outstanding recommendations, and not be offered a spot at your top program. This is why we strongly advise our R3 clients to hedge their bets by applying to a limited number of programs in R3, and keeping a few schools they like for the upcoming R1 admissions round. By adopting this “incremental” approach, if things do not go as planned in R3, you’ll be able to adopt a different strategy in R1, without carrying the burden of having to reapply to the same schools just a few months after receiving a ding notification.

Need help?

At MBA Admissions Advisors, we’ve helped candidates define their strategy for round 3 applications. Should you need professional advice from MBA graduates who have been in your shoes, please do not hesitate to reach out to us to request a free consultation. If you’re working under tight time constraints, we will be happy to assist you with resume preparation, crafting your personal story, and essay editing. Finally, make sure to give our MBA Matching Algorithm a try and let us know what you think.

As always, do not hesitate to leave a comment below if you want to add your perspective to this topic.

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