Why I Applied To Only One Executive MBA Program

Students of the Wharton Executive MBA program at Wharton West take time to meet in one of the rooms used for study groups in the historic Folger Building.

Students of the Wharton Executive MBA program at Wharton West take time to meet in one of the rooms used for study groups in the historic Folger Building.

How many business schools would you apply for? If your answer is “four to six,” you belong to the majority of applicants. But I believe “less is more.” Here’s a plea for boldness, or why you should apply to one or two schools and raise your chances of getting in.

According to Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant, about half of MBA applicants plan to submit five or more applications. Slightly more than one in ten candidates plan to apply to six schools.

“There is a growing awareness of just how competitive B-school admissions are, and an understanding that there are more than one or two terrific schools for any given applicant,” says Blackman.

But, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And from my experience, I know “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” It’s better to apply at fewer schools, more diligently, than to apply at more, and do so half baked. After all, you’ll end up going to just one school anyway. Why bother getting into five? So without further ado, here are some arguments in favor of one application.

You probably know which your single most preferred school is – and it will show.

If you’re serious about getting an MBA, you probably spent months looking at rankings, articles and websites comparing all schools. Chances are you even made a list of schools according to your personal taste. You know which school you really want to get into. (And if you don’t: get your priorities right and do this first!)

Why not submit just your application to just the one school you really think is for you, then? You’ll be much more genuine in that one application, and it will show. Conversely, you probably apply to other schools either because they are best ranked, or because they’re a “safe bet”. Neither is a compelling reason. That shows more easily than you think, too.

You’re worth more to a school if you apply to just that one. How about some reverse engineering? It’s a school’s worst nightmare – and it happens all the time – that after they accepted you, you decide to “pass” and go to a different school.

For an admissions team, it’s annoying in two ways: One, they lose a prospective student to a competitor, and two, it makes their pool of applicants, and thus their own program, less unique.

By applying to just one school, and explicitly letting them know, however, you give a strong signal: No one is wasting anyone’s time. Admission officers often pass on candidates who are perfectly qualified for admissions but who they feel are likely to go elsewhere. By applying to a single school, you give admissions an incentive to admit you over a similar applicant: because you’re worth it. It immediately increases your chances.

A thorough preparation is half the battle – but you can’t prepare for five battles at once. In the optimal scenario, you should be confident the school will accept you the moment you submit your application. Impossible, you say? Well, “80 per cent of life is showing up,” Woody Allen once said. “People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen.”

Imagine how that may apply to a business school. If you go to a school’s admission event, visit the campus, attend classes, and talk to admitted students, professors and the admissions team, you have probably have done more than 80% of applicants. The reason is simple: they only have 20% of the time to do so, as they’re applying to five schools at once. If you do take your time to get to know school in person though, you will know better why you’re applying, and get the credit for it.

For me, this advice is not just hollow or based on hear-say. I successfully applied at Wharton: it was the only school I applied for. I previously got an MA from Columbia University: it was the only school I had applied for. And I started my career at Bain & Co.: it was one of only two companies I applied for (the other one being McKinsey).

In all those applications, I made it very clear how determined I was to be accepted at that specific organization, and for which particular reasons.

As for Wharton, I made sure I attended several info sessions (in DC, New York and Philadelphia!), several classes and seminars (on both the East Coast and the West Coast!), and even met professors in person, all around the world (even at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland!).

At the time I did those things, it didn’t fit in a grand scheme to get accepted. At the end though, all these pieces fit into the perfect application puzzle. Just like Woody Allen, I realized that 80% of success was showing up—and that’s exactly what I did. I showed up. You’d be surprised how few people actually do that, and how far it can get you.

Peter Vanham

Peter Vanham

Peter Vanham, 28, will start Wharton’s Executive MBA program next May.


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