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The 'Two-Pronged' School Selection Approach

Admissions consultant Kent Harrill has helped hundreds of MBA applicants achieve their dream of admission to a top b-school over the past ten plus years. His experience has convinced him that even the smartest and best-qualified applicants need to plan their admissions strategies carefully in order to get their desired outcomes.

"I've seen hundreds of incredibly qualified candidates in my eight years of admissions consulting, some that rival even the best experienced MBA out there – but, that being said, no candidate is ever a 'lock' at top schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton," Kent says. "That's especially true with the incredible admissions competition that has developed over the past two or three years."

"Unless a candidate has distinct reasons for applying only to certain schools – and by 'distinct reasons' I mean something like 'I don't want to leave New York City, so Columbia and NYU are my only choices,' or 'My wife/husband is a partner in a law firm in Chicago, and I don't want to leave her/him for two years, so I'll only be applying to Kellogg and Chicago,' or 'I have two kids and my parents live in central Virginia, so Darden is the only opportunity for me' – I'd suggest what I tell most of my clients, which is to take a 'two-pronged' approach to b-school admissions strategy."

"What do I mean by 'two-pronged'? I mean splitting your applications into two rounds."

"In the first round, apply to those schools that – if you receive an interview invite – you're in great shape. Those schools include Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. If these first-round applications result in interview invites, you'll have less reason to worry about applying to safety or second-tier schools in the later rounds. Then, in the second round, you should apply according to the initial results from the first round – if you're having initial success with interview invites, go for it ... stay with the competitive schools. If you're not seeing good response from early applications, it might be time to start taking a look at some still outstanding but slightly less competitive programs. This two-pronged approach leaves you time to re-assess your situation and reposition yourself."

"Another tactic that I suggest for managing your applications in concert with this dual approach is to complete the most 'traditional' applications and essays first. I love creative essays like Stanford and NYU usually have, and the Chicago presentation is great fun, but you'll find you have to spend a lot of time on them and very little of what you've created for them can be used in applications to other schools. I encourage my clients to start with the more traditional, but extremely comprehensive, applications and essay sets required by schools like Wharton or Kellogg. Preparing their applications allows you to develop your 'whole' story, much of which is easily replicated for other school applications."

– Kent holds an MBA from Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management and served on the Johnson School's admissions committee.

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