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1. Start the MBA admission process early

Most MBA schools and business programs have an application filing period of about 6 to 8 months. During this time, the department accepts applications, reviews them, and offers attractive candidates a spot in their program. With such a large window, you’re better off applying earlier rather than later in the cycle as it improves your chances of acceptance and demonstrates your sincere interest in the program — a surefire way to impress admission committees.

Waiting until the last minute to apply could leave the impression that you considered the program as a last resort. You’ll also be more likely to prepare your application hastily, something any MBA admission committee worth its salt is sure to notice. Admission officers have reviewed thousands of applications over the years and if you rush through your application, they’ll know it — and it won’t reflect well on your candidacy.

When you apply early, there are usually more spots available at that time. Inevitably, the majority of business school applicants wait until later to apply, so the longer you wait, the fewer spots there will be — and with more students competing for them. Early on in the application process, admission directors don’t yet know who will be applying, so they’re not sure how selective they can afford to be. This could work in your favor because your MBA application may be judged more on its own merit than on how it compares with others.

2. Apply to the MBA schools that are right for you

The business school application process can be fairly arduous, so be sure to apply to just the right number of schools. Too few and you may not be accepted to any. Too many and you may go crazy filling out all those forms and writing many an MBA essay! Make realistic choices. Look at the criteria of the schools in which you’re interested, and then look at your qualifications.

Don’t be discouraged from applying to a program that you feel is perfect just because your GMAT score falls slightly below their stated requirement. If all the other elements of your application show that you will be a valuable member of their team, your chances for admission will be favorable. However, if your GMAT is 50 points below the cutoff, your GPA is an entire point below their requirement, and you don’t have any real work experience, then you might want to focus on schools to which you’re better suited academically.

By the same token, if you’re an older applicant (more than 32 years old), you may feel that your chances for MBA admission are lower because you do not represent the “typical” graduate student. On the contrary, in many business schools, older students are seen as offering professional experience, maturity, and real-world perspective — all highly valued in the business world.

Break your MBA schools down into three categories: reach, probable, and safety schools. A good rule of thumb is to apply to a few reach schools (or “long-shots”), send more applications to probable schools (those to which you will probably be accepted), and send a few applications to your safety schools (those where you’re positive you’ll be accepted). Generally, safety schools won’t be your first choices, but you may need to rely on them if you don’t get accepted at your reach and probable schools. However, don’t apply to schools that you don’t really want to attend.

3. Standing apart in the MBA admission process

When business schools review applications, they don’t follow a magical formula of GMAT + GPA + Work Experience + MBA Essay = Admission. Most schools are looking to enroll an ideal community of students who will work well together in the program and benefit from the program’s goals. Globalization in the field of business itself means that the best MBA programs are looking for a more diverse student body that includes older students, women, minorities, international students, and students from small schools, big schools, Ivy League schools, and so on. You want to differentiate yourself a bit as a student who seems like a good, worthwhile fit for the MBA program you want into. For an example of how to do this, see how to ace your MBA interview.

This might all sound a little nebulous, but admission directors want to enroll students that will be a good fit with their program, and every program has a different definition of what that means, based on a mix of professional, academic, and personal interests. If you’ve done your homework and apply to those programs you’ve determined will fulfill your career and personal goals, then you’re off to the right start in finding the best MBA programs for you.