Late round & Re-apply or Wait for 1st Round 2010?

Several of my clients are facing this dilemma: apply late with the intention of re-applying in R1 if unsuccessful, or simply wait and apply "clean" in R1 in the fall. It's a tough question with no clear answer, complicated by all the emotion and effort that goes into applying for an MBA. To simplify the discussion, I'll assume that you are not sponsored by your company and not on the borderline age-wise (i.e., about 34 or 35), or otherwise obligated to apply in the 2009-10 application season. I'll also assume that you are not considering a January term program like Columbia or INSEAD. So, if you're unsure, the key question to ask yourself is this: if you apply late and are not accepted, will you be able to demonstrate significant improvement by the time you re-apply?

Each MBA program has a different re-application process, but they all expect to see growth between applications (e.g., better test scores, progress towards your goals, job promotions or new work initiatives, social contributions/volunteering, etc.), as the following re-applicant questions from 2009-10 show:

As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world”. What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals? How has your candidacy improved since the last time you applied? (Wharton)

Required essay for re-applicants only – Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (Kellogg)

We strongly recommend that you submit a statement outlining how you have improved your candidacy since your last application, as the Admissions Committee will be looking for substantive change in your qualifications. (Haas)

In general, if you don't feel like you'll be able to improve between applications, then you should wait for R1 and use the time to prepare the best application possible. And if your test scores (GMAT, TOEFL) are questionable or you're struggling with your essays (which is often the case with late-round submissions), or you're an international applicant aiming at U.S. programs (since most U.S. programs want you to apply by the January/2nd round), then your chances of a late-round admission are even lower, making the case for waiting even stronger. So if your application profile is weak, you should think twice before applying "just for the hell of it" or "to see what happens" because you'll be setting a hurdle for yourself that first-time applicants don't need to clear and which you might not be able to clear yourself by the time R1 rolls around. In fact, this last piece of advice applies no matter what round you're applying in.