This year will be the 10th year (!!) that I've been doing this under my own MBA Apply shingle. Surprising that I never put together something like this, but consider this some best practices I've learned in the 10 years I've been working with tons of applicants from practically all walks of life.
1. GET THE GMAT OUT OF THE WAY FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE.
Preparing for the GMAT exam requires focus, and you owe it to yourself to get the strongest score you can. While a high score won't be an asset, a low score can keep you out. For top 16 schools, aim for a 700 at a bare minimum, and ideally a 720+. For top 30 schools, aim for a 660 minimum and ideally a 700+. It's not impossible to prep for the GMAT while working on your applications (and you may have to do both in parallel if you have to retake it), but the more time you have to prepare for the GMAT, the better. In essence, aim to finish your GMAT by May/June in the year in which you intend to apply (either for the October Round 1 deadlines or January Round 2 deadlines).
2. VISIT A FEW SCHOOLS WHILE CLASS IS IN SESSION.
Regular classes are held from September to April (with August being pre-term for some schools, and May being final exam month for most schools).
School visits can be invaluable. You get first hand experience with what a business school environment "feels like" in a way that no website, brochure, discussion forum, or second hand information can provide.
Aside from the Q&A info sessions that adcoms may organize as well as sitting in on class, perhaps the most invaluable insight you'll get about a specific b-school (or just b-schools as a whole) is to talk to current students one-on-one, where they will be far more likely to open up "off the record". Offer to buy them a quick coffee, beer or even a meal. They are broke (or heavily indebted) students who will appreciate free drinks and food.
Again, visiting schools isn't about currying favor with the adcoms at all (the only people they will remember are those who make complete asses of themselves because of the sheer number of people they come in contact with in any given year), but for your own sake. That first hand experience will make it easier for you to write about what you want from b-school in a more personal, specific way.
Aim to visit a few schools. They don't all have to be your target schools. For example, if you're heading to Chicago to visit Booth, go and visit Kellogg while you're at it even if you don't plan on applying there. Or, if you're heading to Philadelphia to visit Wharton, take a quick day trip to New York and visit Columbia and Stern.
Visiting 2-3 schools will not only de-mystify what b-school is like, but it'll only help you hone in on what it is you want to get out of the b-school experience.
3. APPLY TO 4-7 SCHOOLS TOTAL.
Since there are way more folks of a comparable caliber applying than there are spots available at any one b-school, the admissions process can be a total crapshoot. As such, it's a numbers game. Apply to too few schools, and you won't maximize your odds. Apply to too many schools, and you'll dilute your efforts across too many schools.
Target around 4-7 schools to maximize your chances, with the expectation that it's unlikely you'll get into every school you apply to. Spread it out across a range of schools: 2-3 stretches, 2-3 sweet spots, and 0-1 safeties. "Stretches" are schools where you have enough of a shot that they're worth applying to, but you'll need a bit of luck to get in. Sweet spots are schools where you have a more reasonable shot of getting into given your profile. Safeties are schools where you are virtually guaranteed to get into.
4. AIM FOR A SWEET SPOT OF 5-10 WEEKS TO COMPLETE ALL YOUR APPLICATIONS.
Although completing the applications does take some time, effort and focus - there isn't so much to do that it is a full-time job. Give yourself at least 5 weeks, and at most 10 weeks to complete all your applications, with the expectation that you'll be working on it a few hours each week.
Anything less than 5 weeks, and chances are you'll be rushing to get them in before the deadlines. Anything more than 10 weeks, and you risk "overworking" and overthinking your essays (polishing them to a point where your second-guessing will actually worsen the quality of your written applications). There is only so much you can do before it ends up being an exercise in rearranging the furniture.
This means if you're applying for Round 1 deadlines, as long as you begin by mid- to late-August, you should be fine. And for Round 2 January deadlines, you should start on your essays no later than mid- to late-November.
5. FOCUS ON ONE SCHOOL AT A TIME.
Around 80-90% of your time and effort will be spent on the first 2-3 applications (or even the first 1-2 applications, depending on the degree of overlap in the essays for your target schools).
You will find that once you've completed a few schools, each additional school will take very little time. In fact, by the time you get to your 4th school and beyond, it can take a week or even just a day or two to get them done.
Even if the essays or messaging are different from one school to the next, there's a learning curve - once you're "in the zone" after having done a few and you have a more natural feel for writing b-school essays, you'll find that it progressively takes less time to complete each subsequent application.
Focusing on one school at a time will help you focus, while also giving you the best chance of completing your entire list of schools in the most effective manner.
You don't have to be dogmatic about completing them one at a time, but avoid working on them in parallel as much as you can. What this also does is it gives you time away from a particular application, and that time away is invaluable, because it allows you to revisit the applications with a fresh set of eyes before you submit. What you may find is that while working on your 5th school application for example, you discover some new insights that you can incorporate into your 1st school application - insights that you may not have come up with had you tried to juggle a bunch of school applications at once and feeling overwhelmed about it.
6. THINK, WRITE AND SPEAK IN PLAIN ENGLISH.
For many b-school applicants, they have forgotten how to write in plain English, because most if not all of the writing they have been doing since college has been in a corporate work environment.
Every industry has their own shorthand, jargon, and figures of speech - to the point where in some cases it has morphed into its own dialect that only people in that industry can understand.
Most applicants can write about their personal lives or anything they do outside of work in plain English (no one would ever say "My spouse and I consolidated into a mutually beneficial union due to our aligned interests"). However, a lot of applicants have never had to write, speak or even think in plain English at work, because everything at work is communicated in an industry dialect or "corporate speak." Just bear in mind that if you are talking about your work in a resume, essay, or interview - you will likely have to act as your own English translator.
One effective way to help you write in a clear way is to read your essays out loud. If it sounds stiff, abstract and formal - then it probably is. Your essays should sound like YOU outside of work. The language should sound like how you talk, except without the decorative "ums, ahs, you know's, see what I mean, like, yeahs, " and so forth.
7. HAVE OTHERS READ AND CRITIQUE YOUR ESSAYS.
Feedback is essential. That third person perspective is something you do not have when you're knee deep in your essays.
Get your friends, colleagues, family members, or even paid consultants to review your writing for clarity, specificity, economy and tone.
Chances are, you will get conflicting feedback. That's normal. Narrative writing is subjective, and not everyone will have the same opinion about your "story" - what you wrote, or how you wrote it. As the author of your narrative, it is a judgment call (and yours alone) as to what feedback to incorporate and what to ignore. Frankly, the entire application process is a judgment call from both the applicant's and adcom's perspective. However, you can make more informed choices about your essays (in whole or in part) when you get feedback from others who are not in your head.
8. GIVE YOUR RECOMMENDERS 4-6 WEEKS TOTAL TO COMPLETE ALL THEIR REC LETTERS - NO MORE, AND NO LESS.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but you do not want to give your recommenders too much time. The reason is simple: the more time you give someone, the more time they have to procrastinate. And the more they procrastinate, the more likely they'll rush to submit it at the very last minute. Don't project your own stakes onto others: yes, the applications mean a lot to you personally, so you'll be more motivated and uptight about every single little thing, trying to get everything done and to the tee. Your recommenders frankly don't have those stakes, even if they really like you, and as is human nature - they will procrastinate and sit on it if given the chance. You would too if you were in their shoes and being asked to write them for someone else.
Having said that, by all means, talk to potential candidates who you would like to write your recommendation letter a few months before the deadlines so that you can finalize who your recommenders will be.
But give them the materials to submit their recommendation letters around 4-6 weeks from the deadline. That way, they have enough time to write them to the best of their ability, but not so much time that they can completely set it aside and forget about it.
9. AIM TO SUBMIT IN THE 1ST OR 2ND ROUND; AVOID THE FINAL ROUND
For most schools, they build most of their class from their first two rounds, so by the time the last round comes around, there are few spots left and as such, the decision process is even more subjective and random. This is especially the case if you are a traditional applicant (finance, consulting, engineering, healthcare, corporate) because it's unlikely they will need or want any more traditional applicants by the time they review applications from the final round. If anything, they are hoping to fill the class with more non-traditionals from non-profit, military, arts/entertainment/sports, and so forth. Again, nothing is impossible, but if you can, avoid the final round.
If you are undecided between the 1st and 2nd round, just know that it makes no difference from an admissions perspective (your chances are the same). However, I have found that applicants who aim for the 1st round tend to be more productive, even if they are busier at work. The reason for this is simple: when you are busy at work, you have no time to navel gaze or to procrastinate. You just execute.
The 2nd round tends to be a more difficult deadline to aim for simply because of the holiday season: from Thanksgiving to the New Year, it's a dead zone. A lot of applicants mistakenly believe that because they have all the time in the world because they will be with their families or on holiday, they can focus on their application. And they are often wrong, because it's much harder to substitute between "personal time with family/friends" and "b-school applications". It's far easier to procrastinate and waste time when you have that time to waste, and there's this mad rush to complete the application nursing a New Year's hangover.
So ideally, aim for the 1st round, but know that the 2nd round is also fine (except that it'll likely be more difficult for you in terms of time management). And avoid the last round if you can.
The only exception to this is Columbia and Sloan - the only schools that have 2 rounds of admission. For both of these schools, treat their 2nd round as the "final round." In other words, for Columbia and Sloan, aim for their Early Decision and R1 deadlines respectively.
10. TREAT THE ENTIRE APPLICATION PROCESS AS PARALLEL TO YOUR CURRENT CAREER TRACK.
In short, don't quit your job to focus on the GMAT or the b-school application. It doesn't signal to the adcom that you're focused. Instead, it tells them that you're not as competent as the other applicants out there who can still put together strong applications even as they are juggling work, family and extracurriculars.
If you happen to be unemployed at the time of application, make sure you're staying productive on something, whether it's volunteering, working freelance gigs, or just something that is allowing you to continue moving your life in a forward direction. The last thing anyone wants to see is someone who is in a holding pattern in their life, as if b-school is some panacea they are waiting for before giving themselves permission to make life choices.
And this goes for those who are also currently employed. Treat the b-school application process as a parallel track. If you get in, it should be an *option* (the option being: "should I go, or should I stay in my current job, or even should I switch to another job?"). It should not be the only door you're waiting for to open.
B-schools want to accept people who don't need them, just like a bank tends to lend money to those who need it the least. B-schools appreciate enthusiasm, but there can be a fine line between enthusiasm and desperation, and there is no worse turn off than a desperate person.
The more you treat b-school as an option (and not a necessity), the more likely it'll come across in how you communicate in your essays as well as in your interviews. You're more likely to come across as confident and enthusiastic, as opposed to desperate and needy.