New year, new start. If you are thinking of applying for a full- time MBA in 2008, the good news is you should be well in time for the September intakes. But it's best to get moving. Most admissions departments emphasise the importance of doing your research, and of applying early. And the advice isn't just aimed at easing office administration, says the Association of MBAs (AMBA ).

"There are so many hoops to go through", says membership services manager Carl Tams. "You might need GMAT scores, references, application forms, English language tests where relevant, personal statements or essays. We recommend you allow yourself time for whatever is required for you personally or things can get stressful".

So how do you choose from the rather bewildering – and proliferating – number of full-time courses on offer, and get that application in on time? Understanding what's available helps.

In the UK two schools buck the September entrance trend by starting courses in January, in a few days' time. Ashridge Business School and Henley Management College each have a yearly intake of around 30.

"We always end up with around two applicants at the last minute", says Ashridge director of marketing strategy Amy Armstrong." That's the nature of business – people's circumstances may change or they may have redundancy packages got together at the last minute, and we try to cater for that."

For those who are absolutely sure which school they are aiming for, Chris Parker, business development director at Henley, recommends sticking firm. "It's better to delay a year than choose a school just because you can get in," he says. At both schools the course lasts a year, as is the norm in the UK, though Manchester Business School, which takes more than a 100 full-time students every September, runs an 18-month course. It has a five-stage admissions process and recommends international students in particular to apply early, to be in time for interview tours abroad and visa applications.

Associate director of MBA programmes Heather Spiro says the school stages applications to encourage people bringing families to the UK to start thinking about this lengthy process early. Applications are accepted from the October before the year of entry, and early birds will have a decision by February. There is a four-week acclimatisation period in the summer.

London Business School (LBS), with a flexible course lasting up to 21 months, operates a similar staged process, keeping to much the same timetable as US schools, with whom it competes. By now it has already made its first set of offers, but keeps a waiting list and claims "the last day of admission is the day of orientation." If brilliant students show up and places become available, they're in.

The system might resemble the American model but differs substantially from it – US schools are not catering for such a diversity of applicants as European schools and close lists early. Most US top-tier MBA programmes, with two-year courses and larger intakes (Chicago takes 550 a year, Harvard 900) regulate the process throughout the year by dividing it into three rounds.

"Round two, from January, is the largest, and round three, from March, is very small and competitive," says Rose Martinelli, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "There is room for a very good candidate in any round, but an average applicant might need to apply early".

And In Europe, IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, in Barcelona and Madrid, running an 18-month programme, also closes relatively early. "Anyone applying later than April will be applying for next year," says director of admissions Javier Munoz. His top tip? "Don't just give us information about your professional and academic performance. Tell us about your experiences in sport, music or travel. Assess your achievements in every field of your life – this may be the thing that sets you apart from other students".

Lancaster University Management School's Julie Gabriel-Clarke agrees. With eight applicants for every place in Lancaster, personal statements need to "jump off the page," she says.

However, the diversity of European schools means that EU applicants (who don't require visas) might have a bargaining tool, according to Gareth Griffiths, head of international relations at Aston Business School and a former AMBA assessor. They might be able to exploit the schools' wish to balance the cohort, making sure classes have an even spread of nationalities.

The final warning on admissions comes from associate dean of MBA programmes David Sims at Cass Business School in London. How a school treats you during the admissions process is a pretty good indicator of how they'll treat you on the course, he says. Applicant, beware.

'I wasn't just a number on a form'

Management consultant Siobhan Clarke began her full time MBA at Manchester Business School in September 2006. Patient preparation ahead of making her application has paid off.

"I always wanted to do an MBA and I started looking around for the right school a whole year ahead," she says.

"This was going to be 18 months out of my life and a huge economic and emotional investment – it was as much about the place I wanted to live as what I wanted to study."

"I looked into schools in France and the UK and settled on Manchester. I talked to the school first – to professors and a variety of students. Everyone has a different story to tell and you don't want to be held back by one prejudiced account. I also visited to soak up the atmosphere."

"I applied in the spring. It was important to make sure I had everything fixed up – finance, part-time work, GMAT. I had also taken the precaution of getting to know people at the school before I applied. I wasn't just a number on a form, and that worked for me".