I have never endorsed the concept of applying to more programs than you might normally do so just for the sake of maximising your overall chances. Applying to 10 programs instead of 7, or to 5 programs instead of 3 has often meant, to me at least, greater risk of shoddy and underdeveloped work as a result of not spending enough time on each application. Rushing to complete a lot of work in a short amount of time never really works out for anyone.
However, today MBA applications are easier to complete than ever as recommendation letter prompts and essay topics are becoming more and more generic.
More and more top MBA programs have been cutting their number of required essays (Wharton, Michigan, Stanford, Tuck) or eliminating mandatory essays entirely and leaving only one optional essay (Harvard). I don't agree with this trend, as I feel schools should be investing more time into choosing the right candidates for their program rather than cutting application requirements. However, the amount of time spent drafting and completing essays is going to be a bit less now that schools have less essays. What will stay the same though for most is the amount of time spent brainstorming contents. This, brainstorming and deciding essays approaches and strategies, is and will always remain a vital component of the process.
Recommendation letters -
Recently several top MBA programs announced they’re requiring recommenders to respond to a standardised set of questions. Columbia, Yale, Wharton, Chicago, Virginia, and Kellogg are expected to participate. A Poets&Quants article on the topic can be read here. Stanford even made their famous peer recommender an optional part of this year's application - more on that here.
Overall, I feel the change is again a negative one in that schools are becoming more and more alike and less differentiated at the application level. But there’s no doubt that if you aim for 1-2 extra schools amongst those in this list, your recommenders won’t be greatly affected.
So, if you have finished one application that is strong, and completed to your liking, and it cannot be improved anymore.. then adding an extra school or two might certainly be within reach. I don’t mean that you SHOULD apply to more programs, just that the OPPORTUNITY COST is lower than ever.
Remember: application quality is most important, and should never be sacrificed. Don’t cut and paste blindly between applications. Research programs and be ready to show how you feel fit with a given program when asked to do so. These are important things to consider for every school to which you apply. But, at the same time, know that the days of saying “I don’t think I have the time to submit an HBS or Wharton app in R2” are likely gone for those who are well-prepared and keeping to a schedule.