Handicapping Your Elite B-School Chances

by on December 11th, 2012

In the past four years, this 25-year-old female professional has zipped through three promotions at a national retailer where she runs a multi-million-dollar business. With a 710 GMAT and a 3.69 undergraduate grade point average, she hopes to get an MBA to broaden her skill set.

He landed a job in sales at a Silicon Valley start-up after graduating with a degree in political science from Stanford University two years ago. With a 720 GMAT and a 3.13 GPA, this 23-year-old male professional now hopes to get an MBA to assist with a desired career change into the government sector.

After working for a blue chip bank as a junior trader and then a salesperson, this 29-year-old woman fell on hard times. Unemployed in London for six months, she is hoping to get into a top business school to restart a stalled career.

What these MBA applicants share in common is the goal to get into one of the world’s best business schools. Do they have the raw stats and experience to get in? Or will they get dinged by their dream schools?

Sanford “Sandy” Kreisberg, founder of MBA admissions consulting firm HBSGuru.com, is back again to analyze these and a few other profiles of actual MBA applicants who have shared their vital statistics with Poets&Quants.

As usual, Kreisberg handicaps each potential applicant’s odds of getting into a top-ranked business school. If you include your own stats and characteristics in the comments on Poets & Quants, we’ll pick a few more and have Kreisberg assess your chances in a follow-up feature. (Please add your age and be clear on the sequence of your jobs in relaying work experience. Make sure you let us know your current job.) This feature typically appears weekly on Fridays.

Sandy’s candid analysis: 

Ms. Retail

  • 710 GMAT (Q42, V45) AWA 5.5
  • 3.69 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in English and French from a Midwest private “Ivy”
  • Work experience includes three and one-half years with a national retailer based in New York, currently as a mid-level executive who manages a high profile, high volume business; promoted three times with experience in all aspects of the retail/supply chain world
  • Extracurricular involvement is limited, but it does include a few key experiences such as mentoring three company employees and volunteering once a week at the local public school; held sorority leadership positions and belonged to honor societies in college
  • Goal: To broaden my skill set outside
of the retail supply chain.
  • “Unlike many other applicants, I have actually 
run a multi-million dollar business within my organization, as opposed to
just invested in one. I would ultimately like to transition to 
strategy/brand management and focus on long-term planning, as well as 
gain international business experience”
  • 25-year-old white female

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 30% to 40%
Stanford: 20% to 30%
Northwestern: 50+%
New York: 60+%
Columbia: 50+%
Wharton: 40%
MIT: 40% to 50%

Sandy’s Analysis: Jeepers, it is all here except your goals. This is a tight and interlinked story, basically, liberal arts major comes to New York and is a hit in the rag business, the real business, not a designer or model: “currently a mid-level executive for . .  . national retailer, based in New York. I have been 
promoted three times in the last 3.5 years and have experience in all 
aspects of the retail/supply chain world. I currently manage a high-profile, high-volume business and have a proven track record of achieving plans and strategies.”

Why mess with that? It’s gold. Every business school needs someone like that, and your stats, a balanced 710 GMAT and a 3.69 at a near-Ivy are totally solid.  The only thing which I am unclear about is your goals. You say you want to “broaden my skill set outside of Retail/Supply Chain. Unlike many other applicants, I have actually run a multi-million dollar business within my organization, as opposed to just invested in one. [Touche!]  I would ultimately like to transition to strategy/brand management and focus on long-term planning, as well as gain international business experience.”

What does that mean? Why don’t you just say you want to be an impactful and innovative leader in the retail/apparel business like Ladies 1, 2 and 3 (find some role models) –“this is the first result for a search for “women leaders in retail” – and, as well, address such emerging apparel  issues as e-commerce, sweatshops, sustainable sourcing and practices. I’m making that up, but you get the idea. Just latch onto whatever the key hot-button issues you see in your space, and say you want to address them.  Consulting or international experience can be the stepping stones to reaching such goals but your long-term goals need to be as an impactful leader.

You got a great story, and with the right heavy breathing about your goals and female empowerment, and helping clean up the supply chain, the sky is the limit.  Like many people who have been stuck at a real job for three years, you need to think bigger.

You say: “Limited extracurriculars: I mentor three employees in my company. I volunteer once a week at the local public school.” That is enough, with the right spin. You could write an entire HBS essay about either of those experiences. For example, how you are a solid volunteer in New York City Public Schools, but could have done WAY more, like gotten your company interested, gotten more folks also to volunteer, been more innovative in programs you worked with.

Mr. I-Bank Associate

  • 740 GMAT (Q: 47 V: 45)
  • 3.99 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Georgia
  • Work experience includes three years as an analyst at a boutique healthcare investment bank, currently an associate in the industrial group at a middle-market investment bank in the Southeast
  • Expect very strong recommendation from the managing director who is a Stanford GSB alum
  • Extracurricular involvement has been fairly limited, though “I am active in church and participate in community service projects through that. In college I was the head of a Sector team for our Student Managed Investment Fund and also in leadership for our Banking & Finance Society”
  • Goal: To broaden skill beyond finance and transition out of investment banking and into a corporation to help build value for the long-term
  • 27-year-old white male

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 30%
Stanford: -20%
Northwestern: 40% to 50+%
Dartmouth: 40% to 50+%
Michigan: 50+%
Duke: 50+%
Virginia: 50+%

Sandy’s Analysis: You’re an interesting case, with a 3.99 GPA Finance major at University of Georgia (how’d you lose that basis point, late to gym one day?) and a 740 GMAT, and two “no-brand-name” jobs (“3 years as an analyst at a boutique healthcare investment bank” –should have applied right then, btw—and currently, “Associate in the Industrials group at a middle-market investment bank located in the Southeast”).

Phew! What does that add up to? Not HBS or Stanford, is my guess, because while all of the above is solid, the finance cohort at those schools are super competitive, with high performers from brand name banks and PE shops. And you don’t have any X-factor to change that outcome.  Basically, you’d be competing with kids from Ivy’s with similar stats and jobs at Goldman, Morgan, TPG and Bain Capital (not yet a joke with adcoms, the way it apparently is with the nation at large after Mitt’s swan dive).

If your managing director at your current bank, the Stanford GSB alum, can bang on the table, well, maybe. But I ain’t seeing it, unless they owe him one, somehow.  You have not mentioned this as a school choice, but man, kids like you go to Wharton. The finance hole is bigger, they run a bit older, like you, and hey, your stats are totally solid.

As to your extras: “I was the head of a Sector team for our Student Managed Investment Fund and also in leadership for our Banking & Finance Society.” Exactly, that is the kind of profile that HBS and Stanford will hold against you and Wharton might shrug and say, “Sure, with some luck and some seasoning, we can turn this boring putz into an exciting finance guy.”  That is what they will be thinking. I like you just the way you are.

As for your goals, you say: “I would like to transition out of investment banking and work for a corporation and focus on building value for the long-term.”  Hmmmm, maybe, but you can also work on building value for the long-term (ahem, as that is measured in the world of business schools) as a PE guy, or VC guy, which makes more sense, given your background.  Also, smart, hard-working, Church-going guys like you (“I am active in my church and participate in community service projects through that . . . “) are exactly what PE shops are looking for. Why fight it?

Other schools you note–Kellogg, Tuck, Ross, Fuqua, Darden–should be in-line.

Ms. Unemployed

  • GMAT not yet taken
  • GPA unknown
  • Undergraduate degree in business from a French university with honors
  • Master’s degree in financial engineering from a French university with honors
  • Work experience as a junior trader for a year and one-half and then in sales with a blue chip bank for two years; now living in London but unemployed for the past six months
  • “I had been travelling for the first three months (Asia, 
South America, and North America), and since then have used my time to pass three professional certifications”
  • Extracurricular involvement includes training in Israeli martial combat, tango and horseback riding for years; also had been a volunteer tutor for summer camps
  • Goal: To use the MBA to “re-base” my sales position to get more opportunities (“The market is so difficult 
these days that it is almost impossible inside sales to move to one product to another, or one client base to another”)
  • “I have been 
working since I was 16 to 18 years old (wanted to be autonomous, and was also helping my father who was sick), then went to college at 18 (had multiple 
jobs to finance during my studies)”
  • 29-year-old French woman

Odds of Success:

Duke: 20% to 30%
Virginia: 20% to 30%
UCLA: 20% to 30%
Michigan: 20% to 30%
ESADE: 40+%
HEC Paris: 40+%

Sandy’s Analysis: Well, I like your story and interests, especially — “working [since] 16 to 18 years old (wanted to be autonomous, and was also helping 
financially my father who was sick), then went to college at 18 (had multiple jobs to finance myself during my 5 – years studies).”

But I am not the admissions board of a business school. It’s hard to be real precise about your chances since we don’t have a GMAT or GPA or the names of schools or employers. But in general, 29 year olds, with what seems to be 3.5 years of experience in trading and sales at OK and leading banks, who are unemployed for six or more months when applying are going to have a hard time at Top 10 U.S. schools, well, for all those reasons.

Being unemployed per se is something that schools will wink at. If you claim to be doing something purposeful at the time, e.g., retraining or helping a friend start a company. Even if you were employed, at last job, this would be a hard sell, unless you have strong GPA and GMAT scores and could craft a story about how you plan to reshape your finance/sales/trading past into a post-MBA future as a _________. Filling in that blank is the issue.

You hint at this yourself when you say you want to “use an MBA to re-base my sales position to get more opportunities  . . . .”  I think with your background you could get another banking job, or even a consulting job with a firm that specializes in financial institutions. You could also work as a product manager or client “hand-holder” for a big bank, pension fund, or mutual fund.  If you get a near 700 GMAT and your GPA and recommendations are strong, and you execute well on recs and applications, I could see this as a possible reach at places like Duke, Darden, UCLA, Michigan, and generally schools ranked seven through 20.

Don’t get bummed though, your dreams can come true at those places, and by the time you graduate, the market and economy may turn around even more strongly. So in some odd way, your timing is good.

Mr. Silicon Valley

  • 720 GMAT
  • 3.13 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in political science from Stanford University
  • Work experience includes two years in sales at a Silicon Valley tech start-up (promoted to a position in under a year that typically takes five to eight years of experience;” earlier internships include working for a Kansas Senator and for a company that provided micro-loans to Latinos
  • Extracurricular involvement for four years as a Division 1 wrestler, member of an improv troupe; voted as president of the athlete student council
  • Goal: “I know my work experience is all over the board but b-school will be a career change in the government sector, specifically consulting with a long-term goal of international politics”
  • “Wondering if I should try to retake the GMAT and get that score up, also which schools to target”
  • 23-year-old white male

Odds of Success:

Stanford: 20% to 25%
Harvard: 30%
Wharton: 30% to 40%
Columbia: 40%
Northwestern: 40% to 50%
Michigan: 50+%
Berkeley: 50+%+
Dartmouth: 40%
Cornell: 60+%
UCLA: 60+%
Yale: 60+%

Sandy’s Analysis: This is not really “all over the place.” You are a 23-year-old Stanford college grad with two years of work experience at a growing Silicon Valley tech start-up. You got a 720 GMAT and are probably in a very select circle of people who can claim being both a  “4-year Division 1 wrestler AND member of an improv troupe.” Also real strong extras, including “president athlete student council” and government internship work (was that a state or federal Kansas senator?) and  “a company that gives micro-loans primarily to under-banked Latinos.” The only black mark on this impressive resume is your GPA of 3.18.  Maybe should have cut back on the improv?

I don’t think a higher GMAT is going to help you (unless the splits were unbalanced). We get the idea. You’re a smart, interesting guy with a lot of service and interests, and currently doing great work at that booming Silicon Valley start-up (“promoted to a position in under a year that typically takes 5-8 years of experience”).

Guys like you can get into HBS and Stanford with luck and rock solid execution and recs.  At Stanford, you have the space to tell your whole story and put this all together in terms of goals, which is a real weakness in your original post. At HBS, you will have to capture your best features in two shots and with real solid recs which are integrated to a revised goal statement. As to goals, you say, “b-school will be a career change in the government sector, more specifically consulting with a long-term goal of international politics . . . .”

What does that mean? If you want to join the government and international politics, well, go to law school or get an MPA (or joint MPA-MBA). What you should be saying, for MBA purposes, is what you hint at, you want to do consulting, but not as some cross-over to government, but as a way of helping exciting, job-creating emerging companies, like the one you work for, grow, add value, jobs, etc. You can tie that type of consulting into having an international dimension as well. You can then hint at some “trophy lap” in government or international politics, way down the road, but do not make that the center of your goal statement, especially, if you are not applying for some joint-degree. Stick with business as the emphasis. Wharton also gives you space to spin this story out (HBS gives you 500 characters for goals, which is often enough for vanilla types but may be hard for a guy like you) and they might also like the start-up success and strong service background.

Columbia will be the least likely of your first-tier schools to blink at the low GPA, but they are also the least selective, so it may even out.  It is a REALLY good idea, for you and everyone, to get an app into Columbia before Xmas despite the nominal deadlines. They are rolling admissions, and once they are no longer hungry, they stop eating. Other schools you mention, Kellogg, Ross, Haas, Tuck as well as Cornell, UCLA, and Yale—sure, those are good back–ups, and you should have a chance at most. With strong recs and a clear story, you are a strong candidate, with a low-ish GPA at a top college. Schools often give varsity athletes with high-ish GMATs (and lots of community service) a break on the GPA, and if they ever do, well, they will for you.

Ms. Project Manager

  • 680 GMAT (practice tests)
  • 3.3 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in journalism and political science from Northwestern University
  • 3.9 GPA (master’s)
  • Master’s degree in global communications from a university in Paris
  • Work Experience includes three years in journalism split between the world’s largest magazine publishing house and a big three NYC newspaper; currently have spent one year as a project manager/biz development executive for the world’s leading digital advertising/direct marketing firm
  • “I’ll admit that I’m worried my journalism experience will deflate my chances, since I already made a career change once, and my work/educational backgrounds aren’t terribly quant-heavy.)
  • Extracurricular involvement as a writing tutor for three years for high school students from underprivileged backgrounds like mine (director of program this year); also two years as a volunteer in Africa for non-profit organizations (projects in Zambia, Morocco, and Tanzania); created corporate employee engagement initiative for volunteers in Southeast Asia; professional development chair for corporate affinity group for African Americans; committee member for Urban League of NY Young Professionals; volunteer to tutor kids afterschool twice each week while in college; editor of award-winning black student magazine; member of National Greek Honor Society
  • Goal: To work in non-profit consulting and philanthropy advising for a few years; “ultimately, I’d like to run a corporate foundation/CSR for a Fortune 100 company”
  • Conversant in French and Spanish (self-taught)
  • 26-year-old African-American female

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 20% to 35%
Stanford: 20% to 30%
Wharton: 40% to 50%
Dartmouth: 40% to 50%
Columbia: 50+%
New York: 60+%
Yale: 60+%
Berkeley: 50+%

Sandy’s Analysis: Let me make sure I understand this: You’re 26, female, African-American, with a 680 GMAT (in practice tests); a 3.3 GPA Journo major at Northwestern; a 3.9 GPA in a master’s program (Europe); three years of Journalism experience after college (one for big NYC paper, two for big magazine company).  Then you got the master’s degree, in Paris, and then for the past year, you have been doing  “project manager/biz development  . . .for the world’s leading digital advertising/direct marketing firm.” And you have tons of extracurriculars. Your goals are to: “To work in non-profit consulting and philanthropy advising for a few years out of b-school; ultimately . . . run a corporate foundation/CSR for a Fortune 100 company.”

Let me suggest that a strong part of this story is your current job doing  “project manager and business development . . .for the world’s leading digital advertising/direct marketing firm.”  I would use that as a lever to say you want to build out your journalism and digital advertising experience to be an innovative leader in the brave new world of media and journalism — where no one quite knows what the landscape will look like in 10 years, but that you are the very person who can help any large media company navigate its way.

People who want to work for foundations and do Corporate Social Responsibility are a dime a dozen, not that there is anything wrong with that, and you certainly have the street cred and experience to make a real case.  BUT, a black women with both journalism experience and project management experience in digital advertising, and plenty of board work with non-profits, jeepers folks, that plus a classy MBA sounds like someone on the launching pad for the CEO or Editor-in-Chief or President of CBS, CNN, The Wall Street Journal or whatever the parent companies of those outlets are.  (OK, not likely you are going to replace Rupert Murdoch or his family but you could be a big deal at a Murdoch property, or say that is a possibility).

So that is the way I would spin it. I would leave advancing the case of CSR as a side dish in your goal statement and try to show schools that in addition to your great CSR work, which kind of speaks for itself, you have also been a firecracker in the murky world of digital advertising. Let us just hope that is true enough for you to get a boffo recommendation from your current supervisor.  That, and an actual 680 GMAT, and you are a real good candidate at schools you mention, to wit, HBS, Wharton, Tuck, Columbia, NYU Stern, Stanford, Berkeley and Yale. Stanford is always looking for exciting stories like yours, and if you present yourself the way I suggest, this becomes a three-fer for them: Black-woman (we are only counting that as one!), solid business AND social enterprise background (only counting that as two) and super impactful goals.

HBS goes for stories like that as well, as do all the other schools you note.  Presenting yourself my way changes the entire narrative from “hey, I am changing careers for the third time and I got low-ish grades, but my heart is in the right place” which is OK but shaky, to “hold on, dude, I’ve been a journo, I’ve been a project manager in digital advertising and I’m ready to set the world on fire.”

No kidding, you got a great story: take the GMAT as many times as you have to and make sure you can really talk with engagement and success about your current job.

Handicapping Your MBA Odds–Latest Entries:

Part XLVI: Handicapping Your Shot At A Top MBA
Part XLVII: Your Chances Of Getting Into An Elite School
Part XLVIII: Handicapping Your Personal MBA Odds

Ask a Question or Leave a Reply

The author John Byrne gets email notifications for all questions or replies to this post.

Some HTML allowed. Keep your comments above the belt or risk having them deleted. Signup for a Gravatar to have your pictures show up by your comment.