Handicapping Your Shot At A Top B-School

by on January 7th, 2013

He was on varsity crew for four years while earning his degree in engineering from an Ivy League powerhouse. After three years as a consultant for a top-tier management consulting firm, this 25-year-old professional wants an MBA to transition to an executive role at a manufacturing company.

With undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, she works for a regional accounting firm in Los Angeles. She hopes to get an MBA to apply psychology concepts and theories to the world of business as a management consultant.

He’s a first-generation college graduate who works for the International Monetary Fund. A 24-year-old African-American with a 720 GMAT and a 3.5 grade point average, he hopes to get an MBA degree to move his career forward.

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 an invite? Or are they likely to end up in a reject pile?

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.

If you include your own stats and characteristics in the comments on Poets & Quants (please add your age and be clear on the sequence of your jobs in relaying work experience), we’ll pick a few more and have Kreisberg assess your chances in a follow-up feature.

Mr. M&A

  • 740 GMAT (practice tests)
  • 3.10 GPA (notably very weak GPA, but with strong performance in quantitative courses including Linear Algebra, Differential Equations)
  • Undergraduate degree in industrial management from Purdue University (Minor in Finance)
  • Work experience includes three years in corporate banking for super regional bank (US Bank, PNC, BNY Mellon)
  • Extracurricular activities include involvement with local Chamber of Commerce, and volunteer activities with underprivileged middle school youth
  • Goal: To transition into a financial leadership role with an established company, or leverage banking experience to transition to M&A boutique
  • 26-year-old white male, first in family to graduate college

Odds of Success:

Wharton: 20% to 25%
Dartmouth: 30% to 35%
Berkeley: 40%
Chicago: 25% to 35+%
Columbia: 20% to 30%
Northwestern: 30% to 40%
New York: 40% to 50%
MIT: 20%

Sandy’s Analysis: Get that 740 GMAT! That is my first piece of advice. Once we got a 3.1 and a so-so job at a super-regional bank, well, if you apply with a 2nd-tier GMAT, e.g. ~650, schools start to think of you as someone who never got an A.

But, poof, you put a 720+ GMAT in the mix, or a premium 740, and then the whole picture takes on a different tone. To wit: A guy with real solid abilities, first gen college, Purdue (solid 2nd-tier school in Mid-West), also solid meat-and-potatoes major in industrial management, a striver and a success at a regional powerhouse bank, plus real settled goals which grow out of your experience, and there’s more . . . Chamber-of-Commerce type and do-gooder with underserved kids . . .not bad.

I’m not seeing this as Harvard or Stanford-–even with a 780 GMAT. There’s not enough stardust and you are competing in an ultra- competitive financial sector. Wharton is an acceptable reach, with real solid execution and boffo recommendations, given your good grades in really hard quant courses (and again, a 720+ GMAT).

As to Tuck, Haas, Booth, Columbia, Kellogg, Stern and Sloan?

You are in the running with a 740 GMAT. That is just really important in your case. Tuck likes solid guys like you, and they like bankers, so that is a plus, you can go visit and try to charm your way in. They are open to that. Columbia may balk more at the low GPA than most places, just for their stats profile. Kellogg likes Mid-Western solid types like you. Booth may be a bit more snobby, and Sloan will be a reach.

What you need to do until you apply is keep doing good work at your job, and study for the GMATs. Plan to take as many times as necessary. I hate to say it, but that test is critical for you.

Ms. Psychology

  • 710 GMAT
  • 3.1 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania
  • 4.0 GPA Master’s
  • Master’s degree in psychology from Pepperdine University
  • “Took five years to get a 2 – 3 year degree because I switched from standard psych to MFT when I realized I wanted to work in the business world, but still wanted to get my license (sense of closure – could still practice if I wanted to). Had a hard time finding a place for practicum, eventually realized that I wasn’t making it happen because I didn’t really want to do it. Switched back into standard MA program and finished (finally!)”
  • Work experience includes part-time work at a regional accounting firm (my dad was a partner); after firm was acquired by a tier two national accounting firm, I was promoted to manager
  • Extracurricular involvements includes running half marathons, raising $3600 for AIDS Project LA, ran marathon in Hawaii, help with ACG cup locally.
  • Goals:
To apply psychology concepts and theories (which I love) within business world…”I see me fulfilling this goal by working in management consulting”
  • “Hoping for Stanford.  Columbia is on the list because I would enjoy living in NYC for 2-4 years (before running home to the beach). The more research I do, the more I think Kellogg is a good fit. USC and UCLA backups.”

Odds of Success:

Stanford: 10%
Columbia: 20%
Northwestern: 20%
USC: 40% to 50%
UCLA: 20% to 30%

Sandy’s Analysis: I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but Stanford is going to be a real long shot given low grades (which grad school grades do not ‘cure’ although that helps), zig-zagging career, and for Stanford, sub-par GMAT (although your GMAT is fine and 80% on each side) –and no overwhelming stardust factor  (reported in your profile anyway) tilting this the other way.

Did I miss this? Are you employed at present?  That could be another issue.

I think what you need to do is get a job with a consulting company or some outfit that uses psych majors to do Human Capital type consulting or even career advisory consulting. That would strengthen this profile a good deal. I would then state that doing that type of work is also your goal, which apparently it is, but man, you would have a much easier time at schools which are realistic for this profile, those schools being the ones ranked  10-25 in U.S. News or P&Q rankings, if you were applying from a job.  You say,

“Columbia is on the list because I would enjoy living in NYC for 2-4 years (before running home to the beach). The more research I do, the more I think Kellogg is a good fit. USC and UCLA backups.”

Well, running home to the beach is something we all want to do, but I wouldn’t use that as one pillar of my why USC or why UCLA essays. I think Columbia is going to be a reach here, for same reasons as Stanford, plus Columbia is not all that tilted towards consulting either, although let me add, consulting IS the career for you. You got that one right. USC and UCLA are not what I would call back-ups! USC is in-line for your stats, and a real solid choice. UCLA, if you read this story in P&Q, is on a jihad to increase applications (they were up 22 percent this year)  and otherwise boost its rankings—that means admitting people who are likely to not have trouble finding jobs two years later.  If you want to attend UCLA, you need to turn yourself into one of those people.  The best way to do that is already have, as an applicant, the job you want when you graduate, or some isotope of it.

Mr. Black Belt

  • 680 GMAT (Estimated)
  • 3.6 GPA
  • Dual French and American citizen. Undergraduate degree in finance from a well-known state university
  • “Not good at standardized tests so this will be my weakness”
  • Work experience includes four years as a financial analyst for a top tech company (think Apple, Oracle, Microsoft), with three promotions since starting; led Lean Six Sigma project saving more than $300K, involved with other projects and mentoring new comers
  • Extracurricular involvement includes having served as student body president for the college of business, ran student run programs for mentoring, founder and president of the only school investment club; now an active member of College of Business Alumni club, alumni mentor to current students, regional representative, Black Belt in a martial arts discipline, 
previously competed nationally in the sport
  • Goal: To work in corporate development M&A for a tech company
  • 27-year-old white male with dual citizen in the U.S. and France

Odds of Success:

Dartmouth: 35% to 40%
Northwestern: 35% to 40%
Cornell: 50+%
Yale: 50+%
Michigan: 50+%
Virginia: 40% to 50%
Georgetown: 50+%

Sandy’s Analysis: This is a tight package since it all lines up: A 3.6 GPA from a solid state school, four years as financial analyst for a leading tech company, real good extra-currics  (student body president of some kind, founder of investment club, mentoring) and finally your goals, which is “to work in corporate development M&A for a tech company.”

The dual French-American citizenship and your martial arts Black Belt are nice window dressing.  If you get that 680 you should be a strong contender at your target schools–Tuck, Kellogg, Cornell, Yale, UVA and Georgetown-–because your goals build out from what you are already doing, and GPA is fine, and you have better than average extras.

You seem to have your head screwed on right and to be a guy who can get that job in a corporation. I’m not sure you need to say “to work in corporate development M&A” for a tech company. Just say you want to take a leading corporate finance role in a tech company, and name  finance leaders at your company and its peers—Apple, Oracle, Microsoft—as role models of the type of impact you want to have. “M&A”  is only part of that role and you calling it out reveals, just a little bit, some lurking IB/PE itch which– while certainly OK to keep in your pants, and even try to execute once you get on campus –should be considered an uninvited guest at the party you are attempting to throw here with the adcom. To wit, a party for a solid, employable, likeable, mentoring Corporate Finance Type, not a Jet-Set fete for Masters of the Universe.

FYI, and for the information of our general readers, at places like HBS and Stanford, some of the extras you list– like starting an investment club and being an active member of the College of Business Alumni club –  are considered self-serving (although still box-checking) versus doing extras which have an impact beyond yourself, for example, starting a club which tutors poor kids about money.

All schools respect student body presidents, mentorship, and your other extras.  You seem pretty Tuck-y to me. They like student body presidents (even if, in your case, student body president of the business college) and hyper-active types like you. Your entire story will also go down well at other schools you mention. If you do get that 680-700 GMAT, you might also think about HBS and Wharton as reaches. You’re a totally solid guy with a blue-chip employment history and an acceptable GPA, lots of extras, and a clear idea of what you want to do—that is sometimes enough at HBS and Wharton. With serviceable application execution, you should be a solid candidate at the other schools you list.

Mr. Varsity Crew

  • 780 (50Q 50V)
  • 3.5 GPA in engineering from Harvard/Yale/Princeton
  • Work Experience includes three years of consulting at McKinsey/Bain/BCG
  • Extracurricular involvement all four years in varsity crew, recruitment chair of eating; now volunteer to help underprivileged youth at a local school and also enjoy running, having completed a few marathons.
  • Goal: To return to MBB for a few more years and then transition into an executive role at a Midwest manufacturing firm
  • “I understand manufacturing in the Mid-West isn’t a sexy goal, but it is my honest hope”
  • 25-year-old white male

Odds of Success:

Harvard:  50%
Stanford: 30% to 50%
Wharton: 50+%
Northwestern: 50+%
MIT: 50+%
Chicago: 50+%

Sandy’s Analysis: Dunno man, that’s a pretty good profile. A lot will depend on how much support you can get from your M/B/B consulting firm, but 3.5/780/varsity crew captain is real good start. Your career map is also OK, and saying you want to transition from consulting into executive role in leading a company is solid.

I would not specify manufacturing in the Mid-West per se, but instead just say you want to be impactful leader of a company which creates good jobs, like X, Y and Z. Try to come up with examples of executives you admire, they do not have to be household names.

Stanford is always a question mark because it is so small, guys like you get into HBS and Wharton all the time.  At Kellogg, Chicago and especially MIT, it really comes down to convincing them you want to attend. At Stanford one barrier would be not having the essays damage you. Recs will count a lot there too, since they get lots of apps from M/B/B and cannot take them all. But they don’t get many from an Ivy crew captain with a 780GMAT and 3.5 in engineering. I’d say your are starting this race with a couple of boat-lengths lead.


  • 720 GMAT
  • 3.5 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in economics and political science from a top state school
  • Work experience includes two years at the International Monetary Fund, working with developing nations.
  • “During my tenure I have been a part various country teams and have taken part in various country missions to advise on important economic issues.
 Can get recommendations from alums of Harvard, Chicago, UPenn, Columbia, and Yale”
  • 24-year-old African American Male (1st generation African immigrant/recent U.S. citizen)

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 30% to 40%
Stanford: 20% to 30%
Chicago: 50+%
Wharton: 40%
Columbia: 40% to 50%

Sandy’s Analysis: You got a real solid story and touch every base hard:  1st-generation  African-American; 3.5 GPA;  720 GMAT; and IMF.  Those are all winner items.

At Stanford, it’s a matter of putting together some plausible “What Matters Most” story, and mixing up some  “change organizations/ change the world” Kool-Aid goals.  Other schools you note are really in line and it is a matter of execution, recs, and not blowing the interview–and for places like Chicago and Columbia, convincing them you want to come.

You say, “Can get recommendations from alums of Harvard, Chicago, UPenn, Columbia, and Yale” Well, don’t feel the need to get recs from writers who went to that very school. That is not as impressive as many applicants think. Just go with recommenders who know you best.

Handicapping Your MBA Odds – Latest Entries: 

Part XLVIII: Assessing Your Odds of B-School Success
Part XLIV: Handicapping Your B-School Odds
Part XLV: Your Odds of Getting Into A Great School

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.