Handicapping Your Shot At A Top MBA

An Eagle Scout who survived cancer during his freshman year at college, this 27-year-old former consultant now works for a private equity shop in Boston. He has superb stats for a top MBA program, including a 740 GMAT and a 3.9 GPA, but wonders how a white male consultant and PE guy can stand out in a crowded field of many with similar profiles.

He’s a Green Beret who has served multiple deployments in Iraq, leading more than 140 Iraqi special operation soldiers. With a 730 GMAT and a 3.63 grade point average, this member of the U.S. Army Special Forces wants an MBA to transition into investment banking.

He’s a 29-year-old Palestinian who is, as he says, “completely bald” and managing a retail pharmacy. The first and only member of his family to graduate from high school and college, he is hoping to get an MBA to work for a U.S. company with interests in the Middle East.

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

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.

These weekly columns are often filled with gems of admissions advice. This one is no exception. As Sandy tells one would-be applicant, “getting into Harvard Business School is more about FITTING IN rather than STANDING OUT.” That’s wise advice to get through one of the toughest MBA screens in the world.

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, 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.)

Sandy’s tell-it-like-it-is assessment:

Mr. Green Beret

  • 730 GMAT
  • 3.63 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in finance from Ohio State
  • Work experience includes seven years with the U.S. Army Special Forces, during which he served multiple Iraq deployments, leading more than 140 Iraqi special operation soldiers; also worked closely with Sheiks and tribal leaders to solve local problems; seven years of service due to job commitments including the multiple deployments
  • Extracurricular involvement includes an internship with the Department of Finance in the state of Ohio
  • Goal: Trying to change to get into investment banking

Odds of Success:

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

Sandy’s Analysis: As noted several times, and as amazing as it seems for military applicants, college grade point average really counts because adcoms are not experts at discerning what a great military career is versus an ordinary one,  as they can by looking at a private employment record, where they have a better “feel” for the company you work for, and even how to read through your recommendations.

That being said, everyone [hearts] Special Forces, so that is an intangible plus.  The work you did in Iraq, leading different types of resources in different ways, is totally up the alley of all adcoms, so tilt your essays in that direction.  Other things they like to hear are some non-military stories or semi-military stories about working with civilian groups, volunteering, and dealing with military families.

Your story — Special Forces, 3.6 GPA from an OK school, and a 730 GMAT — puts you in the running at H/S/W for sure. The eventual outcome will turn on execution, recommendations, and luck.  Stanford may want to hear something a bit extra, e.g. overcoming adversity in terms of background, or some real do-gooder military stories. At HBS guys like you get in and dinged all the time, and guys like you usually get into Wharton, since they run older, and care most about your very solid GPA and GMAT.

This is a small point, but saying you want to go into investment banking, after this career, is a small let down. You might think about tweaking that a bit.  Going commando on the battlefield is excellent; doing so on Wall Street is not an interesting story at this point in the financial cycle (to adcoms, it is to ME!!!!!!!!!).  Try spinning that into becoming an impact investor, especially in developing countries, maybe the Middle East, or some jive like that.

Pick you recommenders with care.  Military officers who write grad school recs run from “outstanding” to disappointing.  It helps to tutor them, if possible, at what schools are looking for– although the diplomacy of that is admittedly touchy.  All top schools have Armed Forces clubs, which can be really helpful in explaining the secret handshakes which work better for recs, so reach out to them.

  • Drew Slater

    Hi Andy,
    I just came across your comment because I have a similar background and am looking to apply as well. I was hoping you could tell me what your success was with applying.

  • mrw

    Would greatly appreciate if you would evaluate my profile for admission to Columbia, NYU, Harvard, Wharton and Kellogg:

    GMAT: 730
    GPA: 3.67/4.0
    Undergraduate Degree in Marketing/Communications from Michigan

    Work experience: 2 years in marketing/sales at large media/entertainment company in NYC after internships with NFL team and Sports Agency. Don’t manage anyone, but solely responsible for bringing in advertising and sponsorship revenues

    Extracurriculars include: Founding member of charitable organization benefitting the homeless in New York, volunteer for organization helping people with all types of disabilities participate in athletics, member of fraternity at undergraduate school, write my own blog on advertising/marketing utilizing celebrities in campaigns

    Goal: To take the next step in the media/entertainment world by becoming a sales executive and consulting brands and companies on how to best utilize brand ambassadors
    23 year old white male raised in family of 8 (parents took in 4 additional children when I was 11 after tragedy)

  • Ms. KHiggins

    Hi Sandy, could you help evaluating my profile? 
    GPA 3.9/4.0 Double major: chemistry and economics in a top 25 liberal art college. Age 26. GMAT 770 first try. Female minority. worked in consulting for 3 years. long term goal is to continue working in consulting with a focus on cross-national business regulatory policy. Extra curriculum: president of two clubs in college, limited after college- tutoring and cancer advocate committee. 
    Thank you very much!

  • Anthony Gonzalez

    Hi Sandy,

    I would really appreciate any feedback you might be able to give me on my chances of getting into a top B-school. 

    – Hispanic Male (first generation college graduate)
    – 680 GMAT
    – 3.3 undergrad GPA in Advertising from University of Florida-3.5 grad GPA (MS in Management) from University of Florida. Coming from an undergrad major that was weak on the quant side, I completed the degree to demonstrate I could handle graduate level quant courses.
    – 2 yrs experience working in business operations for Time Warner’s international division. Strong performance resulted in an offer from the Ad Sales department to join their team in a management role at the beginning of 2012. 90% of my business correspondence is conducted in Spanish. In 2 years I have spent a combined 4 months on business travel throughout Latin America.- In college worked various internships in marketing and public relations firms-Current extra curricular activities include marathon-running, writing comedy in the form of scripts and stand-up routines and improving my skills on the guitar. I also frequently work with charities in the area to organize donation drives in my office.
    -Ultimately I’d like to work in brand management for a firm with a diverse line of products, such as P&G or Johnson & Johnson. I’d like to use information gathered from market research and analyze trends in consumer behavior..-As the son of 2 working-class immigrants, my aim is to use B-school as a means to establish the network and connections needed to propel my career to the next level. 

    Please let me know if you have any advice on areas where I should improve.


  • MBB health candidate

    Figured I should probably clarify some of the previous points and provide some more color into my long term aspirations.

    – 3.2 GPA from #1 engineering school in US
    – Permanent resident
    – Long term goals involve health care start up, VC positions with focus in health care, executive position at biotech/pharma organizations. Also passionate about global health care delivery, with specific interest in value-based health care.

  • MBB health candidate

    Hi Sandy,

    I would greatly appreciate any insight into my chances of getting into the following MBA programs (I’m also looking at joint MBA/MPH-type programs): HBS, Stanford, Wharton, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Sloan, Kellogg, Chicago.

    – Asian American female
    – 740 GMAT
    – 3.2 GPA from #1 engineering school in ChemE
    – Currently 2 yrs experience at M/B/B consulting firm, on track for promotion (sponsorship tbd), involved in mix of strategy & operations health care projects, although also experienced in financial services
    – Worked on health care delivery start-up, ultimately failed
    – Current extra curricular activities include board membership of nonprofit contemporary dance organization, dancing, yoga, scuba diving
    – College extra curricular activities include leadership positions in campus dance organization, Asian-interest organization, sorority

    Would be great to get your thoughts on my chances as well as any other schools I should be looking at.


  • samiyousef

    Hi Sandy, I am in an urgent need for you help. Can you please access my chances of getting in the following MBA programs :
    HBS, Stanford, 1 year MBA Cornell, Yale, Chicago, Kellogg, Columbia (accelerated program)
    – Jordanian Citizen with 10 years of experience in BIG4 ( 5 in audit and 5 in M&A services). Double promoted more than once( Currently a Senior Manager). Got my CPA at 20. GPA 3.1 from a Jordanian University / GRE new test 315/ Age: Currently 30 years old-white
    – Worked over several assignments with the public and private sectors ( for companies listed in NYSE and London Stock Exchange and for Governments) in Iraq, Libya,Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, United States.
    – Member in Seeds of Peace. Had many personal encounters with Palestinian , Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
    – Appointed as the cleantech champion in my office.
    – Currently working on launching an auction website.
    – Helped several entrepreneurs in setting their business plans ( can get a decent recommendation from a couple of them).
    – Goal after MBA is to launch advisory company to help family businesses grow and empowering women in the Levant area ( Jordan, Iraq, Syria & Lebanon) in addition to promoting peace through businesses in the Middle East area.

  • anksiitk

    Hi Sandy, I am a big fan of these posts!! Can you pls handicap my odds at following schools. Thanks!

    Profile: Indian VC
    – Indian, M, 25, IIT, GMAT 730, GPA: 3.3/4, Work ex on application date: 3 yrs (4 yrs upon entering MBA)
    – 1st ever and only pre-mba guy at one of the largest VC firms in India (work ex: 6 months till now) 
    – 1.5 yrs as M&A analyst at a top-tier Indian mid-market investment bank; worked on several cross-border deals involving India and European countries including “exotic” locations like Turkey and Czech Republic; rated best analyst among people with similar backgrounds (IIT+CFA); the bank’s fame is on upswing as it has been ranked among top 10 M&A banks in India by Bloomberg et al.; has sent 1 guy to Darden and another to Wharton in last few yrs
    – 9 months management consulting  exp with PwC India; was more interested in finance, so didnt stay there long (will try and give a better spin to this switch)
    – Fellowships (International as well as Indian), internships, and volunteering exp in social development sector; more than one would expect from the usual banker/ VC profile
    – College: Part of IIT’s athletics team, represented IIT at many sports competitions and won medals; Led a team of 8 students in a one-of-its-kind alumni outreach initiative in India; currently using my VC network to assist in setting up of a tech incubator at my alma mater

    Schools: HBS, Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Booth, LBS (one of my fellowships affords “some” special preference to application at Wharton, MIT and LBS).

  • Politics Career Changer

    Sandy! I need your help. Does my profile give me a chance at top business schools.

    Demographics: 27 year old white femalePotential diversity: adopted at age 10 by lesbian coupleProfessional: Chief of staff for legislative committee in fulltime legislature (2 years, supervise 5 staff, 5 to 10 interns at given time), Political campaign experience (field organizer for statewide, campaign manager for state legislature), retail management experience (store manager) during college.Extracurriculars: Local elected official (6 years); lots of political campaign volunteer experience (mostly local and state), active in party politics (elected town committee and state committee member, also started a local organization for young Democrats, several years as board of director for state wide young Democrats organization), internship for issue based non-profit, volunteer speaker on being straight ally in gay rights movement; picked for/participating in local non-profit leadership program, lost 100 poundsEducation: 3.35 from small research university in government and international relations. Disjointed transcript poor grades first two years, three year break, then 3.94 GPA or higher for last 4 years w/ rigorous courses. (Related courses: macro econ, political economy, marketing internship. All As or A-s)  I took a few classes at community college not in GPA that I got As in.GMAT: 710
    Goal: Eventual goal is to run for major office. Immediate goal is to transition to business as consultant, potentially specializing in sustainable corporate practices. I think the skill set that has helped me excel in politics (strong communication skills, analytical thinking, logistics planning, working with coalitions of people to reach common goals, managing multiple and different tasks) would translate well into business.
    Schools: strongly prefer to stay in New England area so HBS, Sloan, Tuck. Also looking at Stanford and Hass. Where else should I be looking?

  • JustaGuest

    Sandy — Is this a boring profile that gets tossed aside by adcoms, or a solid profile that gets admits to top tier schools?

    Johnny Consultant

    Most recent two years in strategy consulting group with tech focus at IBM in New York

    Previous two and half years at smaller consultancy doing similar work

    GMAT: 740

    Undergrad: 3.30 from top-20 school (Northwestern/Duke) in Economics

    Goals: Move into tech strategy/tech investment analysis with focus on startups

    Extras: Very good volunteer experience (Haiti post-earthquake) and personal extras (triathlete) during and after college

    26 year old white male

    Expecting typical recs, no big shots to pull strings for me

    Schools:  Wondering which tier of schools that I should realistically target and if my profile might appeal to some schools over others? Also if there should be a Round 1, Round 2 strategy to play?

    Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, Booth, MIT, Tuck, Fuqua, Darden