Handicapping Your Shot At A Top MBA

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

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

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.

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  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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!

  • 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)

  • 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.

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