Handicapping Your Shot At A Top School

When this 26-year-old woman was an undergraduate student, she lost a parent to cancer. With a 3.6 grade point average and a 760 GMAT, she now works for a non-profit that helps cancer patients but wants an MBA to move into a larger management role.

After spending three years as an analyst for a bulge bracket investment banking firm, this 25-year-old man is now on a Fulbright scholarship in China working with underprivileged children. He played varsity basketball all four years during college and has run a marathon twice. Now he wants an MBA to help him transition to an international investment fund.

He works in Asia as a consultant with a top-tier strategic consulting firm. With a 770 GMAT and a 3.2 GPA, this 28-year-old Asian male hopes to get an MBA to move his career forward but worries whether his low GPA and age will prevent him from getting into a top MBA program.

What these would-be MBA candidates 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, 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 assessment: 

Ms. Non-Profit Health Care

  • 760 GMAT (Q77%, V99%)
  • 3.6 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in liberal arts and a foreign language from a top 50 liberal arts college
  • “My college GPA lower than what I’m capable of — I had a parent who was diagnosed with and then died from cancer during this time. I was also working 30-40 hours a week in various editorial board roles for the student paper, culminating in a year as editor-in-chief”
  • Work experience includes two and one-half years in a public relations firm and a year and one-half in a development job for a small non-profit that helps cancer patients; have been promoted to director of development
  • Extracurricular involvement on the student newspaper at college
  • Goal: To move into a management role in a larger cancer-related non-profit or hospital
  • “I’m not cut out for a direct care role, but I want to be able to use my marketing/fundraising/management skills to help organizations who help people dealing with disease.”)
  • 26-year-old female

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 20% to 30+%
Stanford: 10% to 15%
Wharton: 30% to 35%
Columbia: 40%+
Chicago: 50%+
Kellogg: 60+%

Sandy’s Analysis: Well, your stats are fine, even the 77% Quant on your 760 GMAT, and 3.6 at an OK liberal arts college. The ‘trouble’ with you, to the extent there is any, is your career and goals.  A lot will turn on how your current ‘small’ non-profit is perceived by adcoms (and to some degree, the size and pedigree of your first job with the PR agency).

In order to get into Harvard or Wharton, you are going to have to up your game in terms of goals and impact. They don’t see themselves as turning out Development Directors or managers for small organizations, as you seem to intuit (“eventually move into a management role in a larger cancer-related non-profit or hospital.”)  What you need to do is identify the type of roles you want, and even find out the people who are doing it, and whether or not they have a MBA.

You need to say, “I admire Person 1 who is Director of ___ at the USA Cancer Society and has changed the way that organization has done 1 and 2, and I admire Person 2 at Health Care Org and how she was able to touch more lives. Given that you have a story of family loss to disease and work in two jobs, which are health care related, you might make an attractive candidate at H or W (not seeing this as Stanford somehow, work pedigree really counts there, and yours is not blue chip or funky enough, ditto schooling).

At schools like Columbia, Booth, and Kellogg, you would be strong on stats alone, and a compelling story is a plus. Booth goes for stories like this, as does Kellogg. Columbia goes for 760 GMATs and people who visit and show interest and apply before Thanksgiving. I’d say your chances are solid there.

Just start thinking bigger : You went to a small, 2nd Tier (or lower) liberal arts college, you’ve worked for what appear to be two small organizations, you seem over-determined to help people rather than have an impact on organizations. B-schools like to help people, too, but by way of strategy, innovation and improving organizations. That has to be your core pitch and that has to be how you describe what you have done so far, in terms of significant accomplishments.

You got a very sympathetic story, but you need to put on your organizational game face when talking about goals and passions.  You seem to be aware of that, but the profile note you wrote—viz, “I’m not cut out for a direct care role, but I want to be able to use my marketing/fundraising/management skills to help organizations who help people dealing with disease” sounds more convincing about care-giving than improving organizations.
When this 26-year-old woman was an undergraduate student, she lost a parent to cancer. With a 3.6 grade point average and a 760 GMAT, she now works for a non-profit that helps cancer patients but wants an MBA to move into a larger management role.

  • ADoubleU

    Hello Sandy,

    I know many in the actuarial community who have been wondering how well an actuary with good stats would do when applying to top business schools. In particular, the schools I am interested in are Harvard, Stanford, Booth, Sloan, and Duke. Below are my stats:

    GPA: 3.93 (Graduated magna cum laude from top private but not Ivy League university)
    GMAT: 760
    Age: 31
    Experience: 7 years experience as an actuary for a top five healthcare company. Four years of the seven have been as a director and actuary managing a team. I also have one year experience working at a healthcare analytics company while in school and another year working at a property and casualty software start-up while in school.
    Other pertinent information:

  • Sven D.

    Hi Sandy,

    I was hoping you could give me some advice concerning my career planning rather than directly estimating my chances of getting in a top business school.

    GPA: (2.6-3.3)
    GMAT: 760 (Q:83/V:97)
    Age: 23
    Dual Citizenship: (German/Slovenian)


    I’m originally german, but moved to Slovenia when I was about 16.

    After spending my laste Semester on Erasmus in Paris, I graduated from the University of Ljubljana this summer with a GPA of 8.2 out of 10, which I guess it‘s somewhere between 2.6 and 3.3 (Probably in the middle). I realize that‘s rather weak, and, of course it‘s going to be hard to explain to recruiters.

    Since then, however, I figured out what I wanted to do (a bit late), and took the GMAT (760) as a first step to somewhat mitigate my low GPA.

    I‘m really planning to compensate for my low undergrad GPA with my GMAT,getting into a top 5 pre experience MSc program (and acing that), Internships, and eventually work experience. (Possibly also refreshing my french, which would make me fluent in 4 languages)

    As most master‘s programs don‘t start before before october 2013, I‘m hoping to get an internship with a second tier consulting firm, bank, or accounting firm to avoid a bigger gap in my cv.

    Next winter semester, I‘m hoping to get into the finance program at either Said Business School, University of St Gallen, or HEC Paris.

    Hypothetically, If threw in one or more internships, possibly with one of the large consulting firms or banks, ended up working for one of them for 2-3 years, and put some extra curricular activities on top of that, how would you see my chances at getting into a top 10 mba program in the states?

    Is there anything else I could do (or anything I should do differently) to compensate for my GPA/distinguish myself?

    Btw, I realize I had a poor start to my career, and it‘s going to be a long way, but I think it‘s possible nevertheless.

  • Jacob S.

    Sandy, I was hoping you could give my resume a look over, given that I haven’t seen a lot of other reviews of people with my more government policy-based experience and I’m not sure if that helps or hurts my odds:

    GPA: 3.9 from top 20 university, summa cum laude in economics

    GMAT: Haven’t taken it yet, but realistically in the 680-700 range

    Work experience: 
    – Two years in health policy research at one of DC’s most prominent think tanks
    – 1.5 years as a research analyst at the Advisory Board Company, a health care consulting firm also in DC

    – Regular contributor/author on political, economic, and health care-related issues at small but growing online news outlet
    – Fluent in Russian
    – Various leadership and volunteering roles throughout college and DC

    Career ambitions: Start consulting firm to help physicians and physician practices develop new business models that allow them to contract directly with patients (rather than having to deal with private and/or public payers)

    Target schools:  HBS, Wharton, Booth, Darden

  • hbsguru

    One, you should apply to B school when separating from military if pzzble.  Most military applicants, esp. to top-7 MBA programs,  are either service academy or ROTC kids  doing a five or six year gig and they apply in last year.  If that is not you, temporary gigs as experimental ops to finding out what you want to do, to be honest, is not as good as getting one selective job (whether you like it or not) and keeping it. Military folks are valued at B schoools as future general managers and consultants, that is pretty much what you need to say on the app, altho sure, it needs to be personalized.  So given choice between temp gigs to find yourself, and one gig to make you a more attractive candidate, I vote for one gig, like it or not.  Just my general answer to a general Q.  Lots of possible variants.

  • hbsguru

    thanks for the tweak.

  • hbsguru

    Well, glad to hear it, if you have any stats on your class you can share, that would be helfpul. Also, couple of things, how  many of those 30+ peeps are prior military and another  issue at M/B/B is what office?  jobs in New York are harder to come by than those in Omaha, not meaning to contradict your new info, and Mr Low GPA might be happy in Nebraska as well. Any data you want to share would be welcome.

  • hbsguru

    I’ve seen that tape, and aringo’s business plan is, in part, as they state,  getting people into b school with low gmats–so look,  to the extent that obviously half the class of any b school has gmats lower than the average, well, this is not Garrison Kellior territory where everyone is above average.  The trouble is I’ve heard too many reports from candidates who have been dinged and then one way or another gotten feedback from the adcom (Wharton used to do this as a matter of course several years ago) and those dinged people have heard from adcoms that one reason was the gmat, freq gmats 650-680, and those candidates had all the blah, blah points you note in that tape including such ho-humm stuff as good grades in quant cources and finishing projects and leading tems at work and training people, yadda , yadda . . .and guess what ???? Adcom did not care BECAUESE WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE THE GMAT IS A BEAUTY CONTEST AND THE ADCOM WANTS THE NUMBER NOT THE GENERIC BS IN THAT ARINGO TAPE. That is why I am so harsh about it. And encourage people to keep taking GMAT as much as possible –sure if that dont work, also show them you got an A in stats, but you know what, they already knonw that.  There are ways to tilt your app to make it more likely that adcom will wink at margina GMAT, but that usually involves identidy politics.

  • NowOrNever

    Regarding Mr. Mandarin with 680, it is indeed lower than the average score at top programs, but you should take things in the right perspective. There is a lot to do even with low GMAT, if you didn’t see this yet I recommend it: http://www.aringo.com/low_gmat.htm

  • Nimrod.

    Hi Sandy, 

    Sometimes you say that people have an unclear career path, that is, guys who jump from job to job and  as a result they don’t seem decisive. I was wondering, though, if the same is right for temporary jobs. Take me, for example – I am currently looking for “The Next Big Thing” in my career, after serving in the military in the last couple of years. It takes time and may require me to get temporary gigs, not all of which may be in the line of work I intend to pursue and for which I would like to go to a B-school. How can I present it in my admission so it won’t look bad?

  • MBA2k15

    Hi Sandy! I would really appreciate it if you gave me an evaluation.
    I’m a 26 yr-old white male from northeast US. I majored in Finance from a top 15 US undergrad business program (3.8 overall GPA, 3.9 major GPA). I took the GMAT once and got a 710 (Q47/76th percentile, V40/89th). I’ve worked for 4 years; my first two years out of school I worked at a consulting firm (not M/B/B; 2nd tier firm, like Deloitte) performing M&A buy-side valuations in healthcare. For the last two years, I’ve been in a large private equity owned media company. First year was in a Corporate Strategy role, working on high priority analytical and operational projects across all divisions. I got promoted in 9 months and now work in a similar strategy role for a single business unit. In both roles, I have a number of success stories and aspects of the business I can point to and say I’ve had a direct impact on.
    What I believe sets me apart is my general work experience and my exposure to how the very top of a major corporation operates (both the good and the bad). I’ve worked directly with MBAs from top 10 programs, so I’m confident this is the correct next step for me. My post MBA goal is to continue developing my structured problem solving skill set at a premier management consulting firm, with a longer term goal of working in private equity on the portfolio company operations side. Ideally I would like to be employed in Boston/NYC post MBA. I’ve worked 70-80 hr weeks my entire career, so I do not have any notable extracurricular activities since undergrad. During undergrad, I was on the Exec Board for my business school’s peer counselor program and was a 4-year member of a prestigious volunteer program within the school’s admissions department. The programs I’m currently targeting for R1: MIT Sloan, Columbia, HBS and Wharton. Also considering applying to Tuck, Fuqua and Haas (my list is still in development). Open to your suggestions for any other schools not on this list as well. Thanks in advance for the help!

  • TA

    Sandy ,I’d appreciate it if you could give me insight into my chances at the following programs( if you think I have a long shot at someplace better please let me know)

    Cornell ( 1 year accelerated MBA program)
    Columbia(early admission)Anderson

    Stats:GMAT- 730
    28 y.o Indian male(Will be 29 when I start in 2013)
    Undergrad: Electrical Engineering : University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign (ranked #2 after MIT for electrical engineering and is considered a blue chip school in the engineering world)
    GPA: bit low ~ 3.1:(extremely challenging program – rated to be the toughest major in the united states at undergrad level I did however spend 3 semesters in a college in India before transferring and my gpa there would have been a 3.6-3.8 so if the schools are looking to maintain admission stats my overall undergrad GPA is about 3.4)

    W/E after undergrad – 1 year at a start up company(started by a professor from the University in Champaign area itself) focusing on micro and nanotech based optical communication devices. Work was very high end and catered to very niche consumers such as US army . 6 months at another tech-start up company(started by seasoned people from the industry and not a bunch of college kids) in New York city. The company designed and developed wireless communication and safety products for mass transit systems. Their biggest customer was the New York City subway.Unfortunately the H1B visas for the year ran out and I would have had to wait almost 10 months outside the US before coming back to work in the following fiscal year.
    Decided to go to grad school:
    M.S  in Operations Research at the University of Texas Austin( Highly challenging quantitative coursework and again considered a blue chip university in the engineering world)

    Grad GPA – 3.6/4.0
    (Took a few courses at Mccombs’ – in financial risk management, supply chain , Global Financial Strategies and got A’s in them).Fully funded it myself by working as a research/ teaching assistant. My masters report was on optimizing silicon wafer production in fabrication labs.

    Interned with Marriot hotel( Revenue pricing and modelling) for a semester while studying.
    W/E after graduate school:

    Presently working in a mid size Dallas based analytics company as an operations research analyst ( Data Analysis, Supply Chain Optimization, Forecasting algorithms.) for over 2 years and will be touching 3 years of work in Dec.
    I’m looking to move onto a global platform now and work in management consulting or explore entrepreneurial or start up options in technology

  • mrsustainability


  • Mr. Sustainability

    1. GMAT: 680 (85%) (V 79 %, Q 76 %, AWA 5.5)

    2. Undergraduate Degree (from India):  Engineering in Mechanical/Production Engineering from a good engineering college in India (not in the IIT league though). (GPA: approximately 3.5, among top 10 in class).

    3.  Masters degree in Industrial Engineering and Management from Oklahoma State University (GPA 3.25)

    4. Work Experience: 
    a) Worked as a Research Assistant doing energy audits (part time) for 1 yr and 1 month during MS at a prestigious center at the university that was funded by Department of Energy (DOE), USA.
    b) Worked as an Energy Consultant/Energy Engineer after MS at an engineering and mechanical services company (6 billion) in SoCal for 2 yrs and 9 months. Primarily worked as a 3rd party consultant for Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric on processing/approving incentives for their customers as a part of their energy efficiency programs
    c) Currently part of the Corporate Strategic Initiatives (SI) group at a leading global IT & consulting company (India based) and driving the organization’s green and sustainability strategy. The SI group is under the CTO’s office and I currently report to a SVP. Primarily involved in market analysis, identifying focus services and solutions to develop, presenting to management for necessary approvals, developing go- to- market strategies with partners,  analyst interactions, customer presentations, solutioning of  RFPs etc.  I moved back to India to take up this role and have been in this role for 1 yr and 5 months now.

    5. (3) Industry leading certifications (LEED, CMVP, FE).

    6.  Co authored a paper that was selected for a international conference in Singapore. 

    7.  27 (will be 28 in August, 2012) year old Indian male.

    8. Extracurricular:  Played and captained cricket team in school, undergrad, at Okstate and also in a cricket league in   Socal.

    9. Why MBA and Post MBA Plans:
    In my current role, I have realized how difficult it is to incubate a strategy and bring it to life (more so with respect to energy efficiency, smart grid, etc). I want to get an MBA to learn more about the business side of things and in the long run my ambition is to head Sustainability/Energy Efficiency/Smart Grid/ practice of one of the big players in this space (like Schneider, Siemens, IBM, ABB, etc).

    10 Whats my odds at:
    1. UC Berkeley
    2. ISB
    3. MIT (Since MIT is big on Sustainability)
    4. INSEAD
    5. Tepper
    6. UT Austin
    7. Johnson at Cornell

  • International-candidate

    Sorry again. Forgotten one extracurricular: 1 year volunteering during the weekends at a hospice

  • International-canidate

    Sorry, forgot the goal: integrate my soft skills with economic and financial knowledge to make my profile complete. Careers that come to mind are Executive Recruiting or HR business partner roles, but I’m eager to explore new worlds, know more about consulting and management, and in the end use the Mba to expand my horizon and broaden my view (I am a very curious person with loooots of interests!)

  • International-candidate

    Can you evaluate my profile?

    Italian, 28 y.o.

    Psychologist. (3 years Bachelor in General Psychology, and 2 years master’s degree in Organizational and industrial psychology, that’s how it works here).

    GPA hard to convert. Final grade 97/110 for the Bachelor and 107/110 for the Master’s.

    4 Years work experience in HR. Mainly as a recruiter and outplacement specialist for an italian firm. Held hundreds of seminars, consulting sessions, interviews and so on.

    Some work experience during college years as P.R for a few companies.

    GMAT 710 (Q 49, V 38). Kind of underperformed, but I guess I’ll keep it.

    Lots of extracurriculars:

    Published a book (sociological essay) with one of the top editors in the country, becoming probably the youngest essay-writer in the country.

    Written on local newspapers as a columnist for years.

    Founded and still managing an online magazine (that has become decently influential in the country) about finance , politics and society, with other 3 associates and 23 collaborators.

    Founded two rock bands during college years, where I played as singer and guitarist. Recorded two records, got sponsored by a clothing firm, performed in a lot of cities (never got signed by a label though).

    Attended yoga classes for 7 years.

    Got FACS (facial action coding system) certificate (That “lie to me” thing to make it simple).

    I do not have international work experience but I have travelled to tens of countries and hundreds of cities (not sure if it is worth mentioning).

    Other less significant extracurricular activities, but the list could go on and on..

    What about my chances at:


  • Anonymous

    Mr. Mandarin should consider the Wharton-Lauder program’s Mandarin track. In fact, why doesn’t Sandy mention it?

  • G-Bear

    From Mr. Low GPA “if you are going to be 30 at matriculation, that is old for a banker/consultant.”

    I’m not sure this is true. HBS might like them young, but I don’t think consulting recruiter preferences are the driver. I’m a Haas student going to M/B/B and along with many of my future colleagues starting at these firms, I’ll be 30+ at matriculation.

  • hbsguru

    If you want to post a profile, please make clear what your current job is, and what the chronology of your past jobs were. 
    If possible try to list what outcomes people from your current job have had applying to HSW etc. in past 3 years. If you know, not strictly necessary. 
    The more info you post,the better.  Also try to mention goals.