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?