Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds

Call her the Marlboro Woman. She got her start working on the best-selling brand of cigarettes in the world and moved into the pharma industry after a pair of promotions. With a 720 GMAT but a lowly 2.9 undergraduate grade point average, she’s hoping to get an MBA to ease a transition into strategy or sustainability consulting.

He’s a 27-year-old European who racked up nearly two years in the military where he was responsible for training in a logistics role and has since been a market researcher for a boutique consulting firm. With a 740 GMAT and a master’s from a Top 30 business school in Europe were he graduated in the top 16% of his class, he now wants to land a spot in a major Silicon Valley tech company. Think Google or Facebook.

After working for nearly five years as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate, this 26-year-old female professional joined a top Washington, D.C., think tank, doing project management. She boasts a smartbuwt not nerdy GPA of 3.4 from a prestige liberal arts college in New England and a well-mannered GRE split of 163Q and 165V. She hopes to use her business school education as a spring board to a career in social sector consulting.

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

What these 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?

Now that he’s finished mock interviews with some 50 round two applicants to Harvard and other business 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, work backgrounds and career goals 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 to be published shortly. (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.)

lady woman gal

Mrs. Marlboro

  • 720 GMAT
  • 2.9 GPA
  • “Black spot in application is my GPA”
  • During her undergraduate years, her father suffered a stroke that impacted him permanently
    Undergraduate degree from an unknown institution
  • Work experience includes career start at Philip Morris, where she worked on the best-selling Marlboro brand and was promoted twice; now works in the pharmaceutical industry and has been promoted to regional director within her first year
  • Extracurricular involvement as the chapter director for a women’s rights organization and a volunteer for the Sierra Club political committee
  • Goal: To work as a consultant: strategy and sustainability (long-term sustainability, supply chain environmental impact).
  • “I want to make a career switch to align with my personal and professional interests”

Odds Of Success:

Berkeley: 10% to 20%
Columbia: 20%
NYU: 20% to 35%
Virginia: 30%+
Michigan: 30%+

Sandy’s Analysis: Marlboro!!!! My own brand before switching to Camels Classic, the non-filtered guys, along with all the other tough-guy pre-men in my Bar Mitzvah lesson classes at Hebrew School, circa 1959.

Not a pretty picture  . . . but moving right along.

I’ve always wondered how big a black mark working for a tobacco company is on MBA apps and my guess has been, for super-selective schools like H/S/W, it would just be seen as a “non-selective” job but certainly a “brand name” one, especially in your case at Philip Morris.  From just a selectivity point of view, I think it is easier to get a marketing job at Marlboro than at Google–even though marketing Marlboro’s might be more challenging. For the record, in my mind, both companies are equally annoying and predatory, although sure, AdWords does not cause cancer — but listening to hipster Google-types endlessly might.

In your case, and with your story, starting out at Marlboro can actually become part of your narrative. Given your low GPA, it was a good job and you took it seriously, got promoted two times, and then switched to the pharmaceutical industry, which has a better rep with MBA adcoms than tobacco companies.  So you are moving up in the world, both in terms of responsibilities and also in terms of the adcom status hierarchy.

Now you want to get an MBA to switch into consulting, one of the best reasons in the whole wide world to get an MBA, as I keep saying.

That is not irony folks — if in doubt, always say consulting.

And you got a 720 GMAT!

It’s all a good story except for that pesky 2.9 GPA.

Note, however, that given the choice between a low GPA and a low GMAT, ahem, gimme the low GPA. Adcoms weigh GMAT WAY more than GPA, as many articles on Poets&Quants have noted. 

And for the schools you are targeting — Berkeley, Columbia, NYU, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia — that is double deeply the case.

OK, here is the generic advice about the GPA: Try to take some courses like stats or econ just to say you are sorry and to prove that you

  1. can sit still,
  2. swallow boring jive,
  3. and spit it back on exams.

That is what the GPA tests for anyway. And it is a pretty good proxy of B-school performance and reality.

Then put together a narrative that explains your brilliant career so far and presents your time in the tobacco fields without fear or favor. Don’t apologize, don’t complain, don’t underscore that you are now a member of the Sierra Club Political Committee which wants to ban smoking outdoors as well. Just focus on what you did at Marlboro and how it was a platform for what you want to do in consulting.

Speaking of which, you say, “I want to make a career switch to align with my personal and professional interests. Post-MBA, I want to work as a consultant, specifically in strategy and sustainability (long-term sustainability, supply chain environmental impact, etc.).”

This could be important. Do not stress the idea of switching careers to align with your “personal and professional interests.” That sounds a bit like you have regrets.  You do not need to realign anything. Your career is pretty straightforward.

Just say you want to be a strategy consultant and help companies grow and have more impact. That is what consultants do and that is what you have been doing.  Your take on that above, viz., “specifically in strategy and sustainability (long-term sustainability, supply chain environmental impact, etc.)” sounds confused and compensatory. Like you need to give back after all that great work at Philip Morris getting teens hooked on smoking. Was Joe Camel one of your brainstorms?

Anyway it is water under the bridge. You got nothing to be ashamed of except the 2.9. Spend your time explaining that and taking a few courses.

A 2.9 is way lower than the average GPA at your target schools but they take some people with 2.9s. Those people usually have higher GMATs (like you) and a good story (like you) so there is some Hail Mary hope but this could be hard.

I don’t think you are getting into Columbia or Berk, but you got a chance at NYU and UVA with a good story and smart execution.

IF ANY READER HAS WORKED FULL TIME FOR A TOBACCO COMPANY AFTER COLLEGE AND THEN GOT ADMITTED TO HBS OR STANFORD, OR RELIABLY KNOWS SOMEONE WHO HAS, PLEASE DROP A NOTE IN COMMENTS AND SHARE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN.