How I Got Into Columbia With A 640 GMAT

Columbia Business School – Ethan Baron photo

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Last week, the prestigious Ivy League institution – with an average accepted GMAT score of 717, length of work experience north of 12 years, and 6:1 applicant-to-acceptance ratio – let this less-than-qualified, state-school educated, hipster-hairdo 25-year-old rocking youngster through the door.

Now, I realize my qualifications aren’t so farfetched, you know, not like my score was a 510 and I wore a ripped pair of jeans to the interview, but still. I want other B-school hopefuls to read this and realize that nothing is impossible and to never sell yourself short. If you think you have the raw talent and foundational acumen to be America’s next business leader, then so may Columbia Business School.

It’s all about the freaking story. Well, let me rephrase that. It’s about the story and the ability to demonstrate true authenticity, candor and a sincere thirst to get better, and the ability to convey these traits consistently in both your essays and in your interview.

For the GMAT, I didn’t take a study course and just reviewed on my own using the Manhattan GMAT books as a guide. I took the test once to get my 640. I also am not a STEM grad. I have a 3.6 GPA with a double major in political science and journalism. And I don’t work for Goldman or Morgan. I manage a sales and strategy team at a major health insurer.

They aren’t looking for the next equity analyst or investment-banking lackey. Sure, that’s what many B-school grads go on to do, but it’s not (necessarily) what these recruiters are searching for. Not by any means.

Here’s how I did it, with absolutely zero Columbia connections and an underwhelming academic résumé.

Demonstrate Humility

If your essays don’t include some example of a time you’ve grown from a mistake, then you better rock that GMAT like a Metallica concert, or have some otherworldly talent made evident through an early professional accomplishment. No, what they want to see is that you will admit flaws, and that you not only don’t shy away, but embrace them as opportunities to genuinely grow and mature. They want to see in you what all other CEOs have had to experience at one point or another in their careers – the strength to admit that you can be wrong.

Showcase Your Hard Work

This, in theory, is what the GMAT is intended to do. The idea that – through some raw brainpower, but mostly pure formula memorization and algebra trickery – you can piece together enough study hours to nab yourself a high “score”. But a standardized test isn’t the only way to illustrate strengths in this regard. Absolutely not. Pick a time and an example when you’ve taken an idea from the ground up, and when you, yourself, built something meaningful. Make sure it is somewhat recent, and that it took both innovation and research to get it done. Include details of having gone above and beyond to get your idea heard, ideally one that few others thought could actually be successful. Hey, building a small-town rock-concert production “company” with your high school friends is worth 50 points on the GMAT – even if the idea ultimately tanks and you end up losing money. In fact, that story could be a lot better!

Tell Them Your Plan

Saying you want more money, or that your sights are on a flashier title are probably not the right ways to grab a recruiter’s attention. Outside of the “check mark” component to a top-school MBA is, oh yeah, the unparalleled education you are about to receive. They want to hear that you aren’t going to waste it. Tell them who you really want to be one day – beyond the money and latter-climbing title change. If you are in the healthcare field, tell them about your plan to reduce spiraling medical costs. If it’s real estate, tell them about the industry’s biggest problems and your perspective on how the MBA helps you to solve them. They want to go to bed at night knowing that they could have found the nation’s next tycoon, industry change-agent, scientist or inventor.  Give them what they are looking for and speak your GD mind!

I wasn’t going to apply until a friend reminded me to never doubt myself. Hopefully this piece gives some confined-space inspiration to a few others out there looking for proof that these things do happen, and that sometimes it just takes the right platform – and – a good story.

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