How I Got Into HBS, Stanford & Booth

Back in 2015 I had a heart to heart with my fiancé about where to go with my career: my trajectory at the time had me on track to spend many years working to become a technical expert – a career path that didn’t excite me at all. Given my interest in business, he suggested I consider whether to pursue an MBA as a means of altering that trajectory.

As I researched the different schools, I reviewed profiles of many who had been admitted to some of the world’s best business schools. I found myself reading about a seemingly endless stream of management consultants, investment bankers and successful entrepreneurs: each of whom appeared to be a super-human combination of impressive work experience, stellar undergraduate grades and extensive community involvement (on top of their 80 hour per week jobs). It didn’t matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find anyone whose profile even remotely matched mine; I didn’t feel as though I was in with a shot at all.

Fast forward two and a half years and here I am, offer in hand from Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Chicago Booth School of Business: three of the world’s best and most selective. Naturally that leads me to the question:

How is it that a gay, kiwi chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry has managed to chart a path to these iconic institutions alongside so many ‘traditional’ applicants? 

To answer that question, I spent many hours reflecting on my admissions journey, and the assumptions that I formed early in the process – many of which turned out to be false. In an effort to dispel some of these myths and share my journey, I have compiled a summary of my top three take-aways from the MBA application process.

  • Myth 1: Top MBA Programs only accept management consultants and investment bankers.

While it appeared this way on the surface, I came to discover that the best MBA programs understand the value of diversity and actively seek to create a student body which reflects the world we live in. The theory behind this is that students will be enriched by a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and that diversity can bring about more high performing teams/organisations.

It’s true that many MBA programs do have a large contingent of consultants and bankers, and a minority of oil and gas professionals like me. However, it’s also important to understand that only a very small number of people from oil and gas apply for an MBA, whereas in consulting and banking, it’s often an expectation.

Interestingly, by the time I was ready to submit my applications, I found myself viewing my unique background as more of an advantage than an impediment. I felt that it offered me a point of difference and an original perspective. I might have struggled to differentiate myself from the large applicant pool if I were applying from a consulting or banking background.

So, don’t worry if you come from a ‘non-traditional’ background like me: consider your background an opportunity to demonstrate what makes you unique and to offer a fresh perspective in your application!

  • Myth 2: The admissions committee expects you to have loads of extracurricular activities.

Early on in the application process, I fell into the trap of thinking that I needed to pad my resume with extra-curricular activities without pausing to understand why that seemed to be a prerequisite for admission. After all, each of the other components of the application appeared to have a very specific role in describing who I am and what I have done.

MBA programs do look at an applicant’s extra-curricular activities for evidence of skills, leadership and achievement (similar to what they look for in the applicant’s work experience). But in addition to that, they look for an indication that the applicant will be an active contributor to the student and alumni community, and that the applicant’s personal values align with those of the school.

It is therefore far better to devote your time to a smaller number of extracurricular activities and focus on doing them well (assuming a leadership position, making a significant and lasting impact, or doing something that you are genuinely passionate about), than it is to have a large number of disconnected activities that don’t reveal anything interesting or new about you (and which you won’t be able to discuss comprehensively and passionately during an interview).

So, think carefully about the image of yourself that you want to paint with your extracurricular activities, and remember: it’s about quality over quantity!

  • Myth 3: As an applicant, it’s best to pack as much into your application as possible.

Place yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee member who is reviewing your application. He or she might be reviewing 50 applications that day and may spend as little as 15 minutes on yours. It is your mission as an applicant to secure an interview, and you can’t do that without leaving a lasting positive impression on the person who is reviewing your application.

But how can you leave a lasting impression? Well, consider how well you remember the plot of the last Harry Potter novel versus a shopping list you wrote last month. If you are anything like me, you’ll have a far better recollection of the plot of a book that you haven’t read in almost ten years, than the contents of a list that you wrote mere days earlier.

I’ve learned that the best way to stand out and leave a memorable impression is to focus your application on a select few things, and weave them together with a compelling narrative. That way, your application will stick in the reviewer’s mind, giving you a much better chance of securing that all-important interview. Trying to fit too much in will limit your ability to create a clear and captivating narrative and might prejudice your application.

So, rather than listing off a stream of achievements, create an interesting story with your application: you will draw your reviewer in and improve your chances of standing out!

Now that I’ve shared a little bit about my MBA admissions journey, and I’ve busted a few of the assumptions that I once took as gospel, I hope that you now feel inspired to start your own journey!

GSB-bound Dane Renner

Dane Renner is an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (class of 2019), an experienced chemical engineer, and an LGBTI+ advocate. His stats are off the charts: He racked up a 3.8 GPA in commerce and engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as a 770 GMAT (44V/50Q). In addition to Stanford, he was admitted to both Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the first of a five-part series by Renner who will chronicle his interview preparation, with recaps of his HBS and GSB interviews, how he decided which school to attend and what he intends to do to prep for his MBA experience. 



  • Evan

    I take it he got rejected from Wharton?

  • Generally, when we think of non-traditional students, you’re right: We think of the real poets, people who have worked in non-profits, the government, or education, organizations that are not feeder companies into the top business schools. A fairly solid percentage of people go to business school from the oil and gas industry. I think Dane considers himself non-traditional because he is LGBT from New Zealand.

  • What?

    John this still seems like the myth of the non-traditional background applicant. Top schools fill their ranks with plenty of folks from oil and gas. Top schools also have plenty of LGBT folks as well. Not being from consulting/finance doesn’t make him a non-traditional background applicant (btw these days everyone seems to think they’re a “non-traditional background applicant”). To me those are the people that really went off the beaten path- like came from the NFL, went to circus school, set up an art business, etc. Kudos to him for getting in and do appreciate his story.

  • hmm

    That’s probably because you don’t know how to use the word “either”

    just kidding

  • RedRover

    I second this. I had 750 GMAT and 3.9 at top undergrad and didn’t get into either of 3 schools mentioned.

  • George,

    First off, Dane didn’t say this stats were off the charts. I wrote that as part of his author ID because Dane’s stats are super impressive. Secondly, there are a shockingly high number of applicants who score 750 and above on the GMAT and fail to get into elite schools. The average GMAT for the applicant POOL at HBS, Stanford and a few other top schools is 700 or above to begin with. That said, yes, I would agree that his raw scores had a lot to do with his acceptances to three of the world’s best MBA programs. But give the guy a break. He’s trying to share his experiences as an applicant to these schools and there is much to learn from his willingness to be write about his journey.


  • George J.

    Right bud. I’m LOL-ing with ya.

  • George J.

    Exactly Bob

  • George J.

    Dear Dane Renner,
    This is the humble police. Your article is ridiculous & drips of blatant boasting under some frail guise of self-disbelief. There is nothing impressive about you getting into those schools with a 770 GMAT/3.8; Umm, where exactly did you think you were headed with those metrics?— The ACME School of Biz?? You even state in the article that your “stats are off the charts”. You didn’t “dispell any myths” with this article, in fact, you managed to perpetuate the common held belief that the top schools primarily admit candidates w/ high GMAT scores.

  • Anon

    Lol completely agree. The headline should read YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE WHAT THIS GUY DID TO GET INTO A TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL. The article should just read “score in the top 1%”

  • Bob

    The real story here is the 3.8/770. Of course the business schools took a shot on you – you could have had any background and stood out. If this was a 3.3/710, would be a highly different story.

  • SranfordOrBooth

    It used to be that only Booth would accept this kind of background, It looks like Stanford and Harvard really going out of their comfort zones.