An Uncommon Journey To HBS

How 27-year-old Émilie Fournier overcame a 700 (Q43/V41) GMAT & got into Harvard Business School

On the day in March when Harvard Business School would release its round two decisions, Émilie Fournier stayed home at the urging of her boss. “Whether it is good news or bad news, you obviously need this private moment,” he told her.

Her husband, Sébastien, was home with her in Toronto, on his spring break from the MBA program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. As noon approached, the two of them sat down on the couch together, holding hands, a computer in her lap as Fournier clicked through to the private section of HBS’ admissions page.

“I couldn’t do anything that morning because I was so on edge,” she recalls. “And then noon comes around and the site is taking forever to load. I remember thinking in that moment that when the news came up I probably would have to read through a paragraph or more to get the answer and thinking how I would hate even that delay.”

And then the news popped onto the screen in one simple, blissful line:

“The answer is yes!”

A SURPRISE CELEBRATORY GIFT FROM AMAZON

“We both started screaming,” she says. “I started crying I was so happy. This whole journey had many ups and downs, of staying at work late at night to study for the GMAT for hours, of not getting the result I wanted and having to take the test three times. And then finally, after literally years of planning and work, there it was.”

Her husband dashed off the couch, ran upstairs to the second floor of their loft and came down with an Amazon box. In it was a burgundy Harvard hoodie. A dream that she had held onto for more than a dozen years years since she was 14 had finally been realized. Emilie Fournier was going to not just Harvard, but the Harvard Business School.

Her journey to become one of 11% of applicants admitted to the school is as much a story of tenacity, resolve and hard work as it is an inspirational tale for other anxiety-filled candidates who may sometimes doubt themselves during the long and arduous process of getting into one of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

OVERCOMING A 43 QUANT SCORE THAT PUT HER IN THE 52ND PERCENTILE

For Fournier, Harvard was not a slam dunk. In fact, many other candidates might very well have talked themselves out of even applying. After three tries, her GMAT score was 700, 30 points below the median at HBS. Even more worrisome, her quant score of 43 put Fournier at the 52th percentile (meaning that 48% of all test takers did better).

Her undergraduate degree in commerce from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal was not from an elite school or one that was an obvious feeder to HBS. Indeed, it was not even in the same league with the top ten colleges that routinely account send the most students to Harvard Business School: Harvard, Stanford, UPenn, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Duke, Berkeley, and MIT (see Top Feeder Colleges To HBS). And though she works for a Fortune 500 company–Walmart–no one would consider the big box retailer a feeder company to Harvard (see Feeder Companies To HBS).

And yet, not only did she receive an admit from Harvard, she was also accepted at Booth, Kellogg and Tuck, and waitlisted at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business after an interview that, she believes, didn’t go all that well. How she overcame those weaknesses in her applications should give others hope that they, too, can make it happen.

Still, as an undergradate at John Molson, she didn’t think she would ever want an MBA. When her future husband finished his undergraduate degree in 2010, a year before her, he decided to take the GMAT and urged her to do the same since a score could be submitted on an MBA application for five years.

‘WHY GO BACK TO SCHOOL FOR TWO YEARS OF SLIGHTLY MORE ADVANCED FINANCE?’

“‘We probably will want to do this in the future, anyway,’” she remembers him telling her. “‘Do it with me and we’ll get it out of the way now.’ But I was not even done with my undergraduate studies, and I didn’t want to waste time doing it. That was the first time the idea of pursuing an MBA came up on my radar, but I hadn’t given it much thought.”

For one thing, she was uncertain about going for an MBA after already having a bachelor’s degree in commerce. “I thought why would I want to go back and do two years to take slightly more advanced classes in finance and accounting,” she says.

But when Sébastien began applying to schools in the fall of 2014, she visited several campuses with him and quickly rethought her early assessment. “Going on these visits and information sessions really opened my eyes to it. Seeing him go through the process and seeing all the amazing opportunities that an MBA can offer changed my view of it. I began to think about resetting the clock on what kind of leader I want to be and what I really wanted to do with a career.”

Her boyfriend applied to five schools in round one and was dinged from three and waitlisted at two. He applied to three more schools in round two and was accepted to Chicago Booth. “It was the perfect school for him,” she says. “He is quantiative and data driven. He really likes the flexibility because he is a CPA and the idea of having to take intro finance and accounting courses was unappealing to him. He loves the culture and the people there who are so friendly.”

AT A CHICAGO BOOTH ADMIT WELCOME, SHE ‘JUST FELL IN LOVE WITH IT’

When they went to Booth’s admit weekend in the spring of 2015, Fournier found herself wishing she had taken the GMAT way back when she was an undergrad. “Everyone was so welcoming. They put together this amazing agenda for admits and I remember sitting next to him as a partner and thinking I want to do this. I just fell in love with it. Seeing it for myself and the realness of it over two or three days was the kick in the butt I needed to go for it.”

As soon as she returned to Toronto, she bought a few GMAT review books, knowing that if she couldn’t get the test out of the way, it was a no-go for sure. But her work and social schedule was daunting, to say the least. She and Sébastien had just gotten engaged in January of 2015. He was obviously starting the Booth program in Chicago in August, while she would stay in Toronto at a highly demanding job at Walmart Canada where she was a senior manager on the corporate strategy team. And then, there was that wedding, planned for June of 2016.

When Sébastien went to Booth, they agreed to be with each other every other weekend and to stay in touch daily via texting and Facetime. “It cost a fortune in flight tickets but it was an investment in our quality of life and an investment to maintain our relationship,” she says. It meant even texting pictures of the the most mundane things, like the food on a plate, to capture what Fournier calls “the richness of day to day life that you lose if you don’t live together. We are both very career oriented and we both wanted the best careers for each other. I could have quit my job and moved with him to Chicago but that would have put my career at risk. We have a foundation of being really open with each other and cheering each other on.”

  • AH

    She is definitely an uncommon admit:
    700 GMAT, normally reserved for the Duke/UCLA/Virginia/Michigan tiers
    Concordia University (Not McGill or Toronto)
    3.5 GPA

    Work experience was exception – rapid promotion in corporate strategy at Walmart
    Great essays and recommendations

    I still find the HBS admission to be a surprise based on the limited info at hand.

    I had similar academic stats with a higher quant score, attended UC Berkeley, and did not get to interview at Booth and did not apply to HBS. I felt that my work exp at Wells Fargo was hampered by personal issues throughout in finance and internal audit. So it shows work experience to be really important, as she did excel at the job.

  • Orange 1

    John, what I appreciate about your comment is that ROI is not just “I earned X before business school, paid Y for the program, and after graduation am making Z so my payoff is 5.3 years”.
    How much is the network worth? Having new perspectives from the MBA program that might eventually lead to a promotion? Gaining confidence and boosting data, analytical, and communications skills can develop from coursework. These all have value but cannot be put in quantitative terms. Nobody can say “I had this great insight from a business school course that I aligned with my company’s issues and because of what I produced from these thoughts, I landed a new position at HQ”.

  • Hmm. Perhaps you’re right.

    But have we stopped to wonder if we’re “training” our students to be reliant on an education system forever? Instead of training them to be self-reliant?

    “If you are ambitious, intelligent, self-disciplined….”

    I don’t think I have any of those qualities innately. But life dealt me a shitty hand, I was forced to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial to get out of a mess.

    And I can’t help but wonder… would I have had the skills needed today if I hadn’t been forced to train myself to be “self-reliant”

  • That may well be true. But it is a relatively small percentage of people with the risk tolerance, the money, the self-discipline and the practical intelligence to take that path. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would bet it’s less than 5%, if only because that is the average percentage of MBAs who start businesses while in MBA programs. If you are ambitious, intelligent, self-disciplined and have a great idea for a business, having done a couple of small entrepreneurial things already, I would agree that is a viable option.

  • Re: As for entrepreneurs…..

    Indeed, they can learn from MBA incubators…but they will also come out in debt. UNLESS they have parents funding them – in which case, great! Good for them.

    But the average entrepreneur shouldn’t be keen to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to THEN start a business.

    Being an entrepreneur is stressful enough. We don’t need the added stress of debt looming on top of us.

  • John, I think people are asking the wrong question.

    The current comparision seems to be : ” Is doing an MBA better than staying at your current job and going through the motions?”

    The answer to that is “Of course, an MBA is better. Education is always better”

    But the question instead should be: “Is an MBA better than going out into the world, self-educating yourself and starting your own business?”

    I’d argue that a student who spent $50,000 on a a failed business (if done methodically, while learning and applying principles available on the internet) will be more valuable than a student who has spent $200,000 on a IVY League MBA with no practical experience.

    Don’t you agree?

  • JohnAByrne

    This is a great discussion and a core issue on our site. Is the MBA worth it? And all the research and all the data pretty much comes down to the conclusion that it is. People who get MBA degrees typically see their salaries rise between 80% and 150%, with the payback period on the degree of four years or less. And those numbers do not account for the vast numbers of scholarship money schools typically dole out in discounting the education for the most qualified candidates.

    It actually becomes a tougher decision for people who already make a lot of money and actually have $100,000 to spare. That’s because their pre-MBA income is at a level which makes it more difficult to get a quick ROI. If your income is well into the six-figures, an MBA isn’t likely going to make that big a short-term difference. But getting the degree is not merely about that first post-graduation job and the pay. It’s about learning business basics and frameworks that make you considerable more valuable to an organization. It’s about developing a support network of smart, ambitious people who will be among the next generation of business leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs. And it’s about your own personal development and self-confidence you will develop in a highly selective MBA program.

    As for entrepreneurs, most MBAs who use the program as an incubator have no regrets about doing so. That’s because schools have gone to great lengths to create remarkable support networks for founders of startups. They not only gain mentors, advisors, partners, customers, and investors through the experience; they gain extremely valuable knowhow that lessens the odds of failure.

  • HardDecision

    Thanks for clarifying. I understand.

    How do you know that an MBA most likely won’t be worth the money? Would you be willing to share some sort of continuum or threshold for determining if an MBA is financially worth it?

    Do most people who consider an MBA have $100,000 to spare? Just want to know how I stack up.

  • Ah – you’re completely right there. Poor choice of words from me. I should be careful with that.

    What I meant to say – unsuccessfully – was that if you are really contemplating whether an MBA degree is worth the money for you – then you’re most likely in a situation where it wont be worth the money.

    Some kids are left with trust-funds etc where they can only use that money on higher education. In those siatuations, their options are limited.

    But if you have say – $100,000 to spare, and you’re agonizing over whether you should do your MBA — then you probably shouldn’t. There are “harder” options out there that will teach you a lot more with that money.

    So yes, you’re right. “Hard” is kinda the opposite of what I should have said!

  • HardDecision

    To be clear, are you advocating for avoiding anything that requires making a “hard decision?” Is starting a business on the side an easy decision or a hard decision? Is starting and growing a business a sequence of easy decisions or hard decisions?

    I thought your case for SkipMBA was fine until you introduced this “hard decision” avoidance concept.

  • Interesting – thanks for linking these, John.

  • GirlPower

    Greatly disapprove of your use of the term “frou frou”. Comes across a little too shame-y for my liking. Not sure what’s wrong with talking about important relationships in one’s life and the impact they have on their decisions? Maybe her husband lit the spark, but clearly she had her own motivations for going as evidenced by her very unique goals.

    And you’re right – an article about a male probably wouldn’t touch on these topics so that just goes to show the significant social and emotional burdens women have to carry (i.e. planning a wedding) on top of everything else.

    Pretty sure she mentioned her friends only like one time when getting input on apps. And I believe the “boyfriend” referenced is the one who eventually became the husband…and clearly his b-school experience and the wedding were a huge part of their lives while she was also trying to apply for b-school and manage the GMAT and job.

    It seemed to me like the article was just trying to add some color to a sweet success story. So many b-school related websites reduce people to stats and resumes so I personally found it enjoyable to read about a real human being.

  • Maybe. But there are going to be a lot of young women in particular who are facing similar issues. I think it’s helpful to put this narrative into a broader perspective for that reason. Besides, it’s a story of Emilie’s journey to business school. Having to study and take a GMAT before and after one’s wedding is a big deal. Life goes on. It doesn’t stand still while you have to go through the arduous process of applying to highly selective graduate programs. Why not capture that part of the story?

  • offtojog

    I appreciate the encouragement for people with just a 700. And the lesson to not sell yourself short is a helpful one. The article could be much shorter though, cutting away the constant frou frou references to marriage and what her husband, boyfriends and friends said or did. It comes across like she chose business school just because other people (especially her spouse) told her to do it. I can’t imagine an article about a male admit focusing so much on what his significant other was up to, when he got engaged etc. Not sure if that’s just the way she expresses herself, or if that is the angle PQ decided to take.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks for weighing in with that info. Our readers will greatly appreciate it. I will, however, also refer folks to these stories which tell the more mainstream story about elite MBA admissions and particularly who gets into HBS:

    Feeder Colleges:

    http://poetsandquants.com/2011/08/15/top-feeder-colleges-to-harvard-business-school/

    Feeder Companies:

    http://poetsandquants.com/2011/08/15/top-feeder-companies-to-harvard-business-school/

  • Nick Papagiorgio

    John,

    I agree with OP. I recently had a friend who was admitted to HBS among other top 10 programs. White male, non-elite public state school, logistics major, Fortune 10 company, 700 gmat. Seems like HBS really cares more about work experience and corporate relationships which is not surprising given the case method and employability of these graduates.

  • No, she didn’t write the headline on the story. But I would disagree with you, largely on the basis that it was not a no-brainer that Emile would have gotten the elite admits she did without overcoming a low quant score, an overall GMAT that is 30 points under the median at HBS, and having a business degree (not a STEM degree) from an institution that would not be considered elite. And I think her narrative tells you two things: 1) Columbia and Wharton were quick to ding her merely on the basis of her GMAT score. 2) She gained acceptances elsewhere because all the work and thought she put into conveying her considerable strengths effectively allowed her to overcome the weaknesses in her candidacy at schools that are less eager to play the GMAT game. Of course, she had to have something to leverage–her work experience and track record of promotions–to get an acceptance. But her work in strategy there has filled only two of her past five years. No elite business school is going to admit someone who has nothing going on.

  • Uncommon?

    Not sure if I’d call it “my uncommon journey to HBS.” Agree with the underrepresented Canadian university being something to overcome but she is in an elite corp strategy role at Walmart for last 5 years, a group which recruits heavily at HBS. 700 GMAT isn’t great but she’s in the running. This really doesn’t seem like an applicant outlier (i.e. “uncommon”) to me. She also had admits/wait-lists at a slew of top-10 programs. Congrats to her. However, this really isn’t an uncommon journey to HBS outside of the lower ranked undergrad university. The dirty truth is those admits – what I would call the true poets- are few and far between, granted HBS/GSB would have you believe otherwise. I know she didn’t pick the title of this article.