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An Uncommon Journey To HBS

“The answer is yes.” That’s how HBS told Émilie Fournier she was admitted. Then, her husband put an Amazon box in her lap with a Harvard hoodie

SHE FIRST SAT FOR THE GMAT A MONTH BEFORE HER MARRIAGE

She began studying for the GMAT in the summer of 2015, immediately trying to overcome what she knew would be a significant hurdle. “I have never been a good standardized test taker,” she concedes. Plus, it didn’t help that she was a serious student athlete in high school, playing tennis. For years, she would go to school under a condensed curriculum from 8 a.m. to noon, and then train or travel for the sport all afternoon. At times, Fournier would go on the road for up to two to three weeks at a time to play competitive tennis. Not surprisingly, her foundation in math was not strong.

So her regimen to do well on the GMAT, especially the math, was a bit of a slog. She would work all day, study for the GMAT at night and on the weekends when she wasn’t traveling to Chicago to be with her fiancé. She first sat for the exam in May of 2016, a month before her marriage. Fournier was disappointed in the result: A 690 overall score, with a 39 on the quant section and a 44 on the verbal.

Two months after her wedding, in August, she took the test again and did slightly worse: A 680 with the same quant and verbal scores. She cancelled it, and then the newly married pair finally went on their honeymoon at the end of the summer when Sébastien’s internship with Bain & Co. was over.

‘PEOPLE SAID YOU SHOULDN’T BOTHER APPLYING WITH A QUANT SCORE BELOW 46’

Refreshed from the trip, she returned, signed up for an online tutoring course and took the GMAT again in November of 2016, the third time over a six-month period. This time, the result was better, if still below the average and medians for the schools she intended to apply to. Fournier scored the minimum 700 she wanted and had upped her quant score from 39 to 43, but lost a couple of points on her verbal score which dipped to 41.

And now the round two applications were all due six weeks later. She took two weeks off over the Christmas holidays and bore down, doing a bit of skiing in the morning but working on essays every afternoon and every night. Fournier had at least one advantage: She had vicariously experienced the whole process before with her now husband. So she knew exactly what to expect and what was expected by the schools’ admission officers.

Still, there were obvious worries. “I was really nervous about it because some people say that if you get below a quant score of 46, you shouldn’t even bother applying to Harvard and Stanford. Well, I was way below that and wondered how I would apply. I couldn’t find any success stories like mine. I felt very unoptimistic about my odds. My husband kept encouraging me and I took some support from the fact that the schools were all saying they approach the admissions process holistically. I wanted to believe that. If what they say is true, I thought, I should get some positive results. So I thought hard about how I could use the other parts of an application to highlight my strengths and explain the obvious issues.”

HER HUSBAND AND FRIEND TOLD HER SHE WAS PLAYING IT TOO SAFE

Among other things, she had one ace in the hole–her work experience. Fournier had spent five years at Walmart Canada, having joined the company fresh from her undergraduate school in a highly selective one-year leadership development rotational program. In fact, only ten out of more than 600 applicants were hired for it. She spent a year and one-half as an associate category manager, a junior buyer, before gaining a promotion to a full buyer. Fournier was then poached by the corporate strategy team where she became the youngest senior manager at the Canadian head office. Three promotions in five years clearly showed she was a highly promising and successful young professional.

So before she started writing her applications, she did her own evaluation of herself, a full 360 assessment on her GPA of 3.48, her 700 GMAT, and her basic resume. “Those things are all black and white and you can’t really change them,” she explains, “but I wanted to closely look at my strengths and then be really honest about my weak spots. I was worried in a very Canadian way that I would be underplaying my strengths or that I wouldn’t be honest enough about my weaknesses.”

What came out of that exercise was that she had an okay GPA, certainly not the best, a weak quant score on the GMAT. and a below average overall score. On the plus side, however, Fournier had been a successful student athlete and had racked up quite a successful track record at Walmart, with three promotions in five years, including being the youngest person at her level. So she focused on those core strengths.

She asked two people to do this assessment with her: Her husband and a close friend who also was applying to business school. She then used another trusted friend who had no interest in business school read her essays and provide advice.

Their feedback: She was playing it too safe. Nervous that she wouldn’t come across as a successful candidate, she was overly cautious in communicating her goals to the schools. “It would have been really easy for me to say I work in corporate strategy now and I enjoy the work but I want to see more variety so I want to transition to management consulting,” she says. “I thought this would be an easy sell and they wouldn’t worry about my employability. But it didn’t sound like I was excited about it. It didn’t sound authentic because I didn’t really want to be a consultant.

THE FIRST RESULT: A REJECTION FROM COLUMBIA WITHOUT AN INTERVIEW

“My husband and friend said your passion isn’t coming across. So the essays aren’t doing the job they should be doing. I threw that out and spoke from the heart. I am a vegetarian for enviornmental reasons and what I want to do is bridge the gap between social enterprise and for-profit in that space. I really want to use the MBA to work for an organization that develops and promotes sustainable and healthy food. I don’t think we are going to see a real step-change in society until the for-profit sector gets involved in this.”

If anything, the two organizations she would most want to work for are hardly in the mainstream of MBA recruiters. They are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, early stage companies based in California that make plant-based meat. “I’ve had tons of opportunities at Walmart, but the reason I wanted to leave is I don’t feel the work I do is aligned to what I most care about. I want to do the MBA to be more true to myself. After I got that feedback, it was like a light bulb went off. It was a huge risk, and I hoped it would resonate.”

She methodically completed her round two applications, making sure that every question–whether in the app itself or an essay–contributed something new and valuable about her. Fournier also made sure that any bragging wasn’t done by her but by her recommenders whose memories she refreshed with projects she had done for them. Fournier made sure that no point or fact was made twice. That would only waste space and opportunity.

  • 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.