Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds

Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds: Sandy Kreisberg (left) and John A. Byrne

For the past four years, this 27-year-old young professional from Zimbabwe has worked for PwC, first in his home country and now in New York. Though he has a solid 720 GMAT score, he has a subpar grade point average and an undergraduate degree earned online. Yet, his target schools include Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia.

An Ivy school grad, he is a super performer at a large commercial bank, having racked up three promotions in just two years. With a 780 GMAT score, he hopes to get an MBA to make a triple jump, changing industry, function and location to work in corporate strategy.

They’re a married couple, both born in India, who want to apply to elite MBA programs together. He’s a 29-year-old technical engineer with a 760 GMAT who works for an oil and gas company. She’s a 29-year-old computer engineer at a global info tech firm who expects to get a 740+ score on the GMAT. He wants the MBA to do consulting in the energy sector; she wants the degree to lead product development at either Google or Apple.

This 24-year-old Russian woman works for a top-tier consulting firm in Dubai that has taken her to assignments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Moscow, and Kazakhstan. She boasts a degree in international business from one of Russia’s top universities as well as a master’s in management from HEC Paris but now wants an MBA to enhance her career prospects.

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

What these five MBA candidates share in common is the desire to get through the door of a highly selective MBA program at one of the world’s very best business schools. Do they have a chance?

Sanford “Sandy” Kreisberg, founder of MBA admissions consulting firm HBSGuru.com, is back 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.)


  • 720 GMAT
  • Low GPA (Not disclosed)
  • Undergraduate degree in accounting from a “renown South African long distance learning institution”
  • Low undergraduate grades a result of a 10-year bout of depression that began in high school
  • Work experience includes two years with PwC in New York after starting his PwC career in Zimbabwe where he had worked for two years; also worked for a nonprofit startup focused on HIV-AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • A Certified Public Accountant who passed all his CPA exams within six months
  • Extracurricular involvement as the founder of a foundation that he has financed with his own savings to pay for the education of children in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya; boasts extensive volunteer experience with low-income families and the homeless in New York City
  • Submitted an optional essay detailing his severe depression
  • 27-year-old from Zimbabwe

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 35% to 40%
Stanford: 30%
Wharton: 30% to 40%
Columbia: 30% to 40%

Sandy’s Analysis: The top line question that is raised with your profile is can you get into Stanford GSB with a low GPA and an online college degree from South Africa. Those are unusual hurdles that would normally make Stanford an impossibility for an MBA applicant.

But let’s deal first with what is not unusual about your profile. PwC is a great place to work for a guy like you. If you are an international student working for PwC is a big deal. If you had gone to an Ivy League university in America, it’s much more selective to get a job at one of the big global consulting firms such as McKinsey, Bain and BCG and less selective at a Big Four accounting firm. Those are considered less prestigious.

But for you, PwC is an anchor. Business school admissions people understand that for people like you PwC is hard to get into and the fact that you have been there for four years in two locations and can hack it. That means you can get dressed every morning, go to work, do his work, get along with superiors and clients, and that is really important for a business school. And they wouldn’t know that if you presented that you only worked for a startup.

The other anchor is the 720 GMAT score which is very powerful. The fact that you are from Zimbabwe and want to go to Stanford is also a big deal because Stanford is crazy about Africa. They are focused on it and have a real trope toward Africa in admissions and cooperative programs. And you have a tremendous do-gooder record which is just what Stanford wants to hear.

So the question becomes, ‘Will Stanford blink at your online degree?’ Maybe. ‘Will they blink at the bad performance in your online education due to what you say is your bout with depression?’ They may. But here’s another piece of my tough love. Telling business schools you have a history of depression is not a good idea. They are not likely to blink at it. You would be better off saying you overcame addiction. They believe overcoming addiction is something that is not going to return and depression might. I don’t know what the actual numbers are but that is their mindset. Would they ever admit that? Of course not. They may not even admit that to themselves and they are not going to tell you.

You say you submitted an optional essay detailing how you struggled with severe depressionfor ten years and that is what impacted your GPA. My advice to you is that I would say that what impacted your GPA was overcoming a lot of adversity and I would make the mental health issue more related to a family dymanics issue. I would normalize it that way. You are a likeable guy, however, and they may be able to wink at that.

Your choice of schools is very interesting. You have a wild card chance at Stanford if you can execute perfectly and if they believe you are going to be an impactful leader in Africa based on your track record, your work at PwC, and the 720. You could actually be the first candidate ever to get into Stanford GSB with an online degree. The essay, ‘What Matters To You Most,’ is critical.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you execute your applications in a perfect way. Just the way you fill out the application, what your recommenders say, what you convey in your essays, and how you comply with the formal requirements of applying are big issues here. You have to make that really solid and really professional, much more so than most applicants. There are a lot of questions about your profile and they want assurance. They will willing to meet you half way, but you have to meet them half way as well and present in the most professional way possible.

Columbia and Wharton don’t want to buy into low stats. They make exceptions but whether they make exceptions for you, I doubt. So oddly, your chances at Wharton and Columbia are no better than they are at Harvard. Let us know what happens to you.