- 740 GMAT
- 3.9 GPA
- Undergraduate degree in accounting from a competitive private school
- Survived cancer during freshman year of college and have been actively involved in pediatric cancer advocacy ever since
- Work experience includes one and one-half years at a major consulting firm (LEK/Monitor) and two years at a well-known, mid-market private equity shop in Boston
- Extracurricular involvement in significant leadership positions during a two-year service mission for his church in Northern California; also founded and directed a tutoring program to help inmates earn GED diplomas; Eagle Scout, president of alumni chapter and volunteer in pediatric cancer unit of children’s hospital
- Goals: To get back into private equity PE and help grow medium-sized businesses
- “Not to be cynical, but how do I leverage my cancer story to my advantage? Have you seen this done successfully before? What makes the white male consultant/PE guy stand out in a crowded field of so many with a similar profile?”
- 27-year-old, married white male
Odds of Success:
Harvard: 30% to 45%
Stanford: 15% to 20%
Wharton: 40% to 50%
MIT: 40% to 50%
Sandy’s Analysis: Guys like you get into Harvard Business School without cancer stories. You got a solid record and scores and LEK/Monitor class employment is good starter situation. I assume your current PE shop is also good feeder firm. You are an interesting contrast to the guy above you, and you are how peeps with accounting degrees get into HBS. Somehow you wound up at LEK/Monitor, and he wound up in the Big 4. That could be the critical difference.
As to your questions, surviving cancer is not as big a plus as you might think (what else were you supposed to do?) What really matters is what you did afterwards by becoming a cancer advocate. That does register as an excellent extra, since it impacts people beyond yourself and you seem to have taken a leadership role. HBS also likes helping prison inmates–your other strong extra–some of whom might have been HBS grads unbeknownst to you. There are certainly enough HBS cons and ex-cons around, not to mention a very large group of HBS grads who would be in jail if that were determined by general election and not judges. But I am getting light headed.
You got a real strong story in toto. As to your questions, how to spin the cancer issue? You can use your cancer story as a setback you overcame. HBS sees lots of essays like that, some better than others, depending on the core facts and on what you draw out of the experience. And you can use your volunteer work with cancer patients as an accomplishment, or you can combine both into the last 400-word essay, sort of I WISH YOU ASKED ME ABOUT MY CANCER AND WHAT FOLLOWED. So you can play it lots of different ways.
Sometimes ”big” personal stories like cancer, losing buddies in war (by military guys), suicide of friends or parents, and AIDS, really register hard and sometimes those stories don’t, and are treated respectfully but not really as a super value add. It is a real interesting phenomenon, and it depends on your execution of the story itself and your take away, as well as how it synchs up with everything else in your app. I think you will score a hit with your work with pediatric cancer patients because it links up with the entire service theme in your story.
You’re a guy with real good GPA/GMAT stats who has lots of extras, especially for a guy in consulting/PE, where current extras are often thin. HBS takes guys like you all the time, and also dings them if 1. You get unlucky, 2. Someone thinks you are trying too hard, despite all the do-gooder stuff. Asking the very questions you asked could be a hint of that possibly happening, although I appreciate your honesty and the occasion to opine on how to game this — adcoms smelling that same wind may declare foul. That is what you got to watch out for.
As noted many times (something I seem to be saying many times) getting into HBS is more about FITTING IN rather than STANDING OUT. You got great grades and GMAT, you work for solid firms, you got solid extras—that is fitting in. You don’t need cancer, although sure, you had it, so live it up.
Just don’t let it kill your app. That would be one way cancer would get the last laugh.