Harvard’s ‘570 GMAT’ MBA Student

Evan Forster.F2Evan Forster of Forster-Thomas Inc.

“The vast majority of successful HBS candidacies are well-balanced: high GMAT and GPA, strong professional track record, demonstrated leadership (often through extracurriculars), and a high degree of insight and self-awareness as illustrated in essays and recommendations.

Sometimes, however, a candidate comes along whose qualities in one area are so strong that he or she can overcome weaknesses in others. And with Harvard Business School, the one attribute with the ability to trump all others is transformational leadership. I’ve seen this firsthand with my own candidates—people who do amazing things with limited resources (no matter their stats) are more appealing than someone with all the right stats but who has never colored outside the box, taken a risk, or transformed his environment in some way.

“Still, to get accepted to HBS with a 570 GMAT probably required other mitigating factors as well. For example, he probably comes from a relatively unique background—whether it’s an underrepresented group, far-flung geography, or low socioeconomic status that limited his resources and world-view that he overcame regardless. Why do I feel that “570” (as I’ll nickname him) came from such a background? It’s because I expect he defied the Admissions Board’s expectations for someone with his profile. For example, Mark Zuckerberg could probably get into HBS fairly easily—but probably not with a 570 GMAT. I would expect Mark Z to score very well on this test, and if he didn’t, I would assume he is not taking his application very seriously. That would kill it for me. After all, Mark Z got into Harvard College (must be a good test taker), is a computer science prodigy (so must be good at math), and is an excellent communicator. There is no reason for him to bomb the GMAT unless he waltzed into the exam with no prep. That means he may not show up for class even if I offer him a spot.

“On the other hand, “570” probably did not go to a prestigious school. He may even have gone to community college for a couple of years and transferred into a state university. He graduated with a 3.2 GPA—no failing grades, but not necessarily distinguishing himself, either. He took no quantitative coursework to prepare the way for doing well on the advanced quant section of the GMAT.

“However, “570” did something truly incredible—despite coming from an underprivileged background, where he was likely told “you can’t do that” his whole life. Perhaps he led his state university in a years-long divestiture process from Big Oil. Or he united the migrant workers of Alabama to fight the new anti-immigrant policies of that state. He accomplished something that others have been failing at for years, and he did it despite having no resources, no connections, no pedigree—just incredible persuasive skills, innate leadership and management abilities, and a self-belief that transcended his background.”

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com

Linda Abraham of Accepted.com

“I would guess that this person applied with a very impressive academic record, probably from an Ivy League, public Ivy, or prestigious university either in the U.S. or abroad and pursued a demanding program. Perhaps this individual also had a low SAT and succeeded as an undergrad in a way that far surpassed what the SAT predicted. Maybe this student took the GMAT at least twice and possibly three times and just couldn’t raise it. Regardless, somehow, some way this student showed she had the intellectual horsepower to excel at HBS.  Recommendations, perhaps from alumni, must have been superlative — from people who knew the applicant well and provided meaty examples of her impressive abilities. Finally, the student had to have shown exceptional leadership abilities – perhaps in the military – perhaps off and on the job. That habit of leadership that HBS likes to talk about—it had to be there. I suspect that this person did not come from the common feeder industries like management consulting and investment banking, but I woudn’t rule that out. Whatever her work experience, she would have had an unusual level of impact and contribution – whether in the STEM fields, the arts, or IB and consulting

“Or two, it is more likely that this individual came from a background that does not send many students to HBS. Maybe an African tribal prince who excelled at a leading international university. Maybe an under-represented minority challenged by poverty…or, a first-generation immigrant from a poor neighborhood, or someone from a country that is underrepresented at HBS. While women are still not at parity, they are getting closer and I’m not sure that gender would be as important as the elements in #1.  However I think the key differentiating factors would be unusual leadership and impact combined with stellar evidence of intellect in some way other than the GMAT.”

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