A Harvard MBA’s View Of Those Dings


I recently read John Byrne’s article, citing the expertise of one Sandy Kreisberg, about why three impressive-seeming applicants did not gain admission to Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, or both. As a recent HBS grad, Class of 2013, I frequently help friends and acquaintances frame their applications to business school.

When I see the online forums where people list all of their stats and ask, “What are my chances?” I generally chuckle, because surely no one actually thinks that gaining admission to HBS – or any prestigious institution, for that matter – is simply a matter of mixing up the right cocktail of GMAT, GPA and resume power. I feel compelled to add my two cents here, because I believe this will be helpful to many would-be applicants who are uncertain of their chances or feeling upset about a recent rejection.

In my opinion, here is why these three applicants got “dinged.”

dream man‘SAM’

Let’s take a look at applicant #1. I’ll call this person Sam. Sam has a 740 GMAT, 7.45 GPA from UPenn (Finance), five years of work experience in consulting and investment banking, and some nice extra-curriculars. Sandy asserts that Sam’s rejection was “no surprise” because “college is destiny,” basically saying that since Sam didn’t go to a prestigious-enough undergrad, he was doomed for life and couldn’t get into HBS.

Well, I went to Tufts undergrad – which is not in the “Ivy League,” while UPenn is – and it did not destroy my destiny. I had classmates at HBS who had worked at L.E.K. Consulting and Barclays, so prestige isn’t the issue here. No, the issue, at least as the facts are presented, is that I have no idea why Sam wants to go to business school – and I’m sure the admissions committee didn’t either. My impression from this “profile” is that Sam is just like hundreds of other applicants who just “check the box” in consulting and banking and expect that they can follow that with business school, followed by a high-paying job at a hedge fund or venture capital or private equity shop, because it’s somehow their right. You are L.M.O. – like many others. You haven’t given me a unique narrative to tell me why you want to go to business school, what you will contribute to the classroom, how you will use the MBA to lead and make a difference in the world. That’s why you didn’t get in.

Woman Drinking Coffee‘ROSIE’

The second applicant, a woman I’ll call Rosie, really rubbed me the wrong way when she responded to her rejection by saying, “I’ve noticed GSB has an awful track record for women in tech matriculating.” Right there, that’s why you didn’t get in. You have just demonstrated that you deal with setbacks by being defeatist and blaming everyone but yourself. I’m sure this came through in your essays, and if not, it probably came through in your interview. A bit about this profile: 760 GMAT, 3.5 GPA from a “Baby Ivy” (Bio & English), five years of tech start-up experience, wants to run an international startup accelerator.

Sandy’s assessment that grades are the issue is, in my opinion, incorrect, along with the assertion that “any moron can do [a start-up].” Rosie’s grades are fine. Besides, I believe that B-school admissions committees place much more weight on your work experience than your GPA. Why? Because they want to admit people who can take the education and go make a difference in the world. Your work experience is much better proof of your ability to do this than your GPA from 3-6 years ago. As an applicant, that might be scary since GPAs are easy to compare and experience is not. But it’s also liberating, because if you can tell your story well and make a case for why YOU deserve to be admitted, a slightly lower GPA need not hold you back. And the assertion that any moron can do a start-up? Maybe that’s true, but considering the alleged recognition Rosie got, I don’t think that’s the issue. It’s an attitude/entitlement issue.

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