Handicapping Your MBA Odds: Mr. Dance Marathon

PrintMs. Ideal Stanford Essay Writer

  • 720 GMAT
  • 3.8 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in economics and philosophy from a top liberal arts school (think Amherst, Williams, Pomona)
  • Work experience includes two years at a bulge bracket investment bank in New York (think Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan); about to start work for a private equity firm on the West Coast focused on technology
  • Extracurricular involvement includes four years as president of a Muslim student group, four years on rowing club crew; four years on student senate; research assistant in the political science department; working with autistic children as a volunteer (autism has been integral in my life since my brother was diagnosed 10 years ago)
  • Long-term goal: Move into leadership at current private equity firm (think Sequoia, Silver Lake, etc.)
  • “Do you think I should retake GMAT to get 750+? I took the test in my senior year without much preparation, so I think I can raise it 30-40 points with studying”
  • 23-year-old female

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 50%+
Stanford: 40% (if you can execute as per below, higher)
Wharton: 50%+
Dartmouth: 50%+
Northwestern: 50%+
Chicago: 50%+

Sandy’s Analysis: Kids like you get admitted to and dinged at HBS and Stanford depending on execution, recommendations, the right touch at Stanford, not screwing up the HBS interview, and luck. You should get in to Wharton, Tuck, Kellogg and Booth if you can convince them you want to come.

This is strong across the board: A 3.8 at Williams-type college, 720 GMAT, Bulge Bracket  blah, blah followed by technology  PE and what seems like lots of extras. It also appears you are a Muslim woman, with extras to support it (president of the club), and have real commitment to autism via the fact that your brother was diagnosed with the condition 10 years ago and “4 years working with Autistic children after school in the local area.”

Let’s talk about Stanford, since you are a good test case for what they are looking for.

First, you might get into Stanford on your profile alone, and be one of the many people Bolton says gets in despite their essays. This is true: MANY people do get into Stanford based on prestige jobs with feeder firms (especially ultra-PE firms like TPG, KKR, Blackstone), and a good deal of getting a free pass, as it were, into Stanford will depend on if your PE firm is on their secret list. I am not sure of the number of Muslim female applicants to Stanford from TPG, KKR, Blackstone in recorded history, but it would not surprise me if the admit rate of that cohort is over 75%. It would not surprise me, in fact, if the admit rate for that cohort were over 90%. Well, that is just FYI for our readers. You said you were going to a West Coast ‘tech’ PE firm, so you may have to work this a bit but you have a lot to work with.

In fact, your basic facts, could provide a useful template for a Platonic Stanford essay, although I realize what I am about to say may not be true in your case, I am just using the big pieces of your story to demonstrate what Stanford really looks for in their “What Matters Most” essay, although they would deny it 1000 times.

What really pays off on the main Stanford essay is life stories about difference, victimization, struggle, compassion, and having IMPACT based on that. In your case, that could mean stressing stories about being a female, a Muslim, a caretaker for an autistic brother and a teacher of other autistic children. I don’t mean to be glib about these important issues. I am just trying to illustrate, below, what Stanford is looking for in that essay because it is unclear on their website and by the preachy and sanctimonious and unhelpful so-called help offered by the director of admissions.

What they are looking for, from you and everyone else, is a story that talks about  the central “identity politic” facts of your life (class, race, gender, religion,  disability, etc.)  and presents them in a way that is humble, concise, and full of lessons and impact. Not everyone can do that, but you have the basic building blocks.

I am not suggesting you do this, but on your facts, the below would be a great Stanford essay: You need to connect the key elements of autism  (especially how it impacts your brother and particularly autism’s social isolation, misinterpreted  communication cues, and restricted behavior patterns) to triggers in YOUR awareness and experiences of how prejudice works in general. It is clearly apparent and well known  that autism is a trigger for prejudice/ostracism against the victim of autism–but the Stanford leap is to connect this to your own awareness that that is how prejudice works in your own experiences,  as a woman, Muslim, etc. and connect that awareness  to your ability to help the  other autism kids you work with (impact!).

Thus, What matters to me is learning from autism, learning both how it affected my brother,  and how helping my brother allowed me to confront certain hard truths about myself– and how those lessons allowed me to impact others afflicted with the disorder.

A great Stanford essay does not need to annonce its ‘answer’ in the first sentence, but on these facts it could. And let me assure you, as someone who has read thousands of these essays, the above is a real solid start, and you would have my attention. A great essay would then execute on these next three parts.

Part One: Autism is exhausting (tell personal stories and background). Over the years I was a caretaker for my brother, I noticed how the disease cruelly separated him from society and how others, even people who were well meaning,  walked on eggshells when near him. (Give some  examples).

Part Two: One of the more surprising lessons, however, was how being immersed in my brother’s  world  of isolation and estrangement made me sensitive to the more subtle ways I was being treated as “the other” by the fact of my being a Muslim woman in a male high-powered finance environment. Give examples. How certain remarks, glances, even attempts to help were triggers for what you had seen working with your brother. This section could also include examples of any prejudice you have ever felt, as a woman, an outsider, and an advocate.

Part Three: The real challenge for me moving forward is to integrate these lessons to be a more impactful guide and mentor to the autistic victims I work with as part of the X Organization. Say how some of your kids exhibit conducts 1, 2, and 3, and how you are better able to understand them from contemplating the ways people were treating both you and your brother. That struggle has made you a more competent mentor to the kids you work with, you understand them more and you have a deeper understanding of yourself, of your own limits, the ways you have grown, your ability to help others.

This template has a million variants but you get the idea.That is what Stanford is looking for– a story based on your personal identity politics leading to awareness which is then put to good use.

If you are reading this and saying, “Well, thanks for nothing Sandy, I don’t have too many stories like that because I am not a Muslim woman with an autistic brother . . .” Well, fair enough, but it is possible to get into Stanford without stories like that, but that is the ideal. Just so you know. I’ve worked with white, Jewish guys from Long Island (like me!) who have been admitted to Stanford and do not have stories like that. But they were able to inhabit that mindset of personal growth and awareness, social concern, and actually getting some good things accomplished.  They did not talk about how big the deals were that they worked on and how hard they worked on them.

If you are saying, “Hey Sandy, you have no idea what you are talking about . . .I’ve got friends at Stanford who did nothing of the kind . . .” Well, that may be true, but your friends could 1. Be the large number of BFFs (Best Friends of Bolton) who get admitted despite their essays, 2. could be borderline cases who do not write great essays but capture just enough identidy politics mojo to get in (that happens a lot).

For HBS, you could tell a similar story, interspersed with some work BS, and say how those experiences led to your interest in the same goal blah, blah you cooked up for Stanford’s other essay. That could be their one essay in about 1000 words. As to retaking the GMAT with a 720, probably not. But I do want to tack on here a Q and A from last week, which is important reading because GMAT scores are rising, many schools are under tacit orders to get them up to boost rankings, and most adcoms LIE about this:

Question: Does a 710 GMAT warrant a retake for schools like Kellogg, Tuck, etc? It is above a 700, but a hair below average, kind of in the twilight zone of scores. I have been told it is not worth retaking unless I can get a 740– is that true?

No one knows, not even adcoms (who lie about it anyway). This is a developing and depressing story with no end in sight. I would retake a 710 if Q was low (below 70%) and you did not have a quant background. I would also retake the test if the rest of your application was similarly marginal, AND I thought I could do better. The difference between a 710 and a 730 could be life or death in close cases. No one likes to make decisions, and given two nearly identical kids, who would you take? Both Kellogg and Tuck are less obsessed about GMAT scores than Wharton, MIT, Columbia, and Stanford. Still, as they say, rich or poor it is best to marry someone with money.