Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds: Ms. Fortune 100, Mr. Military, Mr. Pawn Shop, Ms. Private Equity, Mr. Boutique M&A

Black man

Mr. Pawn Shop


  • 740 GMAT (49Q 40V)
  • 3.1 GPA
  • Undergraduate major is math at a small liberal arts college
  • Work experience include two and one-half years while in college — started and ran a pawn shop-related business that generated $600,000 in revenue annually
  • “I took a break from school to focus on it, partnering with two other guys who were in similar businesses and grew it to 15+ employees, 5 locations and $2M+ annual revenue. I resumed college a year ago and I am on pace to graduate this May. I plan to sell my business in the summer and apply to business school during the fall”
  • Extracurricular involvement as a board member for a black student organization, math tutor, and sophomore class president during my first years of college.
  • Fluent in two languages
  • Goal: To grow my knowledge in business and transition into a job at a top consulting firm
  • 23-year-old, first-generation African American male from a low income inner city family (both parents are immigrants from Africa and work as janitors)

Odds of Success:

Columbia: 30% to 35%

Berkeley: 40%

Harvard: 20% to 25%

Wharton: 30%

Stanford: 15%

Sandy’s Analysis: Friend, unlike many people who write in claiming to have unique stories, this story actually is unusual. How adcoms will put all this together is unclear and you may get divergent replies. So apply to H-S-W and Columbia and Berk. You may get into all five of those places or just one, but I think you will get into one with serviceable execution.

The beauty of your 740 GMAT is that if any adcom wants to take you, they are not totally going out on a limb.

What you don’t have is any normal feeder job, or even anything close. You did start a business, in what seems like a tough and deeply old-school line of work, pawn shops, and grow it. So even an  adcom can probably see the spark  in that. In some ways, you are lucky that your business was not a hi-tech startup because then those same adcoms might be asking, with some logic, “Huh, why are you coming to B-school? This seems like a trophy lap.”

In your case, that argument has less force because the whole world of “traditional”  business is still ahead of you.

That gives credit to the normal blah, blah company founders  usually say about why they are applying to B school and  getting  an MBA. In your case it  is actually a bit true. Building up a successful pawn shop, it can be argued, has not prepared you for most other impactful, executive jobs–even starting up another company.

And while your stated goal, “to become a consultant,” would be considered a bit odd for a guy who had started a tech company (those guys dream of being VCs), it somehow aligns with your story. Also, given your background, most consulting firms would wink at the fact you will be applying without any post-college internships.

All you need to do is get a consulting gig your summer after first-year and that will be experience enough, and also answer the lurking question about you, to wit, “Sure, this guy can start a pawn shop. Hey, that’s easy. But can he show up at our b-o-r-i-n-g consulting firm with a suit and tie everyday this summer and sit still and summarize documents and be bored out of his mind and keep smiling?”

Friend, that is actually an open question, and that is a question which a high GPA answers in part and a high GMAT does not answer as much. Soooooo, present yourself to business schools as someone who can sit still, eat crap,  and spit it back.

That is ALWAYS one of the tacit admission requirements for any B-school, and in your case, it is a question that your otherwise rare and truly wonderful story does not answer.

I don’t think you are getting into Stanford. That school is too humorless and hypocritical to acknowledge your true worth, despite you being everything they allegedly go for.  Just a hunch. On the other hand, I can also see you on their website, “We took a  guy with 3.1 GPA who only worked in a pawn shop . . .” The fact that Stanford is “open to anyone” is one of their founding myths, so to the extent they can spin you that way, that might be your ticket.

HBS has enough room to go for this, after they sniff you out at an interview as being a legit version of whatever you are.  Well, I hope they interview you. If so, that will be more important for you than most people.  They will actually you why you want to go to B school, etc. and you better be able to pass for URM and not some oddball one-off.

(The Stanford interview, if it happens, will not be that important. A good many under-employed Stanford alum interviewers might actually be interested in your  pawn shop expertise and might come with some items for you to estimate. That will not be a test of your pawn shop expertise, that will be a test of how long they can hold out without getting another job.)

Wharton sort of dreams of being a school which attracts applicants like you — and may go for the 49Q and the very reportable 740. On the other hand, Wharton is not known for actualizing their adcom dreams in the form of admits. Versus, ahem, well, dreaming about them.

Columbia may not get this or really care about genuinely interesting stories with unlimited potential, so it might be some version of, “Hey, sorry, whatever this is, we don’t get it. We’re not really  from New York City, we just work there, alas, and live in the burbs and want to get home ASAP and this might make us miss the 3:40.”

Anyway, I’d be real interested to see how this plays out. Just execute in some clear and serviceable way. Do the usual blah, blah about low grades and say that you are now ready to focus on grades and ready to suck it all up.

If you sell the business this summer and then apply for admission in September of 2017, hmmmmm, you could do yourself a real favor by developing an alternative transcript, taking MOOC courses or Harvard’s online series of fundamental business courses called CORe. Seriously, that might actually impress the adcoms and also  convince you if you need B-school or not.

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