Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds: Mr. Yes Minister?

Mr. Ivy League Sergeant

  • 730 GMAT
  • 2.4 GPA
  • College dropout
  • 3.6 GPA
  • Undergraduate degree in economics from an Ivy League school
  • Work experience includes six years, including two combat deployments, in the U.S. military; rose to sergeant and a sniper who commanded 12- to 15-person teams; then a return to college and currently in his second year of consulting on social sector and finance sector projects at a second-tier firm (think Oliver Wyman/LEK Consulting)
  • Extracurricular involvement includes two to three hours a week as a volunteer helping military candidates apply to college; spent a summer after graduation working with children at a nonprofit in India
  • “I’d like some insight into where I stand given my poor GPA and my military background”
  • Goal: To transition into or to start a non-profit consulting firm
  • 29-year-old white male

Odds of Success:

Harvard: 30% to 40%
Columbia: 40%
Wharton: 40%
Northwestern: 40%+
Chicago: 40%+

Sandy’s Analysis: You are more solid than you think, unless you are being a bit humble here.

The note you wrote us is terse, thorough and artful. You’ve got the goods. I like you. Your profle is clear and short, and it has all the information you need, plus a little color. In case other people are wondering what it takes to get reviewed here, it takes that.

You seem worried about that low GPA before you dropped out and your military background. I wouldn’t worry about that. The poor GPA was a long time ago, eight years ago in fact, and it has been erased by the 3.6 in your second college and the 730 GMAT. The first target you hit was the 3.6 at an Ivy. The second target this sniper hit was a 730. I call that a bullseye.

Your military background, meantime, is not a complication in your background. It is a well established channel to an elite business school. What makes this a bit different is that you are not applying from the military but from a consulting firm. It’s a perfect post-military gig. Frankly, I think that makes you a stronger candidate, especially because you got into an Ivy League school after the military and walked out with a 3.6 on your transcript.

What makes you a more interesting candidate is that you went to college, dropped out, enlisted in the military where you spent six years, became a sergeant and a sniper and a leader, then returned not to any college but an Ivy League university before landing a solid job at a consulting firm.

Your career goal is a little too cute by half. You do have a track record there, but your goal in the larger sense is consulting. That’s what you have been doing the past two years. That is what business schools like. You will get a consulting job. You are the meat and potatoes of a consulting firm. Guys like you are the backbone of the consulting industry in the U.S.

If I was an admissions officer, I’m going to take the 730 and the six-year miliary career. What does it take to become a sergeant? You enlisted as a grunt and got promoted to sergeant. I don’t see that very often in military candidates. Most of my military applicants are ROTC. I see that as an advantage.

For Harvard, it’s the same song and dance. HBS is often easier than Wharton or Columbia because Harvard is more likely to forgive your earlier lower GPA. If you get your story right, you look really good at Harvard but you need one other thing: A good recommendation. You should get a rec from one of your consultng bosses.

When it comes to a second recommendation, the question is who will add more value? Don’t ask a professor to write a rec for you. They aren’t going to say much more than you were a good student. And in your case, you don’t want a rec from someone at the nonprofit you’re helping out because you’re a grunt there, not a leader.

If you have worked closely with a client, a strong rec from a client can be very powerful.

Sometimes a second rec from your employer can do the trick, especially if one reinforces the other and still adds a positive and valuable story about you. In this case, you would get one rec from your direct supervisor and another from his or her supervisor. That can be a powerful combination for a candidate.That’s true at the other schools you are targeting for your MBA.

It looks like you picked your shots. Ivy League sergeant you are locked and loaded. Just pull the trigger.