An Uncommon Journey To HBS

Iconic Baker Library on the Harvard Business School campus


The first result: A quick rejection without an interview from Columbia Business SchooL–and then dings from Wharton and Yale. But then Fournier was surprised when invites arrived for interviews at Harvard, Stanford, Booth and Kellogg. She had already done a voluntary interview at Tuck. “It was obviously not becuase of my stats. It was because of my essays, work experience and the recommendation letters.”

She had four interviews to prep for in six weeks. They all seemed to go well with one exception: Stanford. “It was really bizarre and I immediately thought I would get a ding.When I got there, all he said was, ‘We are going to talk a little about you and your experience and what you’ve done.’ And then he said, ‘Okay, go ahead.’ I just talked for 45 minutes, and he never asked any questions. He was very friendly and I think it went okay but there was no structure to it and I felt I was rambling.”

In contrast, the Harvard interview was altogether different, though even more daunting because the school was her first choice. Instead of being done by an alum or a second-year student, as was the case at Stanford, Booth and Kellogg, the interview would be conducted by an admissions officer with full access to her entire admissions file. “I have heard good feedback and horrible feedback from those who have been interviewed by HBS,” she says. “The interview can make or break you, and I was really nervous about it.”


She flew to Boston in early March, met her husband there for the weekend, and then walked into the interview on campus with Eileen Chang, who has been in HBS admissions for many years as associate director, and a scribe. “We spent half an hour, with 25 minutes devoted to Walmart’s position in the market. They wanted to see how I think critically and approach problems. She asked what do you think Walmart’s weaknesses are in the market. What have you learned the most from leadership there and if you were at the top what would you do differently. All this was my bread and butter. I thought she would ease me into it and later ask tough personal questions, but we kept talking about Walmart and about things I think about all day long. We spent the last five minutes talking about my post-MBA goals and then it was over.”

Though Chang wore her poker face to the interview, the scribe gave her some positive feedback on the way out. “She asked me, ‘Why do you think Whole Foods sales are not growing?’ I gave a quick answer and then I remember her saying, ‘Wow it was such a pleasure meeting you. What an amazing conversation. Thank you for coming in.’”

Fournier was relieved and elated. “I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the perfct test of how I would react in a case environment,” she says. “They got a real good view of how I would contribute in class in a case discussion.”

Little more than two weeks later, on March 22th, she found out how well it really went. Harvard had accepted her.


Her advice and the reason she agreed to share her story comes down to this: “Don’t sell yourself short,” she says. “I see a lot of people with great stats who don’t even apply to HBS and Stanford because they think those schools are way too good for them. So a lot of people count themselves out of the game before taking a chance. Those schools are building diverse classes and you don’t know what you are bringing which could be something very interesting to them. If I did it, anybody could do it.”

For anyone thinking about taking their own journey to business school, Fournier also advises that you need to get the GMAT done and over as soon as you can. “Once you have that in your back pocket, you are ready and nothing will be holding you back.”

And finally, she advises, be really smart about how you approach the application. “You have many ways of communicating information about yourself to the school. Your application can be very bland if you don’t use every tool you have to its maximum. People are attracted to that confidence and passion and the admissions committee will definitely see it.”



  • AH

    She is definitely an uncommon admit:
    700 GMAT, normally reserved for the Duke/UCLA/Virginia/Michigan tiers
    Concordia University (Not McGill or Toronto)
    3.5 GPA

    Work experience was exception – rapid promotion in corporate strategy at Walmart
    Great essays and recommendations

    I still find the HBS admission to be a surprise based on the limited info at hand.

    I had similar academic stats with a higher quant score, attended UC Berkeley, and did not get to interview at Booth and did not apply to HBS. I felt that my work exp at Wells Fargo was hampered by personal issues throughout in finance and internal audit. So it shows work experience to be really important, as she did excel at the job.

  • Orange 1

    John, what I appreciate about your comment is that ROI is not just “I earned X before business school, paid Y for the program, and after graduation am making Z so my payoff is 5.3 years”.
    How much is the network worth? Having new perspectives from the MBA program that might eventually lead to a promotion? Gaining confidence and boosting data, analytical, and communications skills can develop from coursework. These all have value but cannot be put in quantitative terms. Nobody can say “I had this great insight from a business school course that I aligned with my company’s issues and because of what I produced from these thoughts, I landed a new position at HQ”.

  • Hmm. Perhaps you’re right.

    But have we stopped to wonder if we’re “training” our students to be reliant on an education system forever? Instead of training them to be self-reliant?

    “If you are ambitious, intelligent, self-disciplined….”

    I don’t think I have any of those qualities innately. But life dealt me a shitty hand, I was forced to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial to get out of a mess.

    And I can’t help but wonder… would I have had the skills needed today if I hadn’t been forced to train myself to be “self-reliant”

  • That may well be true. But it is a relatively small percentage of people with the risk tolerance, the money, the self-discipline and the practical intelligence to take that path. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would bet it’s less than 5%, if only because that is the average percentage of MBAs who start businesses while in MBA programs. If you are ambitious, intelligent, self-disciplined and have a great idea for a business, having done a couple of small entrepreneurial things already, I would agree that is a viable option.

  • Re: As for entrepreneurs…..

    Indeed, they can learn from MBA incubators…but they will also come out in debt. UNLESS they have parents funding them – in which case, great! Good for them.

    But the average entrepreneur shouldn’t be keen to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to THEN start a business.

    Being an entrepreneur is stressful enough. We don’t need the added stress of debt looming on top of us.

  • John, I think people are asking the wrong question.

    The current comparision seems to be : ” Is doing an MBA better than staying at your current job and going through the motions?”

    The answer to that is “Of course, an MBA is better. Education is always better”

    But the question instead should be: “Is an MBA better than going out into the world, self-educating yourself and starting your own business?”

    I’d argue that a student who spent $50,000 on a a failed business (if done methodically, while learning and applying principles available on the internet) will be more valuable than a student who has spent $200,000 on a IVY League MBA with no practical experience.

    Don’t you agree?

  • JohnAByrne

    This is a great discussion and a core issue on our site. Is the MBA worth it? And all the research and all the data pretty much comes down to the conclusion that it is. People who get MBA degrees typically see their salaries rise between 80% and 150%, with the payback period on the degree of four years or less. And those numbers do not account for the vast numbers of scholarship money schools typically dole out in discounting the education for the most qualified candidates.

    It actually becomes a tougher decision for people who already make a lot of money and actually have $100,000 to spare. That’s because their pre-MBA income is at a level which makes it more difficult to get a quick ROI. If your income is well into the six-figures, an MBA isn’t likely going to make that big a short-term difference. But getting the degree is not merely about that first post-graduation job and the pay. It’s about learning business basics and frameworks that make you considerable more valuable to an organization. It’s about developing a support network of smart, ambitious people who will be among the next generation of business leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs. And it’s about your own personal development and self-confidence you will develop in a highly selective MBA program.

    As for entrepreneurs, most MBAs who use the program as an incubator have no regrets about doing so. That’s because schools have gone to great lengths to create remarkable support networks for founders of startups. They not only gain mentors, advisors, partners, customers, and investors through the experience; they gain extremely valuable knowhow that lessens the odds of failure.

  • HardDecision

    Thanks for clarifying. I understand.

    How do you know that an MBA most likely won’t be worth the money? Would you be willing to share some sort of continuum or threshold for determining if an MBA is financially worth it?

    Do most people who consider an MBA have $100,000 to spare? Just want to know how I stack up.

  • Ah – you’re completely right there. Poor choice of words from me. I should be careful with that.

    What I meant to say – unsuccessfully – was that if you are really contemplating whether an MBA degree is worth the money for you – then you’re most likely in a situation where it wont be worth the money.

    Some kids are left with trust-funds etc where they can only use that money on higher education. In those siatuations, their options are limited.

    But if you have say – $100,000 to spare, and you’re agonizing over whether you should do your MBA — then you probably shouldn’t. There are “harder” options out there that will teach you a lot more with that money.

    So yes, you’re right. “Hard” is kinda the opposite of what I should have said!

  • HardDecision

    To be clear, are you advocating for avoiding anything that requires making a “hard decision?” Is starting a business on the side an easy decision or a hard decision? Is starting and growing a business a sequence of easy decisions or hard decisions?

    I thought your case for SkipMBA was fine until you introduced this “hard decision” avoidance concept.

  • Interesting – thanks for linking these, John.

  • GirlPower

    Greatly disapprove of your use of the term “frou frou”. Comes across a little too shame-y for my liking. Not sure what’s wrong with talking about important relationships in one’s life and the impact they have on their decisions? Maybe her husband lit the spark, but clearly she had her own motivations for going as evidenced by her very unique goals.

    And you’re right – an article about a male probably wouldn’t touch on these topics so that just goes to show the significant social and emotional burdens women have to carry (i.e. planning a wedding) on top of everything else.

    Pretty sure she mentioned her friends only like one time when getting input on apps. And I believe the “boyfriend” referenced is the one who eventually became the husband…and clearly his b-school experience and the wedding were a huge part of their lives while she was also trying to apply for b-school and manage the GMAT and job.

    It seemed to me like the article was just trying to add some color to a sweet success story. So many b-school related websites reduce people to stats and resumes so I personally found it enjoyable to read about a real human being.

  • Maybe. But there are going to be a lot of young women in particular who are facing similar issues. I think it’s helpful to put this narrative into a broader perspective for that reason. Besides, it’s a story of Emilie’s journey to business school. Having to study and take a GMAT before and after one’s wedding is a big deal. Life goes on. It doesn’t stand still while you have to go through the arduous process of applying to highly selective graduate programs. Why not capture that part of the story?

  • offtojog

    I appreciate the encouragement for people with just a 700. And the lesson to not sell yourself short is a helpful one. The article could be much shorter though, cutting away the constant frou frou references to marriage and what her husband, boyfriends and friends said or did. It comes across like she chose business school just because other people (especially her spouse) told her to do it. I can’t imagine an article about a male admit focusing so much on what his significant other was up to, when he got engaged etc. Not sure if that’s just the way she expresses herself, or if that is the angle PQ decided to take.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks for weighing in with that info. Our readers will greatly appreciate it. I will, however, also refer folks to these stories which tell the more mainstream story about elite MBA admissions and particularly who gets into HBS:

    Feeder Colleges:

    Feeder Companies:

  • Nick Papagiorgio


    I agree with OP. I recently had a friend who was admitted to HBS among other top 10 programs. White male, non-elite public state school, logistics major, Fortune 10 company, 700 gmat. Seems like HBS really cares more about work experience and corporate relationships which is not surprising given the case method and employability of these graduates.

  • No, she didn’t write the headline on the story. But I would disagree with you, largely on the basis that it was not a no-brainer that Emile would have gotten the elite admits she did without overcoming a low quant score, an overall GMAT that is 30 points under the median at HBS, and having a business degree (not a STEM degree) from an institution that would not be considered elite. And I think her narrative tells you two things: 1) Columbia and Wharton were quick to ding her merely on the basis of her GMAT score. 2) She gained acceptances elsewhere because all the work and thought she put into conveying her considerable strengths effectively allowed her to overcome the weaknesses in her candidacy at schools that are less eager to play the GMAT game. Of course, she had to have something to leverage–her work experience and track record of promotions–to get an acceptance. But her work in strategy there has filled only two of her past five years. No elite business school is going to admit someone who has nothing going on.

  • Uncommon?

    Not sure if I’d call it “my uncommon journey to HBS.” Agree with the underrepresented Canadian university being something to overcome but she is in an elite corp strategy role at Walmart for last 5 years, a group which recruits heavily at HBS. 700 GMAT isn’t great but she’s in the running. This really doesn’t seem like an applicant outlier (i.e. “uncommon”) to me. She also had admits/wait-lists at a slew of top-10 programs. Congrats to her. However, this really isn’t an uncommon journey to HBS outside of the lower ranked undergrad university. The dirty truth is those admits – what I would call the true poets- are few and far between, granted HBS/GSB would have you believe otherwise. I know she didn’t pick the title of this article.