Have you ever heard of the term “double admits”? That’s what we in the MBA admissions industry call those singular applicants who receive admissions offers from both Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business. We’ve worked with many applicants this admissions season who achieved this impressive feat—some with scholarships to boot. Here we analyze eight cases—and we have eight specific takeaways to share.
Though not as rare as actual unicorns, these exceptional candidates and their unique admissions stories can offer some very clear lessons for prospective MBA applicants feeling daunted by the sterling reputations and competitive stats of these two elite business schools.
Lesson 1: You don’t need an undergraduate degree from an elite college, or come from a typical MBA-oriented firm or industry. None of the double admits we worked with graduated from an elite or Ivy League university. In fact, all of the U.S. students in this group came from schools ranked between 20-50. Only one of the admits came from a firm known as a heavy feeder and recruiter for elite MBA programs. None of the others even had MBA graduates as supervisors. Their backgrounds included education, family business, military, energy, and Fortune 500.
Lesson 2: GPA, test scores and demographics are not predictive of success. Our gang of eight included four U.S. citizens and 4 international applicants. Most were male, and only one is an under-represented minority. Both GRE and GMAT takers were represented. Their stats generally fell within the 80% range but were not ultimately predictive of success. Scores ranged from a low 600 GRE to a 770 GMAT, with a median score of 710. Over the years, we’ve seen numerous double admits offset a low-ish GMAT or GRE score with a proven track record in a quantitative job and compelling leadership activities.
Lesson 3: You don’t need to have saved the world. Every double admit had modest extracurriculars, such as professional organization membership, music, sports, one-on-one mentoring, and basic volunteering. Your extracurricular activities should resonate with you, and any meaningful involvement can give you the opportunity to exercise leadership and management skills in a low-risk, high-impact situation.
Lesson 4: Age is just a number. We found that age skewed somewhat older in this year’s group of double admits, who had between four and seven years of post-college work experience. One successful candidate was over 30. Five and a half years was the average work tenure upon applying. We regularly assure both older and younger applicants that it’s not about chronological age. It’s more about maturity, readiness, and where you are in your career.
Lesson 5: All applicants demonstrated true character and a desire plus a track record of helping others. When discussing their careers, each of these applicants veered away from sharing the typical workplace accomplishment stories and instead wove in anecdotes about helping others—mentoring, giving, or assisting in some way. This focus also informed future career and personal aspirations.
Lesson 6: They shared distinctive, personal stories and attainable goals. While their resumes may have said “5 years at Citibank,” their essays spoke much more personally, bringing their true natures and trajectories to life. They told micro-stories that filled in the blanks. Omitting generic themes like coding or crunching numbers, these applicants showed humanity, showcased what drives them toward future careers, and explained why they made certain decisions. Their stories told the “why” behind their prior actions but also developed an understanding of career aspirations. Goals made sense and appeared attainable given prior experiences and the track record of consistent actions they had taken.
Lesson 7: They painted a “Big Picture” focus beyond just landing a job. None of these admits described their current careers or future aspirations in terms of a specific job. It was much more meaningful than that. They felt driven to make an impact on people and on their industries. They wanted to shift mindsets, behaviors, and ultimately change the world. Think big picture themes like globalizing the reach of an industry, providing life changing assistance to others, or easing political tensions.
Lesson 8: They were self-aware and likable, confident but also self-deprecating. No business school wants to admit even the most accomplished jerk. While these applicants struck us as self-assured, they also came off as likable, realistic about their shortcomings, and open about their need to try harder to compensate for various weaknesses. The members of this group were people with whom you would want to work on a group project, organize a conference, or study for exams. In short, they are real people with both flaws and strengths, going to b-school in order to get better and achieve more.
While Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB are famously difficult to get into, don’t let fear or low acceptance rates keep you from applying. There is no magic formula that guarantees admissions success, but as these eight applicants demonstrate, personality, passion, and a sincere desire to make the world a better place can help tip the odds in your favor.
Stacy Blackman is the founder and CEO of Stacy Blackman Consulting, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. An MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, she founded her firm in 2001 and has helped thousands of MBA applicants gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world.