After taking the GMAT in the fall of 2016, I was unable to break the 700 mark. I put in 50 hours of studying over two months and did more than 1,000 practice problems, but I still only managed to get a 670 (46Q/36V/5W/7IR).
This score put me in the top 20% of test takers, but it also placed me in the bottom 10% for applicants interested in top-15 business schools. Frankly, a 670 was not going to help me jump off the pile. So, I decided to not put an application together that year.
I am a 26-year-old resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I loved my boss and I loved my job, so I was in no rush. I knew that the GMAT was important, and I wanted to feel like I was “leaving it all on the field.” Basically, I wanted to give myself the best possible chance of getting in to a great program, so I decided to retake the test again in early 2017, gain another year of work experience, and do some much-needed self-reflection and school research.
I proceeded to purchase The Official GMAC Guide, download The Economist App, sign up for an interactive class online with The Princeton Review, met up with a private tutor twice, and I studied for another 100 hours (for a total 150).
Three more months and an additional 2,000 practice problems later, I sat down to take the GMAT for a second time. Sadly, I only managed to improve my score by 10 points. Rather than register to take the exam for a third painful time, I made the difficult decision to settle for a 680 (47Q/36V/5W/8IR), and I turned my attention to the rest of my application.
I’M NOT SHY
While running my own life insurance practice for six months in college, I learned about the power of networking. That skill came in handy when my first job as a data analyst after college was eliminated during a restructuring. I sold myself to prospective hiring managers by offering to help them with any odd projects they needed to get off their plates. Motivated by the prospect of having to move back into my parents’ basement, I had lunch or coffee with someone new every day for four months straight (115 new people).
I landed in the internal strategy consulting group, but I got bored with PowerPoint decks and Excel sheets. I became obsessed with trying to figure out how to help other new and young people at the company grow their professional networks — before they realized they would need them.
There wasn’t a rotational leadership development program at my organization, so I got involved in the diversity and inclusion department to scratch that itch. What’s more, I co-created an employee resource group (ERG) for Millennials, which quickly spread to more than 25% of the firm. I personally hosted executive guest speaker forums with senior vice presidents and created a speed networking event between ten young professionals and ten directors. And I signed dozens of members up for the national bone registry to help a colleague with blood cancer.
About 18 months later, I started a second ERG for new associates, regardless of age. I created a lunch-n-learn series where anyone with less than one year of tenure would get free tacos once a week for a year in the cafeteria with a different department each time. I launched an informal mentorship program where new employees could get up to 50 mentors. And I spread the word about this new affinity network by personally drafting 476 handwritten letters to every single new employee and hiring manager in the building. Around 250 employees came to the kickoff event as a result, and more than 150 people signed up for the mentorship program.
HOW I NETWORKED MY WAY INTO A TOP MBA PROGRAM
I used those same networking strategies during the MBA application process. For example, the first thing I did in the summer of 2017 was make a list of current and former students from each business school that either went to my undergrad, were located in Minneapolis, or came from similar backgrounds — and were listed on school websites as student ambassadors.
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Between June and October of 2017, I spoke to more than 40 student ambassadors and alumni in person or on the phone. Not only did I write electronic and hand written thank you notes to everyone, but I even followed up on my promise of keeping all of them in the loop when I got the good news in December from Darden.
The moral of my story is that you don’t need to have a perfect GMAT to get into a top business school.
In fact, I actually had three strikes against me. I had a below average GMAT score. I had a mediocre GPA (3.0) in college. And I didn’t work at a company that admissions officers were familiar with (such as McKinsey, Google, or Goldman Sachs).
I did, however, have 2 big things in my corner to help push me over the finish line. I made an impact at my company. Starting two employee resource groups while keeping up with my day job as a data analyst demonstrated initiative. And I did my homework. Speaking to at least four MBAs from each program showed that I understood what I was getting myself into. Plus, it suggested that I would probably be successful in my search for a full-time job after grad school because I’m comfortable networking.
I believe admissions officers care about more than your GMAT, GPA, or resume. All the effort I put into the process paid off when I logged in to the admitted students’ portal on December 13, 2017 and found out that I would not need to take out $140,000 in debt to attend The University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
I wasn’t expecting to get into any of these programs, let alone receive a scholarship. Darden is known for its quirky traditions and for having the top ranked professors in the world. I was an emotional wreck for a week when I saw the words ‘full merit scholarship’ on my offer letter.
THREE PIECES OF ADVICE
My advice to other applicants who don’t have the perfect MBA profile? First, focus on what you can control. By definition, only 10% of people will get a 700+. Don’t dwell on your stats forever.
Next, do some introspection. Turn off your cell phone and think about the kind of impact you want to have in the world. Your essays are extremely important, so think about back to all the amazing things you’ve done in your life.
And finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to student ambassadors. All the schools have a list of current MBAs who are willing to speak to you. And I am incredibly excited to become one of those people at UVA Darden this year.
Adam Miller is currently doing a pre-MBA marketing internship at RelishCareers to pay it forward and share summer of 2019 internship opportunities with his fellow first-year business school students across the world. A couple months ago, Adam launched a podcast about business school on iTunes, where he will interview 25 students from the top 25 programs about life and why they decided to apply to a top-tier business school.