Skill vs. Luck: Showing MBA Admissions The Difference

Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.

It’s finally the holiday season, a time to reflect on the year and look forward to the next one. Like any round one application, I’m waiting and I’m wondering where next year might take me. It’s giving me a whole new appreciation for Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The gift I’m hoping for is to end up on a business school’s nice list.

In terms of real gifts, I got an early one in the form of a powerful book.

Over the last month, I’ve read The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin and it has given me a new perspective. It’s a fabulous book that explores the influence of luck and skill on results. In a nutshell, Mauboussin points out that it’s difficult to determine how much skill contributed to an outcome. The big question: Is someone who has had success skillful – or just lucky? It can be very dangerous to confuse the two.


In his book, Mauboussin focused on stories about sports, investing, and business to address the challenges and potential value of assessing skill. He could just as easily have looked at admissions representatives. They have a finite set of resources (i.e. the seats in their admitted class). What’s more, they must choose how to invest these resources (i.e. acceptances into their program). The outcome of their investment is their return. This return can take the form of graduates’ impact on the world, influence in business, or financial support. The stakes are high for admissions departments, and they can’t afford to make too many poor investments.

In evaluating candidates like me, admissions looks to our past. That makes sense. There’s no real point to guessing about the next forty years of a career anyways. We provide pages-and-pages of recommendations, transcripts, and resumes detailing what we have done. Even when we talk about our future career goals in our essays, it requires a discussion of our past. I’ve seen the same emphasis in interviews. In my interviews at a handful of schools, about 80% of the questions I was asked involved the past. How we tell our story matters.

Imagine you are an admissions representative at your dream school. You’re tucked away in a conference room with a ten-foot stack of applications. You have thousands of applicants who are impressive on paper. How do you sort that mountainous stack into the admitted, waitlisted, and rejected applicants? Assuming you’re left with only the most impressive applicants, you’ll need to be very discerning. To pick the best candidates, your first task may be to understand how much skill versus luck played a factor in success.


One of the easiest places to evaluate skill is our work experience. It’s the most direct, factual record of our professional performance. I used to think that work experience was mostly about checking boxes. Did I work at a well-known firm? Was the rate of my promotions and increased responsibility enough to show I’m a real contributor? Can I point to quantifiable impact that my involvement had? As I thought about the early days of my career, these boxes were what I felt I needed to check off. Once I did that, I was convinced: I would be ready and competitive if I chose to pursue an MBA.

That approach is just wrong. Mauboussin’s book offers a different perspective. Untangling luck from skill better reflects admission’s task of sorting that ten-foot stack of applications. It’s a two-step process. They’ve got to first measure our impact and then determine if it was skillful success or dumb luck.

When I was writing my applications, I stopped once I felt I had shown my impact. Now I wish I had thought about the next step. We’ve got to show why the outcomes were more skill than luck. Mauboussin points out a few general ways to parse out skill from luck.

How Dependent Are You on Other’s Performance: The more our results are reliant on other people, the more luck is involved. If our work involves lots of other people contributing at our level, it can be unclear where our contribution was. When I talk about a financial deal I helped with, I now focus on smaller pieces. I talk about how one essential part of the deal relied exclusively on my leadership or input. That’s where I try to show skillfulness in an interdependent system.

Do Our Results Show Mean Reversion: The less persistent over time an outcome is, the more the outcome is driven by luck. In other words, when an outcome is better or worse than average, we have to evaluate if the level of performance could be sustained beyond that one experience. When I apply to programs now, I focus on showing how whatever success I had extended over different projects or situations. The longer outperformance lasts, the more we can attribute it to skill rather than luck.

How Big is Our Sample Size: The final lesson I took from the book about admissions is a hard pill to swallow. The smaller a sample size, the less we can say about the influence of skill versus luck in an outcome. When it comes to work experience, sample size is time. I’m someone applying in my early 20s, which means I’ve been working much less. The younger we are, the less certain an admissions department can be about our skill. My way to get around this was to emphasize previous work experience at school in a startup. I was hoping to convince admissions to view my work experience as longer than my time post-graduation.

We are all trying to present the best version of ourselves to admissions committees. What I’ve come to learn is that it’s more important to show the most skilled version of ourselves.  Checking the boxes of work experience won’t cut it. Finding ways to highlight how we are consistently performing well regardless of the environment around us and that strong performance will persist are critical. When admissions departments look at our past to forecast our future, it makes sense that we want to feel like our past success is replicable.

Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.

DON’T MISS:  Diaries of a Darkhorse: The Subtle Art of Choosing a Recommender or Diaries Of A Darkhorse: Cutting The BS Out Of My HBS Essay

“This article was prepared by the author in his/her personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of their employer.”


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