There’s a dirty little secret in the world of MBA Admissions coaching and that dirty little secret is this: many coaches and consultants will encourage clients to aim low.
You won’t hear that term, of course. Instead, it will be presented as “being realistic” or “focusing your resources,” but the real reason this advice is offered is that it helps the consultant protect their own stats. It’s not hard to achieve 95%+ successful admissions when you cherry-pick your clients and encourage them to apply only to schools you consider a sure bet.
At Fortuna, we take serious issue with this self-serving approach. Of course, we want our clients to achieve MBA admission, and of course, some schools are always going to be a longer shot than others. Safety schools are a wise hedge for everyone. And as a coach, my job is to give my clients the very best chance of seeing their dreams come true.
About three years ago, I met a client we’ll call John (not his real name). John grew up in a poor, rural region of southern Europe. The son of hardworking local entrepreneurs, he had forged a career in finance, working in a number of European capitals. By the time we met, four years into his career in banking, the MBA was the natural next step in his career – one he hoped would facilitate a transition to private equity.
Speaking with him, I learned that he had solid work experience and decent academic grades, but his GMAT was well below what would be considered competitive at an M7 school. Because he didn’t feel he could achieve a better GMAT score, he had self-selected from his dream schools. Instead, he was targeting his sure bets.
I also learned about the texture of his life, what he had overcome to achieve what he had, and his intense passion for promoting the development of his home region. I knew his story was compelling, I knew he had so much to offer, and I knew he was aiming low. John’s sure bets were great schools and for many others, those schools would be and are dream schools. But John had different dreams. And I wanted to help him make those dreams come true.
He had a budget to work with me on two school applications. I didn’t advise that he throw out his target list. Rather, I advised that he use the two schools we had together to target his longest-shot schools, and then build on the work we did together to craft great applications for his other schools independently. I made no promises – long shots are long shots for a reason – but I also said that I didn’t want him to get to the end of this process having not even tried.
He hadn’t mentioned applying to Harvard Business School, but something about his story told me he needed to give it a shot, even if it was a long one. In the end, the two long shots we decided to work together on were Harvard and Columbia. And once that decision was made, the hard work began.
When there is a weakness to a client’s profile, on a high level my advice is always the same: confront it directly and honestly, but don’t dwell on it. For John, that meant using the optional essay (or optional few lines with HBS!) to confront his low GMAT head-on – not making excuses, but acknowledging that it was below what he would have hoped, and making clear his commitment to achieving academic success on the program. Then, it was time to move on.
Of his experience working with me, John says, “Cassandra pushed me constantly to explore my true self and what drives me. She pushed back on my superficial initial attempts and kept pushing to look inside to unleash my real, unique storyline.”
It was this real, unique story that I knew would set him apart, and make the Admissions Committee take note. We spent hours upon hours over weeks of work digging deep, writing, editing, and editing some more until every single word of his essays worked to help him tell his story. He invested one on one time with his recommenders, helping them understand his motivations for each school and working with them to identify the best examples to make his skills and contributions shine. We poured over every detail of his application and when it was time to submit, though neither of us knew what the outcome would be, we both knew that he had given everything.
John got into Harvard, plus his two sure bets. Columbia was a no, but sometimes you can’t win them all. My stats will read 50% for this project, but the result was 100% for John.
He graduated from HBS this year and started at a global PE firm shortly after. From his story, I hope you’ll take these lessons for your own journey to your highest aims:
- Apply to your sure bets, but don’t self-select out of your dreams. You can’t get in if you don’t apply.
- Work with people who believe in you, and will help you shoot for the improbable
- Handle weaknesses head-on, but don’t dwell on them. You have more to offer than your GMAT score.
In this series of MBA applicant profiles, Fortuna’s expert coaches illuminate how clients have overcome common pain points to achieve admissions success. Stay tuned for next week’s installment.
Fortuna Admissions is a dream team of former MBA Admissions Directors from the world’s top business schools, and this year is our 10-year anniversary. Our DNA hasn’t changed since our founding a decade ago: our goal is to provide inside-track expertise to candidates and leverage the insights of those who truly know the schools inside out. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission to a top MBA program, reach out for a free consultation.