Smart With A Heart: GRE Prep Program Gives Military MBA Candidates An Edge

Lamar Johnson-Harris, a former Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces, will attend Wharton next fall. Courtesy photo

Lamar Johnson-Harris has wanted an MBA since his days with the Black Knights, West Point’s football team. When he wasn’t playing football, he took business administration classes where he listened to his teachers talk about their student days at storied B-schools like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, MIT Sloan School of Management and Dartmouth Tuck School of Business.

“They were my dream schools back then,” says Johnson-Harris, one of four children raised by a single mother in Milwaukee who worked three nursing jobs to support them. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to pursue higher education, and for me that was going to get my MBA.”

He hoped to apply to business school after his five years of active duty in the U.S. Army were up, but things did not go according to plan. Shortly after his West Point graduation — and while he was beginning a stint as a second lieutenant in the Army’s air defense artillery branch — he received word that his younger brother, Air Force Airman Quinn Johnson-Harris, had died after his plane crashed in Afghanistan. It was the fall of 2015; another blow came less than a year later when Johnson-Harris’s older brother, Jeremey Johnson, a Marine veteran, passed away. Both siblings left behind children, and Johnson-Harris found himself serving as a de facto father to all of them. They needed his financial and emotional support, and his school plans were put on hold.


Now, after nearly a decade, Johnson-Harris’s dream of attending business school is about to finally be fulfilled. This fall, he’ll attend Wharton on a $100,000 merit scholarship, an achievement that seemed out of reach just a year ago. Yet Wharton was just one of several top B-schools Johnson-Harris received admissions offers from — among the others were Michigan Ross School of Business, Columbia Business School, Dartmouth Tuck and Chicago Booth School of Business.

How did he do it? Johnson-Harris, now a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces, credits his admission to these elite schools to his participation in a pilot program offered by Smart with a Heart, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 2023 that calls itself the first not-for-profit test prep and admissions organization in the U.S. The nonprofit, founded by Sherpa Prep co-founders Jay Friedman and Nafeez Amin, gave Johnson-Harris access to high-quality online GRE test prep material, videos and admissions advice for $199, a special price for military students, Pell Grant recipients and others affiliated with the non-profits Sherpa Prep works with (anyone else wanting to do the course is charged $250).

After doing the coursework, he was able to raise his GRE score 25 points, he says, giving him the confidence to apply to top-tier schools like Wharton and others.

“I felt like I did have a pretty decent profile as a business school applicant, but I knew the GRE would be a challenge and a financial barrier as well,” says Johnson-Harris. “With the financial responsibilities I have, most test prep programs were honestly simply out of my budget.”

Source: Smart with a Heart


Smart with a Heart’s mission is to help candidates like Johnson-Harris get a leg up in the admission process to graduate school, says Executive Director Bronwyn Bruton. The nonprofit ran an online pilot program last spring that assisted 100 students with GRE preparation. With the elimination of affirmative action in college admissions last summer, it has become essential to ensure that under-resourced and minority candidates applying to graduate schools have access to high-quality test preparation material along with some networking and admissions support, Bruton says.

Many students the non-profit works with come from the military because of Sherpa Prep’s ties to nonprofit organizations that serve these communities, and a large number of their students have their sights set on getting an MBA, she says. B-school admissions officers seek out these candidates because of their impressive resumes and strong leadership experience, but struggle when determining if these applicants can pull off the demanding coursework required of an MBA program, Bruton says. A strong GRE score can be the difference between them getting into the program or being rejected, she notes.

“An admissions person might say, ‘This person is amazing when they come under fire and have led a platoon of people, but can they manage a spreadsheet?’” she says. “These skills are essential and these tests are a way for them to prove to the admissions committee that they belong there and they have the skills to cope.”

Johnson-Harris is one of 100 people the non-profit was able to help with its pilot program, and it hopes to help hundreds more, says Jay Friedman, one of Sherpa’s co-founders and head instructors. Of the 100 who signed up for the pilot, 25 completed the 27-hour course before the Round 1 B-school admissions deadline this fall. All those students received six months of access to a series of 90-minute pre-recorded classes, homework assignments, as well as live office hours with Sherpa’s co-founders and one-on-one mentoring support if they choose to take advantage of it, says Friedman.

A comparable in-person program with live classes and admissions advice can easily cost up to $1000 or more, he says.

“We are just helping out these students who are so close to getting into graduate schools and are able to tip the scale a little bit in their favor,” Friedman says.


The non-profit is still collecting data from its pilot program, but several other students have been accepted to Booth, Ross, Tuck, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory Goizueta Business School in the first round of admission decisions, Bruton says. The program plans to collect data from applicants in late March who waited until the Round 2 business school admissions deadline to apply to B-schools.

One of the students they are awaiting word on is a Green Beret who applied in Round 2 who suffered multiple traumatic injuries in Syria during his Special Forces service, leading to his medical discharge, Bruton said. The soldier worked closely with Friedman and Nafeez while studying for the GRE, and managed to receive a top GRE score, giving him an excellent chance of getting into some of the top B-schools, she said.

Johnson-Harris is one of the program’s biggest success stories so far. He attended the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, Airborne School and Air Assault School, and then took his ambitions even further, earning his expert infantry badge. He eventually applied to the special forces and became a Green Beret and a team leader of a military freefall team in South America, along the way getting an online master’s degree in technology management. “I wanted to honor my brothers’ service and legacy by pursuing some of the most challenging roles in the army,” he says.

As his time as a Green Beret was coming to an end last year, he decided it was time to finally apply to MBA programs. A friend from his West Point days who attended Wharton recommended he check out the Smart with a Heart pilot program, advice that forever changed the trajectory of Johnson-Harris’s business school journey. He used the program’s course materials while on active duty, taking classes anytime he had a free moment, pulling out his phone and headphones to study while on the road. He knew he had to prove himself a strong academic candidate for business school to take notice, as his GPA from West Point was lower than he would have liked.

The program’s test materials were indispensable to his success, he says, and he is now looking forward to his post-Army life at Wharton next year. His brothers are never far from his mind as he continues to honor their legacy by striving to be a successful person and role model for his family.

“My older brother was like a father figure for us growing up and my youngest brother was my biggest fan,” he says. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do think I”m set up and in a great position to give back to my family and give back to the world and pursue my passions and dreams.”


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