Yeah, David Beat Goliath… Once!

It’s one the the more frustrating conversations an MBA admissions consultant can have with his or her client, but it’s one that takes place regularly. It goes something like this:

“I plan on applying to Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton. And for my safety schools, I’ll add Columbia and MIT Sloan.”

“Okay, that’s an ambitious list for any applicant. Tell me where you are in the process. What do you do for work now?”

“For the past three years I’ve been part of an engineering team. I haven’t managed anyone, but I presented to our direct of product management once. He said I did a good job. In another year I may get promoted to team lead.”

“I see. Well, how about your undergraduate experience?”

“College was rocky for me. I studied computer science at Central Tennessee State and had a 2.7 GPA, but I have a valid reason. My roommate got stung by a bee my sophomore year, and I took off a semester. In my senior year I had a 3.0 GPA.”

“Hmm. Have you taken the GMAT yet?”

“I’ve taken it twice. The first time I got a 590. I studied extra hard, and took it again and got a 620.”

“Okay. What do you enjoy doing outside of work? Any hobbies or community involvement that occupies your time?”

“Not much since I’m so busy with work, although I did go do Habitat for Humanity last month.”

“Got it. Well, let’s talk about your choice of schools. Any reason why you’re targeting just those MBA programs at the very top of the rankings?”

“I only want an MBA if it’s from a top-five school. I feel that with my exemplary record and your expert assistance, I should be able to earn a spot at least at one of those programs.”

(Swallows hard.) “Well, I should tell you now that I think it’s going to be quite difficult for you to get into those schools with your background, at least as it stands right now. Take your GMAT score, for instance. That’s well below the middle-80% range for all of your target schools. In other words, your score would put you in the bottom 10% — and probably more like the bottom 3% — of the class at any of the MBA programs you’re talking about.”

“But I read on a BusinessWeek chat that Harvard has admitted people with GMAT scores below 600. And Stanford turns away people with 800s every year. Clearly, I have a good shot.”

“It’s true that you can go to Harvard and find a few people with scores as low as yours, but it will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Out of a class of more than 900 students, you’re talking about maybe a dozen with scores that low. Getting into HBS is hard enough… Do you really want to make your job harder by aiming for one of those seats, knowing that there are very few of them?”

“Look, my sister knows a guy whose cousin got into HBS with a profile similar to mine. That means it can be done. Can you or can’t you get me into HBS?”

“Before I answer that, what do you plan on doing if you don’t get into business school this year?”

You can see where this conversation is going. Many applicants, in their zeal to get into a top-ranked business school, ignore the facts and focus on the very limited number of success stories that suggest they can in fact get into one of these schools, when every objective and subjective measure suggests otherwise. They’re facing very long odds. Their chances of success are certainly not zero, but they’re a lot closer to zero than they often want to admit.

Yes, against all odds, the underdog can emerge victorious. David did beat Goliath once. But do you know why we all know that story? Because it happens so rarely! We all know the opposite outcome (when the more likely outcome prevails), so there’s very little reason to talk about it. It’s not very interesting or instructive. So, we tend to focus on the rare instance when the surprising happens, and we do it even more often when it makes us feel better about our own prospects for success.

Additionally, business schools don’t want to scare off some applicants who may prove to be hidden gems, which is perfectly understandable. But the more you ask them to make tradeoffs — we’re talking about a low GMAT score and a weak undergraduate transcript and unremarkable work experience and forgettable extracurricular activities — the easier it is for them to move on to the next applicant. So, yes, there are some students running around at HBS, Stanford, etc., who have very low GMAT scores or surprisingly weak undergrad transcripts. But, we’ll bet a large sum of money that each one of those students had something else that was remarkable enough to help the admissions committee warm up to them.

We’re not here to stomp on their dreams — ultimately it’s up to Harvard to decide whether or not you’re HBS material, not us — but we also can’t let them march into the process without at least opening their eyes to the facts. That’s why we spend so much time on the up-front part of the admissions consulting process, pushing our clients’ thinking on their career goals, their reasons for wanting an MBA, and their school choices. If, after all of that, a client still wants to take a shot on a top school, we’ll be with him every step of the way. But we insist on having the tough conversations first.

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