What Do Top MBA Programs Like Harvard, Wharton, and Booth Look for in Your Application?

When deciding to go back to business school, the first thing applicants often do is make a self-assessment of their core qualifications.  While things like work experience and career goals can be very subjective, there are two key numbers which like it or not, tend to size up candidates fairly easily, at least from a cursory overview.  It’s no big secret that these metrics are the GMAT score and the grade point average.

It’s easily argued that the GMAT is the most objective measure of all, since everyone must take the same exam.  After all, everyone goes to different colleges and even inside the same college, different majors and even different professors for the same course can impact the final grade outcome.  Schools are savvy enough to know if you earned a 3.8 GPA at a top 200 state school, it’s not as impressive as a 3.2 GPA at a top 10 college, but what applicants often fail to recognize, is that some b-schools value certain achievements in this area more highly than others.

A good example is Harvard Business School, which like the other ivy league schools, tends to put more emphasis on GPA than they do on the GMAT.  While it certainly helps to get a great GMAT score, HBS is not coming up short each year in the area of high scoring applicants and figured out long ago that it’s more difficult to pull off a stratospheric GPA at a rigorous school for four years than it is to study hard over a few weeks or months and nail the GMAT.  Perhaps they like that the GPA, unlike the GMAT, can’t be improved upon once it’s posted.

You certainly can’t go back and un-do that “C” you earned in calculus or the failing grade you unfortunately got in Lit 101.  There is a certain amount of legitimacy to comparing say, engineering students from different programs’ GPAs to each other despite the subjectivity I mentioned before.  In this regard, if you have a high GPA from a good school, you are well on your way to gaining the initial approval of a place like HBS.

Contrasting this with the Whartons and Chicago Booths of the world, you get a slightly different picture.  Schools in this camp, whose programs are highly quantitatively driven and value the kind of math and analytical skills which come in handy on the dreaded math portion of the GMAT test, tend to value a high GMAT score and will let applicants off the hook more often on their GPAs.

Their view is that GPA often happened a “long” time ago and are rather subjective anyway, so the GMAT is a better measure of current raw intelligence and aptitude for their curricula.  I often tell candidates that for these exact reasons, GPA is largely considered the most flexible raw profile characteristic in one’s application.  This is especially true for schools such as Wharton or Chicago.

So what’s the bottom line?  I hate putting cutoffs in writing, but if you don’t have a 3.6 or better GPA from a good (top 50 at least) college, you should be concerned about HBS and the ivys.  Building an alternative transcript may be a good idea.  The good news is, if you have something below 3.0, but still went to a rigorous program, the Whartons of the world may still take a look at you, but you will need that GMAT with a 7-handle on it.  No 7-handle?  HBS won’t be as concerned.  Of course if you come up short in both categories, you will find acceptance at a top school much more challenging.

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Bryant Michaels has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons. See more of his articles here.

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