Category Archives: MBA Admissions

Blog posts containing content on MBA admissions, including application and essay strategies, as well as musings on select MBA programs.

The #1 quality in the best MBA admissions consultants: brutal honesty

 

MBA admissions consultants are everywhere these days, and if you’re reading this little blog post, odds are good that you’ll hire one someday – despite my words of caution in this MBA blog post, this other MBA blog post, and even this MBA blog post over here.

So what’s the #1 thing you should you look for if you’re shopping for an MBA admissions consultant? Brutal honesty. Without it, you’re absolutely wasting your hard-earned money.

Let’s start with a nice game of “which applicants got into their first-choice MBA program?” Here are three candidates:

  • Candidate A: white American female, 620 GMAT, 3.8 GPA from a low-ranked public university, marketing job for a non-prestigious small company, interesting but not mind-blowing extracurriculars. Target MBA program: Stanford, Round 2.
  • Candidate B: white American male, 660 GMAT, 3.5 GPA from not-quite-elite private college, non-prestigious experience with a financial services firm and a not-terribly-successful tech startup, mediocre extracurriculars. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 3.
  • Candidate C: white American female, 770 GMAT, 4.0 GPA from a top-three Ivy League program, experience as an auction house specialist, fitness instructor, ballerina, and bodybuilder. Target MBA program: HBS, Round 1.

OK, so who do you think actually got into their first choice MBA program?

Sorry, you won’t like this. The answer is… none of them.

Here’s the reality that few of us – including the overwhelming majority of MBA admissions consultants – want to admit: it is brutally difficult to get into elite MBA programs. Candidate C sounds like a total badass, right? Well, I don’t know her personally, but she’s mentioned in this wonderful (and disturbing) Poets & Quants article by John Byrne and HBS Guru Sandy Kreisberg – and she got rejected from Harvard.

In that very same Poets & Quants article, Kreisberg offers a brutal truth: 70% of HBS applicants are qualified, but only 11% get in. That 70% estimate, for what it’s worth, sounds about right to me, and if anything the MBA applicant pool just keeps getting stronger. So for every six badasses like Candidate C, only one will be admitted.

And for what it’s worth, poor Candidate C didn’t even get an interview. Ouch.

OK, so what about Candidate A and Candidate B? Clearly, they had absolutely no hope of getting into Stanford and Harvard, right? I think we can agree on that. If Candidate C couldn’t get in, then the other two are way beyond hope – especially since Candidate B was inexplicably trying to get into HBS in Round 3.

Unfortunately, MBA admissions consultants took Candidate A and Candidate B’s money and told them they had a chance. At best, the MBA admissions consultants were being clueless and incompetent – and that’s the nicest thing I could say about them. I actually think that they were being unscrupulous, money-grubbing slimeballs. But maybe I’m wrong, and they were just being dumb.

Either way: don’t let this happen to you! If you’re looking for a great MBA admissions consultant, the first thing you should do is ask for an honest evaluation of your candidacy. If the evaluation is nothing but puppy dogs and sunshine and unicorns with rainbows pouring out of their asses, you might have an MBA admissions snake-oil salesman on your hands – unless you really think that you’re the perfect MBA candidate. But Candidate C sounded pretty perfect too, didn’t she? So if an admissions consultant says that you’ll definitely be admitted to an elite MBA program (with their help, of course) – then run in the other direction.

The very best MBA admissions consultants I know will give you the honest, brutal truth about your odds right up front. They’ll probably try to steer you toward a nice mix of elite and less-selective MBA programs. And if they think you have zero shot at the elite MBA programs, they might still help you with your MBA applications – but only after you repeat the phrase “I understand that my odds are incredibly low, and I want to pay you to optimize my MBA application anyway.”

Unfortunately, the reality of elite MBA admissions truly is brutal. Even if your application is spectacular, your odds might be lower than you think. Make sure that your MBA admissions consultant is willing to deliver that brutal truth, right up front – and please don’t ever settle for anything less.

How low GMAT scores might help your MBA application

 

Almost every week, I hear from somebody who’s worried about a low GMAT or GRE score on their score report. The question usually sounds something like this: “If I got a 500 on my first test but eventually get a 740 on my fourth GMAT exam, will MBA admissions committees think that I’m stupid because of the 500?”

The quick answer: no, they won’t think you’re stupid. And no, the 500 won’t hurt your odds of admission at all. If anything, I think an upward trajectory could help your chances, just a little bit – at least under the right circumstances.

You’ll hear this from plenty of MBA admissions committee members, but MBA programs really do want to evaluate your application based on your best GMAT score – and there are plenty of reasons why. First, using your highest GMAT score is better for the school’s overall average (which, of course, is an important part of MBA rankings). And just as importantly, most human beings understand that other human beings might have a bad GMAT test day once in a while – and the MBA programs want to see how you perform on your best day. That just seems fair, right?

So at worst, I’m convinced that your old, low GMAT scores are irrelevant to your chances of admission to a top MBA program. And at best, I think that a poor start to your GMAT test-taking career can actually help your chances.

Here’s a completely real example, with some details omitted to protect the MBA applicant’s identity. A number of years ago, I worked with an amazing guy who had started his career as an insurance salesman – let’s call him Mr. G, even though he didn’t work at Geico. Mr. G came from a troubled working-class family in a Rust Belt city; his father had addiction problems, and his mom supported the kids on her own.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. G’s youth wasn’t glamorous, and he wasn’t destined for Ivy League undergraduate programs or glitzy investment banking jobs. Instead, he worked in a grocery store when he was in high school, and then continued working in the same grocery store while he attended a state university that you’ve probably never heard of. Mr. G dreamed of a post-undergraduate job in “finance” – and he did, in fact, major in finance. But he attended a no-name university, and nobody ever told him how, exactly, you could land a job on Wall Street. After all, his Rust Belt city was – both spiritually and geographically – a long way from Wall Street, and his grocery store job left him little time for internships, anyway.

Mr. G worked his butt off, and got a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad. But since he attended the University of You’ve Never Heard of It, the only “finance” job he could get afterward was as an insurance salesman. He broke sales records in his first year, but was deeply unsatisfied. So he decided to move to New York City to try to find a job on Wall Street. Of course, no high-falutin’ Wall Street firm would hire the insurance salesman from a no-name university, so he ended up in another sales job – and, since he’s such a hard-working S.O.B., Mr. G again kicked all sorts of butt in that job, unglamorous as it was.

Then Mr. G decided that a top-tier MBA was his best path out of his career slump – and probably his only path to an actual Wall Street finance job.

So he took the GMAT, and got a 580. That obviously wasn’t good enough, especially with the lack of pedigree on his resume. So he called a GMAT tutor (*cough*), got a 660 after about a month of studying, then got a 710 after another month or so of studying. Not bad!

But Mr. G’s MBA application was in big trouble from the start, since he lacked prestigious “MBA-feeder job” experience and had attended a non-selective university. So Mr. G and his MBA admissions consultant (*cough*) decided that the best strategy was to emphasize his working-class roots, highlight his epic work ethic, plainly state that he had no idea how to “play the game” as an undergraduate, and hope that a great MBA program would give him a chance.

And here’s the GMAT-related punchline: Mr. G’s GMAT score trajectory fit right into that narrative. In his MBA applications, we pounded away at a simple message: Mr. G wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will absolutely outwork everybody else in the room. A 710 on his very first attempt at the GMAT wouldn’t have done anything to support our message. But with his 580-660-710 GMAT scores, he looked like a guy who was willing to work his ass off to achieve his dreams. Which, of course, he was.

In case you’re wondering, Mr. G is doing wonderfully now. He attended an Ivy League MBA program, and finally landed a job with a prestigious Wall Street firm as soon as he graduated. He was a superstar in his MBA program, too – and he really did outwork everybody else in the room.

Your profile may not look anything like Mr. G’s, but if you’re nervous about flashing some low scores in the fine print of your GMAT score report – well, don’t be. At worst, MBA admissions committees don’t really notice if you retake the GMAT several times. And if they notice at all, your willingness to improve your GMAT score might show that you’re also willing to outwork everybody else in the room – and that can only help your chances of admission.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part VI: what is a good GRE score, anyway?

 

In the fifth installment of my (apparently never-ending?) GRE vs. GMAT blog series, I suggested that the GRE might offer an advantage if your GMAT score is on the low side, since the GRE doesn’t yet appear in the MBA rankings. So now you might be wondering: what sort of GRE score could be considered “good enough” for top MBA programs?

Unfortunately, MBA admissions committees aren’t exactly open about their handling of the GRE. The good folks at Poets & Quants recently published a few trickles of GRE data from top MBA programs, but the data is still lamentably limited.

So how might MBA admissions committees define a “good” GRE score, and what sort of GRE score should you be aiming for? Let’s start by laying out the three main ways that MBA programs could evaluate GRE scores.

Option #1: the GMAT-GRE conversion chart

As the GRE made its push for acceptance in the MBA world, it published a handy little GMAT-GRE conversion chart, so that you can take any GRE score and turn it into an “equivalent” GMAT score. Sounds great, right?

Trouble is, conversion charts that compare two different tests are on shaky scientific ground. In theory, the GRE and GMAT are designed to measure subtly different skills, and they’re on completely different score scales. Few, if any, independent psychometricians (experts in the statistical science underneath standardized testing) would suggest that these conversion charts should ever be used. They simply aren’t very accurate, even under the best of conditions.

The GMAT-GRE conversion chart was, of course, published by the creators of the GRE, who have made an aggressive attempt to seize market share from the GMAT. You won’t be surprised to hear that the GMAT responded with an anti-conversion-chart article in an old GMAT newsletter from 2009.

More detail is available on the GMAT website, but here’s the bottom line: GRE and GMAT scores are correlated, but they aren’t perfectly correlated. If you’re trying to convert GRE scores into GMAT scores, the standard error of prediction is 67.4 points, according to GMAC. In other words: if MBA programs try to use your GRE score to predict what you would have gotten if you’d taken the GMAT instead – the conversion chart is likely to be off by an average of 67.4 points in one direction or another.

And in case you’re new to the (painful) reality of MBA admissions: 67.4 points on the GMAT is a really, really big deal these days.

So if MBA admissions committees are using the GMAT-GRE conversion chart… well, they shouldn’t be.

Option #2: GRE percentiles

GRE percentile scores would, on the surface, appear to be a fairer way to evaluate MBA applicants who have taken the GRE. Why wouldn’t MBA programs just look at applicants’ quant and verbal percentiles on the GRE, and then compare them to the equivalent GMAT percentile scores?

But there’s a huge problem here, too: percentile rankings compare you with other people who took the same test. So if, for example, MBA admissions committees started using the dreaded 80th-percentile rule for GRE scores, that would be unfair: your GRE percentile rankings would be based on the scores of the 700,000+ GRE test-takers – only a small percentage of whom are applying to MBA programs. That’s not cool: you’ll face a completely different horde of competitors for the GRE vs. the GMAT.

And of course, percentiles are out of whack on the GMAT quant section, anyway. If you want to score in the 80th percentile on the GMAT, you’ll need a 49 – which requires some serious skill. On the GRE, all you’ll need to hit the 80th percentile on quant is a 162 – and that’s nowhere near as difficult as getting a 49 on the GMAT.

In other words, GRE percentiles absolutely cannot be compared fairly to GMAT percentiles. It’s a terrible idea to do so, and I desperately hope that no MBA admissions committees have gone down this road.

Option #3: Round numbers, human nature, and the GRE 160 sniff-test

Here’s where we get into the interesting stuff. I’m sure that some MBA admissions committees are making the mistake of using the GRE-GMAT conversion chart, and others might be (mis-)using GRE percentile scores. But my hunch is that most MBA admissions committees probably just use a “sniff test” for GRE scores – and I’m guessing that a 160 on both GRE sections is probably enough to make MBA adcoms move on to other aspects of your MBA application.

Let’s face it: people are naturally drawn to nice, round numbers. For a long time, a 700 was considered a key threshold on the GMAT, partly because it’s a nice round number, but also because the creators of the GMAT were thoughtful about that round number: if 500 was supposed to be the mean score on the test, a 700 was supposed to be roughly two standard deviations above the mean – and well above the 90th percentile.

GMAT scores and percentiles have become pretty warped, of course, but the GMAT score scale was originally designed wisely: a 700 wasn’t just a nice, round number. It was also a meaningful dividing line between high scorers and ridiculously high scorers. And the same score scale was used on both the SAT and the pre-2011 version of the GRE – so the GMAT’s 200-800 scale is a familiar friend that has been part of American education culture for decades.

But our intuition goes out the window with the GRE’s new score scale, which ranges from 130 to 170 for each section. If 150 is the average GRE score, then what’s our instinctual dividing line between “very good” and “elite”? I suspect that MBA admissions officers struggle to understand the difference between, say, a 157 and a 159, but a 160 sounds nice and round, right? So I think that adcoms tend to feel OK about an applicant’s ability once they’re above the 160 mark on both the quant and verbal sections. No other implicit “cut score” would seem to make much sense.

So if you’re not much of a GMAT-slayer, my advice is to try to crack 160 on both the quant and verbal sections of the GRE. Unless you have an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses, it’s much, much easier to get a pair of 160s on the GRE than it is to get, say, a 700 on the GMAT – and of course, a 700 on the GMAT might not be enough anymore, anyway.

For whatever it’s worth, the few GRE averages that have leaked out might support the idea that MBA programs are using the GRE as a “way around” the GMAT/MBA rankings game – and it might also support the idea that a 160 could be enough to make your test score a non-issue at top-tier MBA programs.

For example, Michigan, Cornell, and UCLA all had average GRE verbal scores of 162 and average quant scores of 159; Duke’s averages were 160 on both the quant and verbal GRE sections. That’s certainly not conclusive, but it suggests that MBA admissions committees might be using 160 as a loose GRE benchmark score — even though the GMAT-GRE score conversion chart says that a pair of GRE 160s is equivalent to a not-terribly-competitive GMAT composite score of 640.

The GRE score data remains limited, so take it – and my interpretation of it – with a grain of salt. But if you’re OK with a test score that makes your MBA application “GMAT-neutral”, then the latest GRE data offers some interesting food for thought.

 

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

 

In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.

 

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a “good” GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.

 

The International House of Pancakes test for MBA application essays

In an earlier blog post, I argued that many MBA applicants—often with the help of MBA admissions consultants—have “over-managed” their MBA essays and sucked much of the soul out of their applications.  If you know anything about human nature (or the insane workload of MBA admissions committees) you probably realize that soulless MBA essays will probably get you nowhere, unless you’re an otherwise perfect MBA candidate.

(But if you’re pretty much a perfect MBA candidate, why are you wasting your time reading this blog?  Shouldn’t you be doing something completely perfectly amazing and superhuman right now?)

For those of you who aren’t superhuman, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely critical to sound passionate about your business pursuits in your MBA applications, regardless of whether you’re writing about past successes or future goals.  Fundamentally, MBA applications are a test of your ability to market the product you presumably know best:  yourself.  If you can’t convince an MBA admissions committee that your career will reach exciting new heights post-MBA, why should anybody offer you a coveted spot at an elite business school?

This is particularly true for aspiring entrepreneurs or anybody who runs a family business.  If you can’t get us excited about your future plans in a 400-word MBA essay “elevator pitch,” it’s hard to believe that you’ll ever succeed in getting investors or customers excited about your company.  If you plan to start a business—or want to continue running your existing business—you’ll be doomed to failure if you can’t get investors, employees, and customers to buy into your product.  And why would any elite MBA program want to admit a passionless, unconvincing wannabe entrepreneur?

So if you’re an entrepreneurial sort and you’ve already written drafts of your essays, you’re probably wondering:  are your essays convincing and passionate, or generic and soulless?  And how can you tell?

As luck would have it, I’ve developed a simple, high-calorie tool for determining whether your business ideas are compelling enough for your MBA application.  I call it the International House of Pancakes test, because I really like breakfast.

Here’s how it works:  if you’ve already used the name of your company in your essays, replace the name with “International House of Pancakes.”  If the essay still makes sense, you’ve probably written an essay turd.  Your essay needs to capture your excitement for your specific industry and your particular company; if you replace the name of the company with a restaurant name, you should get complete nonsense.  (Unless, of course, you’re actually planning to run a restaurant.  In that case, I know a guy who is really, really great at testing menu items.)

To illustrate the International House of Pancakes test, here’s a real draft of an essay written by one of my favorite students (let’s call her Ms. ERP, since that’s the best-sounding word in the excerpt below), with the name of the school removed to protect her privacy:

Upon graduation from [an MBA program], my short-term goal is to manage operations for the International House of Pancakes Group – the $16 million chain wholly owned by my family.  With our proprietary SMARTE training program, internally built ERP software, and strong reputation in Canada, I am excited about helping the International House of Pancakes reach its full growth potential.  As the COO, my initial priorities would be to improve International House of Pancakes’ day-to-day operations and to expand our presence in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.  Since the profitability of our Canadian locations is declining due to rising costs resulting from government intervention, I need to streamline our organizational infrastructure so our company can grow internationally and with measured risk.  I would continue to identify potential areas for investment, lead negotiations with potential partners and suppliers, and manage new initiatives.

The paragraph is dry and clinical, but it still makes sense, right?  And that’s a huge problem.  The essay was supposed to be about her family’s business in the education industry.  Honestly, it really is an innovative, interesting firm that could plausibly be wildly successful on several continents.  But you definitely wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.  There’s no life to it, no vivid description of her work, and absolutely no hint of passion for her company or industry.

Right now, you might be chuckling at poor Ms. ERP:  “Ha ha ha!  That silly Ms. ERP!  I would never do that in my own essays!  I love what I do, and it shows in my MBA essays!”

Oh yeah?  Try swapping out the company name in your essays, and see if it still works.  You might be surprised:  it’s shockingly easy to let your MBA application essays devolve into generic, vapid corporate-speak, no matter how geeked up you actually are about your career.

The story ends well for Ms. ERP.  After I sent her the International House of Pancakes version of her essay, she cursed loudly and showed my handiwork to her father, who laughed and said that I was a jerk and that he really liked me.  Ms. ERP then revised her essay to paint a vivid, energetic picture of her family business, and she now attends a super-elite U.S. business school, despite a GMAT score in the mid-600s.  But she has, unfortunately, maintained an aversion to pancakes to this day.