“Chen Qu” was a Chinese graduate of Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in accounting, which he’d used to build a career on the Hong Kong treasury teams of corporations in the transportation and real estate industries. By age 26 he had earned his CFA, and was now an assistant treasury manager seeking admission to the MBA programs of London Business School, Oxford or Cambridge. Piece of cake, right?
Not so fast. Chen’s GPA at CUHK was 2.35 (including a D in accounting), which he attributed to “laziness” and sports. His highest GMAT was an unbalanced 670, with a nice quant score undercut by an execrable verbal score. In our early calls, I had trouble understanding his thickly accented English. (Fortunately, CUHK’s English-language instruction spared Chen from having to take the TOEFL.) Did I mention that Chen was already 29 and had almost no current extracurriculars?
I encouraged Chen to drop LBS from his target list and/or raise his GMAT, emphasize his leadership in setting up his company’s treasury team from scratch, and devote an optional essay to explaining that his low GPA was an unintended casualty of the strong leadership and responsibility he’d demonstrated leading CUHK’s swim team. He followed my advice, raising his GMAT to a balanced 720 and submitting essays that showcased his due diligence in getting to know his U.K. target schools.
When Oxford invited Chen for an interview, we did a video prep call. Aside from his accent, he answered questions in short literal-minded, conversation-stopping bursts and seemed unable to relax or project personality. So over the next several days we scheduled a series of intensive ‘interviewing skills’ sessions. I showed him how certain questions were invitations to highlight his differentiators (such as more international exposure than he’d at first realized he had) and encouraged him to smile and use his fanatical love of English football to show that Oxford Saïd was truly his home to be. The Saïd Business School knew a true believer when it saw one; Chen’s email said it all: “Dream comes true! Thanks very much!”
It’s not at all unusual to encounter applicants who have, shall we say, an unrealistic idea of their admissions chances at top schools. “Rajiv” was not such a client. A 28-year-old male Indian QA technologist for a global energy services firm, he had been a top 15 student but at a non-IIT Indian university, had a 720 GMAT but with a Quant subscore just under the 80th percentile, bore a ‘techie’ non-managerial job title, had no leadership in his extracurriculars, lacked international experiences beyond India and the US, and had nothing in the way of a powerful or unusual personal story. Rajiv knew he was a member of the most competitive applicant demographic (male Indian engineers) and was therefore unambitious about his target schools: Texas McCombs and UNC Kenan-Flagler, both of which could support his post-MBA goal of senior management in the oil & gas industry.
At first I shared Rajiv’s modest goals and suggested only that he consider adding a “reach” school, such as Duke, to his target list, given Fuqua’s strong energy resources (Energy & Environment and Energy Finance concentrations, EDGE: Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment, etc.). But as I got to know Rajiv better, I saw that there was more to his profile than I realized. First, although his extracurricular—Bollywood-style Indian dance—lacked leadership, the vast majority of my dancing clients are women. In other words, a male dancer was a bit distinctive and suggested attractive strengths like creativity and ability to express oneself. Second, Rajiv was a warm, unprepossessing, personable guy who, during video calls, came across as charming and likeable. If we could get him an interview, I thought, he would immediately differentiate himself from his peers.
But third and above all, Rajiv’s inauspicious job title, “Principal Technical Professional,” was not the ‘techie’ pigeonhole it seemed. He had earned a double promotion to become the youngest QA team lead and all his peers were 7-10 years older than him. And although he had no direct reports, he was directly responsible for a team of 10 QA professionals located in the US, India, and Vietnam. Rajiv told impressive stories of his leadership innovation, such as convincing his firm to fly his team to Rajiv’s HQ office so they could get to know each other better.
Convinced now that Rajiv was selling himself short, I pushed him to add schools like Kellogg, Chicago Booth, Michigan Ross, and Virginia Darden to his list. At first he seemed incredulous: “Do you think my profile may stand a chance at those top ten or other big gun schools??” I did, but the initial results were discouraging: Ross and Booth dinged him; then Darden didn’t even offer him an interview. Had we miscalculated? Still, I believed Duke’s application had given Rajiv a good chance to tell his full story and that Kellogg’s policy of interviewing all applicants would give him a chance to win them over.
We were starting to make backup plans for round 2 schools when my hunch about Rajiv was finally born out: Kellogg admitted him (“Omg !!! I just got accepted to kellogg !!!”), then Duke (“Duke wants me too !!!! this is happiness of epic proportions ! We did it Paul !”).
Takeaways? (1) Applicants with seemingly par-for-the-course profiles can have game-changing assets if you dig deep enough, and (2) never ever underestimate the power of a client’s personality/interpersonal skills. They can make all the difference.
If Maria had been an opera singer, she would have been a lyric coloratura. Though only 25, her high-pitched, candied voice suggested sixteen. Possessed of a distinctive profile—South American roots, accomplished artist, unimpeachable ‘globalist’ credentials—Maria’s application nevertheless had issues: a 660 GMAT score, par-for-the-course career progression as an investment analyst, and an unwillingness to settle for less than Harvard or Stanford. After failing to dissuade Maria from her quixotic quest, I got to work helping her. Since her GMAT score was what it was, her only hope was to convince the admissions gods that there was much more here than an analyst with sing-song voice. And, it turned out, there was. Aside from leadership accomplishments in her high school and college, Maria had consistently found ways to burst past the tight functional rein of her analyst roles, innovating cost-savings in her first IB role and then, at an investment fund, single-handedly devising a new emerging-market equity fund that won her CEO’s endorsement. Acknowledging that big achievers can indeed come in small packages, Harvard wisely admitted her.
Andrew wanted to get into Stanford, but I told him it wasn’t realistic. His 700 GMAT was fine, but didn’t compensate completely for his submediocre GPA in college, his hardly electrifying profile (IT guy with a major consultancy), and his fine but unremarkable extracurriculars. Then Andrew told me his story. Raised in one of America’s poorest and least educated counties by an alcoholic father, Andrew had watched in horror one night as his mother wrestled a gun from his raging father’s hands. Traumatized by his home life, he had imploded academically in college, until his junior year, when he met a studious and traditional Asian student, who simultaneously stole his heart and set him straight. Gradually, Andrew’s life began to turn around, academically, professionally, and extracurricularly until by the time I met him he felt he had earned the right to call an MBA his best next step.
Andrew’s finished essay read like the treatment for an especially moving Hollywood romance—and every word rang true. By getting the admissions committee to focus on his remarkable life rather than his unremarkable profile, Andrew earned an admission to Stanford GSB.
Taylor had always been a good kid—maybe too good. An outstanding student, athlete, and volunteer, when I met him Taylor was building a quietly impressive career as a strategy staffer at a Fortune 100 firm. But he had a dark secret. In college, his unobtrusive ability to get along with everyone had almost done him in. Accompanying two friends home from a party one night, Taylor watched in astonishment as they began systematically vandalizing campus property, causing thousands of dollars in damage in a matter of minutes. Taylor never physically intervened to stop them or even attempted to flee, and when his friends later told him to stay quiet he submissively acquiesced. Even when campus security interrogated him, Taylor loyally clammed up. Only when witnesses finally came forward and fingered Taylor and his friends did he finally admit his involvement.
Taylor’s months of silent loyalty cost him a suspension and almost a felony charge. Fortunately, he learned his lesson, as he proved when he later rebuffed a senior colleague who ordered him to doctor data. Most applicants lack failure stories this lurid and egregious. By candidly sharing it, his takeaways, and his redemption with Wharton’s admissions committee, Taylor earned himself an acceptance call.
Ankur was an Indian male with the usual profile: after graduating from a top-tier Indian engineering college he’d earned his technical master’s at a U.S. university and then joined a major technology firm, where because of the long gestation periods of his firm’s products, he had risen no higher than R&D software engineer. Ankur’s GMAT was high, his par-for-the-course extracurriculars showed no unusual leadership, and in conversation diffidence was dominant note. To say Ankur was a typical applicant, in other words, would be the understatement of all time: he was the living, breathing apotheosis of archetypal Typicalness.
And yet. Digging further, I discovered that Ankur had suffered some personal stumbles, nothing egregious, but humanizing setbacks nevertheless, which had delayed his MBA plans and lent his profile depth. But the real discovery was that Ankur was not just any software engineer. As an R&D engineer working on advanced technologies at a global-brand firm, he didn’t merely write code; he was an internal technology impresario who championed concepts and marketed their virtues to the company’s global units seeking their investment. Ankur was no mere software engineer. He was innovation personified—a globe-trotting evangelist of the cutting edge! Impressed by an applicant whose ‘career progress’ was not the yawn it first seemed, Kellogg duly admitted him.
Kay was an Asian-American “associate” at a major financial advisory firm. Though she was only two years out college (with a respectable 3.3 GPA), her leadership and responsibility level at work were negligible, her GMAT was a modest 640, and—naturally—she was aiming high. Initially, I despaired. But struck by her never-say-die spirit and her affecting immigrant-builds-new-life story, I looked for angles. Her exchange year overseas enhanced her international profile, she had showed leadership in her sorority, and she evinced flexibility about her post-MBA goals. Seizing on this last opening, I explored her interest in a human resources career, a discipline all but abandoned by MBA applicants. Intrigued, Kay proceeded to research this new goal with the fervor of a true convert. Aided by her atypical goals, Kay was admitted by Cornell, her first choice. The delightfully astonished voice message she left to share her good news made my hall of fame.
Before retaining me, Jagdeep had made it as far as an interview with Texas McCombs, but the verdict of all six of his schools was ultimately unambiguous: not ready for primetime. In providing ding feedback, one school had even gone so far as to list fourteen areas for improvement! Jagdeep had his work cut out for him. He was a technology guy from India, with a 710 GMAT, a telecom engineer’s business card and no direct reports, the thoroughly predictable goal of transitioning into finance, and no current extracurricular leadership. The GMAT was fine, and we knew Jagdeep had little control over his workplace advancement. That left goals and extracurriculars as our makeover focus. Noting that Jagdeep’s finance goals were vague and unconvincing, I pointed out that a healthcare theme ran persistently through his life, from his physician family members and medical volunteering in India to his healthcare-related work in grad school and first job. Had Jagdeep ever considered an entrepreneurial career that united his healthcare and telecom themes? Now that you mention it …
But there was still the leadership problem. Acknowledging that his extracurriculars were the one part of his life he could clearly control, Jagdeep strategically postponed his applications to the second round to give himself time to ramp up his non-work leadership. Months later, Jagdeep was growing a self-initiated local alumni group, led a team of volunteers for a local charity (health care related, of course), and managed a medical research study for a university grateful for his project skills. Lo, a leader was born. Duke and Virginia snapped him up.
Tuan had a 640 GMAT score dragged down by a truly humble verbal score. But he also had a relatively distinctive industry background (automotive), a dizzying variety of community involvements (from the YMCA and United Way to Alzheimer’s Association and Rotary Club), and an unmistakable fast-track profile as a young project leader already supervising eight employees. The University of Chicago was his dream, and because he was based in the Midwest its part-time program was feasible for him—significantly improving his odds of admission. Tuan added the following brief note to the end of an optional essay devoted to more positive material: “I would like to clarify to the committee that my disappointing verbal score on the GMAT does not mean my oral and written communication skills are inadequate. I regularly make group presentations to customers, submit written weekly project reports to my management, and have authored five papers on distribution management published in prominent professional journals. I am ready for the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in every respect.” Chicago agreed and admitted him.
I had to lower my voice when speaking with Michael. His rock band had been his passion and his life since his teen-age years. All those amped-up concerts had gradually fried his ear drums, however, until even the sound of the human voice caused him excruciating pain. Not only was he forced to give up music; he had hid himself away at home to avoid irritating sounds, before eventually getting treatment. While the typical applicant might have milked this story for all its adversity potential, Michael did much more. Shocked to discover that there was no national organization for victims of his disorder, he created one, formally registered it, and began fielding emails from fellow sufferers. By taking advantage of an optional essay to explain his crusade, Michael won admission to MIT Sloan.
Sanjay B. was an outstanding applicant. He had a good GPA (3.4) at a Big Ten university; work experience that included three blue-chip firms, General Motors, Dell, and GE Capital; significant international experience including assignments in Paris and Singapore; unusually strong leadership exposure for someone so early in his career; and well-articulated goals. His was the profile of a fast-rising, tireless, make-it-happen future manager. But Sanjay also had huge weaknesses: a GMAT score of 580, roughly 100 points below Michigan’s (then) average, and only one and a half years of full-time work experience at the time of his application. What’s more, he had no deep extracurricular involvements or unusual personal or cultural profile to offset his glaring negatives. That Michigan wait-listed him bordered on the miraculous (and said something about the strength of his essays). But how could such a “marginal” candidate realistically hope to survive the end-of-season wait-list weeding?
Sanjay did it by launching a sustained guerilla wait-list campaign that included regular update letters detailing substantial professional advances and enthusiastically discussing specific features of Michigan’s program. Sanjay’s first draft was solid, even good, but it needed some work on its abrupt transitions, its occasionally overly general statements, and its overall wordiness. Sanjay’s final draft addressed all of these concerns.
Unfortunately, even this strong letter was not enough. Two months later, as June wore into July, Sanjay was still on Michigan’s wait list. From his Sao Paulo assignment, Sanjay watched time and his hopes running out. Fortunately, he had outstanding news—he was receiving a major promotion, incontrovertible new evidence of the fast-track profile he had hammered away at in his Michigan essays eight months before. Heartened, Sanjay crafted the following letter, and then drove its message home by arranging two enthusiastic, genuine, and knowledgeable reference letters from new senior managers at GE Capital.
Faced with a candidate who had deepened his impressive professional profile with a promotion and new overseas assignment, was clearly and consistently articulating his passionate commitment to their program, and was backing up his self-advocacy with two new glowing recommendations, Michigan decided to overlook Sanjay’s youth and undeniably weak GMAT score. A month later he was finalizing his move to Ann Arbor.
John D. applied to the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in economics, a decent GMAT (690), an impressive title (Director of Import Purchasing) in an unusual industry (hospital supply), and job responsibilities that included managing four people, overseeing a $35 million budget, and frequent travel around the world. Moreover, as a Ukrainian immigrant he had a distinctive cultural profile and a very clear and specific reasons for making Chicago GSB his number-one choice.
Alas, John had made the mistake of applying in the third round, and that fact, combined with a weak track record in extracurricular/community activities, landed him on Chicago’s wait list. He was determined and motivated, however. He immediately asked his admissions contact at Chicago for feedback. She advised him to submit a letter “reiterating your interest in the Chicago GSB, how you plan to contribute outside of the academic arena, and talk about anything that has happened since you applied.” He also showed his essays to Chicago GSB students who were willing to help. One student’s advice helped focus him on making the impassioned, concrete case that Chicago needed from him: “Write from your heart. Tell us why you want to sell your house and move family to this cold city for two years. Why is it so important that you do that?” Another sounded a gloomier note: “Not having any meaningful community service in the past few years is going to hurt you. . . . The GSB wants future CEOs, not just people who can analyze data. . . . Trouble is, if all you talk about are things you did years ago in college, it will look really bad.”
John came to me anxious, even frantic: “I have been talking to at least 3 current students about my wait list and one GSB alumni. I do have lots of information and ideas, but meanwhile, I am lost, losing focus. That is the reason I ask for help from Accepted.com to clear my thoughts. . . . If there is only one spot open up, I need to take it! This is my goal!” John’s high motivation was a very good sign. The outline we crafted helped him “clear his thoughts” and write a strong wait-list letter that addressed exactly what Chicago recommended: further reasons why Chicago was his best match, details on his plans for community leadership to compensate for weakness in that area, and his latest professional accomplishments.
Six weeks later, John’s eagerness to do everything he could to survive wait-list purgatory paid off when Chicago offered him admission.
“Akbar” came to me in mid-February 2014 with several major challenges. First, though it was well after the second-round deadlines he wanted—of course—to gain admission to the top business schools in 2013-14, though the odds of admission so late in the admissions year are rarely good. Second was the reason why he was such a hurry: he was 33—putting him squarely in the oldest 5-10% of most top business schools’ student bodies. Third, he had a 690 GMAT score with a 75th percentile verbal score—a solid score but not one that really offset his 57% GPA which I agreed “seemed low” as he laconically put it. Third, Akbar was an Indian male technologist, perhaps the most crowded and competitive demographic for MBA aspirants on this planet. Finally, he was oblivious to the odds facing him: his first-choice business schools that included Harvard, Chicago Booth, and London Business School, and even his “backups”—including Kellogg, Columbia, and Yale—looked like ‘stretch’ schools to me.
Thankfully, there was also much to like. Akbar had helped his agriculturalist father transform his business through resourceful marketing, and he ambitiously gained work experience in the US, learned German, and most importantly, had spent the past 6 years in South Korea—not the typical Indian technologists’ overseas experience. Best of all, Akbar had adjusted successfully to Korea’s rigorous, conservative culture, earning promotion to Manager, where he now directly managed 8 team members. Akbar was clearly an impressive guy.
After convincing Akbar to look at a more realistic range of schools, including European schools where his age would be less of an issue, I also focused his essays on his single best asset: how he had adapted himself to Korean culture. This story turned out to be a doozy: Akbar had patiently jumped through all of Korea’s cultural and linguistic hoops, including joining the company baseball team (a sport he had known nothing about) and volunteering to learn Chinese in 6 months so he could be the bridge between his non-Chinese-speaking Korean team and a non-Korean-speaking Chinese client. Finally, when he realized his company’s typically Korean culture––stay late until the boss leaves-–-was ruining productivity and work-life balance he swallowed his India-bred respect for seniority and proposed reengineering the company’s work culture directly to the CEO. This led to Akbar’s personal leadership of a team-building exercise that slashed work hours and improved morale with no loss in productivity and was eventually adopted company wide.
With stories like these working for him, Akbar earned admissions offers from 4 European schools, including IE in Spain and HEC Paris, ultimately choosing to earn his MBA at the latter.