When I was an admissions officer
for UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, I was often asked by applicants
how I decided between two "identical" candidates. I
always responded that no two candidates are "identical"
even if they happen to have the same GMAT score, the
same GPA with the same major from the same school, and
the same number of years of work experience in the same
position in the same industry. In fact, everyone is
different and everyone has a different story to tell.
So, contrary to what many
applicants think, business school admissions is not just
"numbers-driven." And though many complain about having
to take the GMAT and its seeming importance to business
school admissions committees, the simple truth is that
it's just one of the many elements that AdComs
consider. They also look at undergraduate records
(including the quality of your undergraduate institution
and difficulty of your major), work experience, letters
of recommendation, supplemental information, and
essays. If your scores and grades both look good, then
readers quickly move on to the other aspects of your
application because that is how you distinguish yourself
from other candidates.
The reason top schools admit so
many candidates with excellent grades and scores is
because of the overall high quality of the applicant
pool. But some admits may have excellent scores that
offset lower GPAs (especially in a rigorous major at a
strong undergraduate program). And some admits may have
mediocre scores that are offset by outstanding grades
from an excellent school. But with a notable weakness
in one area, everything else presented in the
application has to be exceptional.
As an example, I was once the first
reader for an applicant with a 570 GMAT when 80% of our
admits fell in the range between 660 and 720. However,
I decided to be an advocate for this applicant because
he had graduated in the top 10% of his class in
economics from a well-respected liberal arts college.
He had also shown leadership in many extracurricular
As a non-US citizen he was currently working for a top
NY investment bank and had glowing letters of
recommendation. (He had come alone to the US for
college and had stayed after graduation.) And, finally,
his essays were compelling. In fact, the only weakness
in his file was his GMAT score. Still, I had to make a
strong case for his admission to my director.
Fortunately, he accepted our offer of admission and
distinguished himself in many ways as our student,
including representing the school as a student
ambassador. He took a huge risk in applying with a low
score, especially since he took the exam only once, but
it paid off because he put so much effort into the rest
of his application. He even met his wife in our
We also had other candidates from
non-traditional backgrounds and industries –
not-for-profit, music, medicine, law, and government –
who overcame a weakness in their applications by showing
remarkable strengths and talents in other areas. Most
importantly, all our admits had a clear vision of why
they needed an MBA, why they wanted to attend our
specific program, and what their career goals were.
Admissions committees need to be convinced that you will
make a strong contribution to the program and add to the
diverse experiences of the other students. And that is
why the essays are your best opportunity to show the
committee who you really are – beyond the numbers.
– Contributed by Senior Consultant
Mennette Larkin, a former Associate Director of MBA
Admissions at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She
holds a master's degree from the University of Chicago
and served for two years on the admissions committee at
the Graduate School of Business.
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