Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Am I competitive for Harvard Business School?

"Am I competitive for a top business school" is the most common question asked by readers of this blog. Unlike traditional application pools (consulting, banking, etc.), military applicants often don't have a point of reference as to what it takes to be competitive in their application. This can sometimes lead to a significant disparity between perception and reality. Some military applicants greatly overestimate their competitiveness, while some greatly underestimate. While there are probably over a dozen dimensions in which a military applicant may be evaluated, I believe that five elements can be used to accurately predict a significant portion of the application. I outline those five here, and include above, below, and in-zone ranges. Please note that there are other aspects of the application which are important, and these are not meant to be all-inclusive. Each applicant is considered as an individual by the school, and these calculations are not perfect. A committed applicant should always apply, and always let the school be the final decision maker, not other people's opinions. I will update these formulas as we continue to build a greater set of data to draw on in the future.

1. GMAT score

Highly competitive: 740+ and quant score over 90% percentile
Fairly competitive: 700-730 or quant score between 80-90% percentile
Below zone for competition: Under 700 or quant score below 80% percentile

2. GPA

Highly competitive: 3.5+
Fairly competitive: 3.2 - 3.5
Below zone for competition: Under 3.2

3. Career performance: experience relative to peers

Highly competitive: Consistently top 10% among peers - or conveying consistent exceptional achievement beyond the typical peer group.
Fairly competitive: Some periods in top 10-15% among peers - or conveying some exceptional achievement beyond the typical peer group.
Below zone for competition: Cannot claim top 10-15% peer ranking in career - achievement mostly on par with peer group.

4. Extracurriculars

Highly competitive: Excelled in college (i.e. varsity sports, organizational leadership, etc), plus deep and meaningful leadership or impact in an organization outside the military.
Fairly competitive: Involved in highly competitive college activities (sports, debate, etc.)
Below zone for competition: Cannot point to a record of excellence in extracurriculars or significant leadership outside of professional activities

5. Essays

Highly competitive: Highly polished, multi-dimensional essays with a persuasive story about the applicant's past and a compelling vision for the future. Top 15% of peer applicant group in essay quality.
Fairly competitive: Well polished essays that convey a compelling story about the applicant's past. Top 25% of peer applicant group in essay quality.
Below zone for competition: Essays that are "pretty good" or worse - failure to significantly differentiate the applicant from his peers.


For an overall assessment, use the following formula to add up your points:
  • Highly competitive = 2 points
  • Fairly competitive = 1 point
  • Below zone = 0 points
  • Add one point if undergraduate institution is a top 10 program (excluding service academies)
  • Add one point for essays of true distinction - putting you in the top 5% of your applicant peer group in essay quality.
  • Add anywhere from 1-3 points if you have a very unique and particularly valued background
  • Subtract one point if undergraduate institution is not a top tier school (nationally recognized)
  • Subtract one point for every year you are older than 28 (i.e. 1 point for 29, 2 points for 30, etc). Applicants with an extended military contract (i.e. doctors, pilots) may be exempt from this calculation.
  • Subtract one point if a letter of recommendation is problematic or inappropriately written.
  • Subtract one point if GMAT is 660-670. Subtract two points if GMAT is 630-650. Subtract three points if GMAT is 620 or lower.  
  • Subtract one point if your GPA is below 3.0
  • There is no point change either way for attending a military academy or for any particular MOS.
  • Essays that are not competitive will kill the entire application, even if all other statistics are at the top.
  • A poor interview performance may kill the entire application.
Add all your points up, and use this reference:

9+ points = Highly competitive for HBS (odds of admission are high)
7-8 points = Moderately competitive for HBS (odds of admission are moderate)
5-6 points = Below zone, but very much still in the fight (subtle differences will make all the difference)
4 points and below = Long shot

For top schools ranked after Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, reduce the necessary points by about 2.

I hope this information helps remove a little bit of the veil for application expectations. Regardless of how one scored in this conceptual projection, I would encourage everyone who aspires to attend HBS or other top business schools to apply. Never self-select yourself out... even if your odds are not high, let the school make the ultimate determination. There are always exceptions to every rule, and there are plenty of successful applicants who had a GMAT in the 600s and a GPA in the low 3's or even high 2's.