This article will be broken into two parts. First the bad news, then the good news.
1. The bad news: Applicants often compare themselves only to those around them, not to the universe of applicants.
Q: "I played Div I sports at my service academy. Won't this make up for my low GPA? I assume schools will appreciate the fact I was more well rounded during undergrad?"
A: Unfortunately, not likely. Did you have the highest GPA on your sports team? If not, it's very likely somebody else from your (or sister) program is also applying this year, and their higher GPA is in direct competition to yours - and the two of you may otherwise be identical. In other words, while playing Div 1 football at a service academy is definitely recognized as time consuming and impressive, if somebody else who also played Div 1 football is applying with a higher GPA, it won't go too far to help you stand out - since your competition is the other guy who played with you but had a higher GPA.
Q: "I've deployed three times, won all these great awards, and have had a nearly perfect military career to so far. Will that make up for my low GMAT?"
A: It will help, but won't completely make up for it. If you look at your entire branch of service, there are probably others out there with a nearly identical career to yours and a higher GMAT. So while you are fast tracking around your immediate peers, you have to remember who your competition really is.
Q: "I didn't go to a very well known school, but I only did that because I had to stay near my family to support them, and my family also couldn't afford to send me to a more expensive school. Wouldn't b-schools appreciate the difficulty of my background and the fact I had to support my family?"
A: You probably know where this is going... again unlikely. What about the applicant who got a ROTC scholarship at Duke, supplemented it with other academic scholarships, and also worked a job part-time to support his family? That's your competition at HBS - and even the guy from Duke may have tougher competition from somebody who did the same thing at Yale?
Ok, many of you are probably pretty down on yourself now. So let me clarify things that will help. The points above are not to say that you cannot be competitive. It's to say that what you may find as "mitigating" circumstances are actually not that mitigating at all. I would therefore advice against writing in your application something like "Yes, my GPA was low, but I had all these football team requirements" - but instead "Yes, my GPA was low, and that's because I didn't have the proper time-management skills to handle the multiple requirements placed in front of me. I'm glad I learned that early lesson in my career, because I have since learned to balance competing interests more effectively. For example, as a young officer... etc. etc. etc." In other words, the key is all about positioning. This will give you the best chance. So now on to the good news.
2. The good news: Very few successful applicants to top schools actually never had a high chance of success. Confused? I'll explain.
Let's again look at HBS as an example, and for simplicity let's assume 50 military applicants will get accepted next year (actual number will likely range from 35-55).
In one scenario, the applications could play like this:
Scenario 1 (not reality):
- 10 people with a 90% chance of getting in apply. 9 of those get in
- 40 people with an 80% chance of getting in apply. 32 of those get in.
- 18 people with a 50% chance of getting in apply. 9 of those get in.
- In total, 50 people get in.
- Nobody with a below 50% chance of getting in was accepted. Obviously this is mathematically nearly impossible.
A more realistic scenario is something in this direction...
Scenario 2 (reality):
- Category 1: 10 people with an 70% of getting in apply. 7 of those get in. (Equivalent of 9+ points*).
- Category 2: 30 people with a 50% of getting in apply. 15 of those get in. (Equivalent of 7-8 points*).
- Category 3: 50 people with a 28% chance apply. 14 of those get in. (Equivalent of 6 points*)
- Category 4: 50 people with a 16% chance apply. 8 of those get in. (Equivalent of 4-5 points*)
- Category 5 : 50 people with a 8% chance apply. 4 of those get in. (Equivalent of 3-4 points*)
- Category 6: 100 people with a 2% chance applied. 1 of those gets in. (Equivalent of 2 or less points*)
- In total, 50 people get in. Average (hypothetical) acceptance rate is 17% (50 people out of 290 applicants)
To me, scenario 2 is more likely to reflect reality at a place like HBS. So what does this mean to you?
- Very few people are "likely" to get in -- in fact -- only 7 of those will actually get in.
- The vast majority of people who get in would have been assessed as having a 50% chance or below of getting in.
- 14 people (almost a quarter of those admitted) would be considered "long shots" at 16% chance or below. Therefore, if you assess yourself as a long shot, it doesn't mean you shouldn't apply. Statistically many of you will get in - it's just your individual odds which are not high (though that may not be very comforting).
Why does it work that way?
This is because applicants are SO competitive... many applicants end up looking very much like each other. Similar GPA, similar GMAT, similar career experience, etc, yet only so many seats are available. At the end of the day, three people may end up looking almost identical, but the school can only choose one of them... and that final choice therefore has a certain degree of randomness involved. It's why an applicant can apply to so many similar programs and only get into some of them... rarely does somebody get into all of them or none of them.
So really... what does it mean to you?
Your mission is to get yourself into as high of a "category" of folks as I listed above as possible. This can be done in three ways:
1) Doing as well as possible on your GMAT.
2) Preparing your application far in advance by doing the kinds of things that will supplement your packet. (More advice on this).
3) Positioning your application as best as possible, writing your best possible essays, and coaching your recommenders appropriately.
So I started this article with a bit of a downer for those with a weak GPA or GMAT, but I am actually writing to let you know that there are things you can do to still help your odds otherwise. What you don't want to do is make excuses for the weak GPA or GMAT and assume that other not-so-unique attributes will make up for it. Review at my list of three basic tips above, and contact us if you want to discuss your particular situation.