How to Be Admitted with the Lowest GMAT and GPA in Your MBA Class

A few years ago, one of my GMAT students asked me to work with him on his applications.

I was aware of his professional experience, and I knew that he wasn’t going to be a particularly strong candidate. Still, he was a nice guy and I’d gotten to know him well, so I told him to focus on the GMAT and said I would work with him once he got an acceptable score.

By the time fall rolled around, he had gotten his nose over the bar on the GMAT—though just barely. That’s when I learned about his GPA. His undergraduate experience had been rough and his grades were pretty low. I knew what I was facing: a low GPA, a barely acceptable GMAT score and work experience that was less than stellar.

Still, Dave was a good guy and I wanted to help him out. I knew that on his own he stood no chance of being admitted to a top-tier school. If he got in—and that would be a big if—I would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I had made the difference for him.

His First Draft

I'll put it mildly: the first essay draft I got from Dave was crap—among the worst I've ever seen. This guy stood no chance of writing his way into grad school. He was way off topic and saying nothing that an admissions officer would find interesting. So I drew up a new plan.

I told him that based on numbers and work experience alone he didn’t stand a chance against other applicants in his category. He was in finance and that’s an unusually competitive group in the MBA applicant pool. Fortunately, however, I knew something about Dave’s personal life and the challenges he had faced growing up. Our only chance was to write a story about those challenges and pitch it in a way that the admissions officers would find compelling. He agreed, and we got to work.

His Applicant Brand

We pitched Dave as someone who had been an underdog all his life. Because of family hardships, he had both started and finished his college education behind his peers; and his challenges meant that he didn't perform well as an undergrad. When it came time to interview for his first real job, he was literally laughed out of the room at a private equity fund because his academic profile was so unimpressive. He had blown it, and he knew it.

So he was forced to start his professional career at the bottom and spend five years working his way up the ladder, but he never made it into a role that would put him on track for a top asset management job. To get that shot, he would need an MBA from an elite school.

The Outcome

The personal story we crafted was so touching and relatable that Dave got two admits at top-tier schools. And the first admit came with a surprise—a full-ride scholarship for both years. When he asked the admissions officer why he had been offered a scholarship, she replied that the admissions staff had been moved by his essay.

This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years: an essay with a compelling personal story can overcome mediocre college grades and modest work experience. I have worked with many successful applicants like Dave who had modest achievements but great personal stories, and they got in because of those stories.

A Postscript

It turns out that Dave set a record before ever starting classes: Both his undergrad GPA and his GMAT score matched the lowest numbers reported for his class. We laughed about it in text messages near the end of his first semester.

Below I’ll reproduce part of that exchange so you can see what he actually said. I’ve changed the name of his MBA school to Tuck, though he actually attended a different Ivy League program.

DAVE: The last 3 months have been intense!!!! Talk about highs and lows. Fitbit has kept track...been at B-school for 12-17 hrs. per day, based on sleeping an average of less than 6 hrs./night since September. But I've hit investment banking hard and it's paid off. My background isn't spotless, so I've hit the networking harder than anyone. I've had around 60 individual informational interviews and now have final round investment banking interviews with some of the best on Wall Street — JP Morgan, Bank of America, Barclays, and UBS, plus a few other good options. And among my peers, they tell me I'm one of the strongest candidates in our class. In hindsight, I wish had hit Goldman harder, but started the process feeling like a weak link. Talk about a crazy ride, though, when 4 years ago a boutique in NY that isn't even on the map laughed me out of their office for my undergraduate school and GPA.

Lots to chat about sometime if you're free.

ME: Holy cow! This is great news. Let's find time to catch up. Ironically, I'm working on application essays right now. Thrilled with your news, though.

DAVE: Ha ha. Doing what you do best. I'm going to sleep all day tomorrow, but other than that I'd love to catch up whenever you're free. And I know what you mean. The other day, my roommate at Tuck said I'm a masochist, because he's seen my hustle these past few months. Lowest GPA and GMAT at Tuck. Still find it funny how that worked out. Good bragging rights for you in your classes.

ME: That's the funniest story. I somehow need to publish an article on it, changing the school and the data to hide the identity. That way people won't be so intimidated about applying!

DAVE: Aha, yea. I told one of my Tuck peers about my GMAT and GPA while drunk and sleep-deprived one night, and his response was, "How he hell did you get in?" I've since kept a tighter lid on that.

A Post-Postscript

While in business school, Dave met a Harvard Medical School student, and shortly after completing their studies they married. They recently had their first child. Not a bad outcome for a guy with the lowest GMAT score and undergraduate GPA in his MBA admit class.