Guest Posts, Free Evaluation, MBA Preparation

Achieving Admissions Nirvana

May 31 2016 By The MBA Exchange
Select viewing preference

We’re delighted to share part one of a two-part blog by Seth Gilmore, a senior admissions consultant at The MBA Exchange.

You can’t ask for it. You definitely can’t expect it. You have very little chance of achieving it. It’s kind of like a unicorn, a Silicon Valley startup valued at over a billion dollars, in that it definitely exists, but it’s so rare that your chances of having one yourself are akin to winning the lottery.

Now that’s a lot of buildup for what amounts to a single email that a) is not part of your formal application, b) is sent by a current student, professor or alum of your target business school directly to the adcom, and c) actually pushes the needle on your application from “maybe” to “definitely.”

I’ve seen it happen a few times. And while there’s no way to prove causality beyond a reasonable doubt, I’m almost certain it was such a unicorn that tipped the scales in favor of these qualified applicants.

Just like applying to HBS, stalking a unicorn is the sort of thing you probably can’t help yourself from attempting, even knowing that the odds are against you. But unlike contributing $250 to HBS’s already well-endowed coffers, unicorn hunting is like playing with fire – you can also get burned.

First, let’s be clear about one thing: It’s actually pretty easy to get someone to write an “unsolicited” letter to the adcom on your behalf and in fact it happens all the time. Adcoms, though, have been to that rodeo before, and they can smell the obligatory recommendation a hemisphere away. When asked to write a letter on behalf of a student she just couldn’t bring herself to actually endorse, my mother, a retired teacher, occasionally used to write things like, “I can’t say enough about this student.” As in, “there’s really nothing good to say…” No doubt your letter-writer will be far more earnest and, since you really are worth recommending, will do his or her level best to finesse the letter in the savviest way possible in an attempt to fabricate a unicorn on your behalf. Unfortunately, the adcom is still savvier than your letter writer.

Now, about that fire you’re playing with. If a unicorn is akin to application nirvana, attempting but screwing up the creation of a unicorn can put you somewhere along the 7th circle of hell, application-wise. Here is how to fly your unicorn straight into the inferno:

Contact a current student at your target school, say, the president of a club you’re interested in, and ask them:

a) something that can be easily found on the school’s website or on Poets & Quants
b) what they like about their school
c) how their school compares to other business schools

Why? These are lazy questions. You’re asking them to do your research for you and thus you are wasting their time. They’re extremely busy, they’re highly stressed and they just don’t have time for your lethargy. Piss them off enough and they may even be tempted to write a different sort of note to the adcom along the lines of: “This one’s a dud.” Ci vediamo all’inferno.

So, then, what is the path to admissions Nirvana?

A quick story: In a former life I was assigned to work with a senior manager and a programmer in order to create a database that was intended to help my company recover from having been on the losing end of a consequential Supreme Court case. For weeks on end I sat in a room every day listening to these two people argue over how the database, once built, should function. They were each brilliant in their own way, but they absolutely spoke different business languages and utterly failed to communicate with each other. It got ugly. Finally, after two months, I quietly met with the programmer alone and in the space of two hours we built the database from top to bottom, according to my interpretation of the manager’s requirements. When I showed it to the manager, she played with it for about an hour, asked for two small tweaks, then launched it the next morning. That database is still being used to this day.

Here’s the point: People respond far better to something that is concrete than to something that is theoretical, because concrete they can wrap their mind around, but theoretical is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

When you approach a unicorn-maker, therefore, you should do so with something that is concrete, something they can actually work with. Your job is to say essentially this: “Here is who I am. Here’s what I want to do with my life.* Here’s why I need an MBA. Here’s why I think your business school is the best place for me to get one. Do you agree that I would be a good fit, based on what I’ve told you about myself and my aspirations, and your experience with this school?”


This is the sort of angle that, if well executed, might just lead to a momentous conversation that ultimately births a unicorn. If you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to fully prepare for that conversation on your own, think seriously about hiring an MBA Exchange consultant to help you. Get started first with a free, expert analysis of your candidacy.

*In my next post I will tell you what (you should want) to do with your life.