When I was an admissions officer for Stanford’s Graduate 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 or GRE 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 activities. 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 program!

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.

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