Friday, July 6, 2007

What kinds of people get into HBS, Stanford or Wharton?

One of the most common inquiries I get is "what are my chances at Harvard/Stanford/Wharton? What kind of people do they look for?" The mythical "HBS, Stanford and Wharton" trifecta represents the epitome of what many applicants view as the Promised Land, or the quest for the holy grail (or maybe their own version of the 72 virgins in heaven).

These schools look for the same things as any other school - strong academics, quality work experience, strong interpersonal skills, and "depth" (i.e. no androids or worker drones). The difference is, these schools can afford to be more picky simply because they have a stronger pool of applicants to choose from.

There are essentially three kinds of people (regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.) at the Sweet Sixteen schools (see my prior post for what I mean by Sweet Sixteen):

(1) Blue Chips - these are folks with pedigree. They went to top undergrads and worked at highly sought after jobs (by those at the top undergrads). There's nothing particularly special about them as people, but they have a strong blue chip background. They are the Princeton undergrad to McKinsey kids, the Westpoint grad who serves in Iraq, Wharton undergrad to Goldman kids, and so forth. They didn't just work in IB, but they work at Goldman or Morgan Stanley. They didn't just work at no-name private equity fund, but they worked at Carlyle or TPG. They didn't just work in consulting, but at McKinsey/Bain/BCG. They are smart and accomplished kids who did as well as they could taking a traditional and well-trodden path.

(2) Vagabonds - these are folks who went to the same colleges as the Blue Chips (i.e. top undergrads), but rather than work at Goldman or Bain, they decided to take the road less traveled. They did the Peace Corps, worked as a theater producer, played on the PGA tour, became a clergyman (of whatever religion), worked in nonprofit, etc. Or they may have spent a year at Morgan Stanley, hated it, and decided to work as a personal aide to a Senator or Congressman.

(3) Average Joes -- they went to okay colleges, worked in decent jobs (IT, accounting, some random corporate job, 2nd tier consulting, etc.). Or they went to top undergrads, but ended up in decent but unremarkable jobs (i.e. a lot of the IIT folks who are applying, or the Harvard undergrad who works at a Big-4). Or they are they went to okay undergrads, and worked at no-name hedgefunds. Or they went to a state school and ended up in IB or MC. And so forth.

The difference with HBS, Stanford and Wharton is that you'll see far more Blue Chips and Vagabonds (and by extension, less Average Joes) than you'll see at other schools, and particularly at HBS and Stanford. That's partly self-selection (a good chunk of the Blue Chips and Vagabonds apply only to these schools), but also the fact that they are more sought after by all b-schools. Schools outside of these three will still get their share of Blue Chips and Vagabonds, but not to the same degree. And by extension, there are quite a few Average Joes at these three schools but not to the same degree as other schools.

One other thing: age range matters too. A Blue Chip who is more than 5 years out of undergrad sees his/her chances at these three schools diminish. Most of the Blue Chips you'll find at these schools are roughly 24 - 27 years old (but you can get away with being a little older at Wharton, and it's not really an issue outside of H/S/W). With Average Joes, there is also a limited window where you have a fighting chance -- around 2 - 5 years experience (and outside of H/S/W it's less an issue). It's only with the Vagabonds and US military personnel where age is less an issue (and if you look at the older folks in these classes, most are Vagabonds and US military officers (and if you're thinking that being in the Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Israeli military for the 1 - 2 year stint as part of your mandatory service is seen in the same light - it's not; they dynamics are simply not the same as choosing the military as your career path in a volunteer army). While schools like to talk about getting "all kinds of people from all age ranges", the reality is at HBS, Stanford or Wharton, the window of opportunity is a bit narrower, and if you're an outlier (especially on the older side), you better have something special and unique to bring to the table.

Of course a lot of people don't fit neatly into one of these three buckets, but it's a good rough way to determine how an adcom will see your profile.

One way to look at it is that at H/S/W, if you are a Blue Chip or Vagabond, you are competitive so long as you submit a strong application. However, if you are an Average Joe, you need to be very lucky as well in addition to submitting a strong application (because of your Average Joe background, it becomes a far more subjective and random process).

Also, one thing to keep in mind is that for most of the Blue Chips and Vagabonds, going to HBS or Wharton or Stanford isn't the best thing that's happened to them - they have a long enough list of pedigree and/or accomplishments in their lives already that it's not that big a deal for them whether they have the HBS name or not. They don't dream about having a prestigious degree, because many of them already have one (their undergrad), or have done some pretty interesting things in their lives that it trumps whatever brand name they have on their resume. That's why you'll see that the biggest proponents of "brand" and what it does for your career on this board (and to some extent in real life) are people who didn't go to these schools (i.e. they don't get it) - brand doesn't come before achievement and talent; achievement and talent comes first, and "brand/pedigree" is a nice dessert that may or may not result.

Adcoms tend to admit people who don't need the "brand" on the resume - they would've been successful without it. It's like health insurance where they provide insurance only to the superhealthy, or banks lending only to those who don't need the money.

The real acid test for applicants is this: if getting into HBS or Stanford would be the best thing that's ever happened to you professionally or personally, your chances are probably pretty slim (because you don't have enough to bring to the table, which is why HBS/Stanford/Wharton would be the best thing that's happened to you).


Beuwolf said...

Israeli Military is 3 years mandatory and a good percentage does a 4th year as well. I would not consider it a stint.

B said...

Harsh, but you have some good points. The only thing I see missing is the entire 20% of H/S/W's class profile of engineers/scientists. Many of us (some from top undergrads) worked in our original field for a few years before deciding business is what we want to study. Which "group" do they belong to?

Pauline said...

Very interesting read, and I am sure it is by and large true, but:

On one hand you posit that the creme de la creme (Blue Chip) folks are self-selecting. They tend to apply to Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton and get easily selected.

On the other hand you say towards the end that if the best thing has happened to you is Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, then you won't be selected.

The irony is that there is apparently no one who doesn't "need" an MBA from these three top schools. Even the best Blue Chip folks keep applying. Why?

You seem to miss the point that everyone wants the best they can get. While there are many boilerplate professions that will go into your definition of Blue Chip (Princeton to McKinsey et al) I have also seen several profiles that are not so obvious or common. Decent but not sparkling schools, but excellent work experience from unconventional firms. Not your marine or police stuff, but interesting organizations.

These people do get into the top schools. At Wharton in particular I have seen many such folks.

Suresh said...

please tell us something we don't know.

shadi said...

I think this is one of the better posts I have read on MBA admissions. Having gone to Stanford as an undergrad, my peers who have returned to get an MBA from Stanford, Harvard or Wharton fall into the first two buckets. Some started companies and worked at non-profits, others did 2-3 years of consulting or PE or banking. In all of their cases, none "had to have the MBA." They bought a lot to the table but I have no doubt that they would succeed even if they didn't go back. That doesn't mean that I haven't seen amazing individuals who went to less prestigious undergraduate schools admitted. Some in fact did not go back for an MBA and did not go to a top 10 undergrad school but are still some of the most successful and talented investors or CEOs I've ever met. For a lot of my Stanford and Harvard friends, business school is one option, not the only option... that's why they apply and it's true, the people I see get in are those who don't have to have that stamp of approval; they are already distinguished in their own ways.

Bryan said...

Alex- Don't forget the real "average joes" like me. The guys who are not super bright and have no ambition, but somehow managed to get into a top 25 undergrad, but hated it. Then got a 2nd teir consulting job, and hated it. Then applied to B-School just to get away from the crumby consulting job, and now is stuck in a top five-ish b-school with a bunch of people who are overly ambitious, and I don't like very much.

We are the real average joes, and by some strange twist in the fabric of the universe have ended up in places that we shouldn't be. Don't ever forget about us.

Pradeep said...

The entire post is very convoluted. Your "profile" i.e Princeton/McK/3 years is not half as important as your application itself. I have seen people from India with IT backgrounds (non-IITians) make it to H/S/W and people from some fancy UG schools going to lesser schools. You the person is the only thing which matters. Otherwise, the process would not be as comprehensive as it is.

Original said...

Great post. Not too much to disagree with here. Pedigree of undergrad or work matters a whole lot when applying to these schools. As far as work pedigree is concerned, large consumer goods companies like Johnson and Johnson also seem to offer that pedigree (in reply to comment about engineers/scientists, engr/sci will fall into pedigree group if they worked at Fortune 500 consumer goods/Pharma or prestigious goverment/non profit organization). It also matters what roles you are in within those companies . Brand management seems to be favored.
I think people (adcom) do not like to take risks in general. (Can you blame them?) So, they are likely to go for certain types in spite of themselves. If you were adcom at H/S/W would you select state school graduate with a decent job over the Harvard student who worked at a Hedge Fund because those opportunities were available to him? Unless the Harvard grad is a total failure or the state school grad launched and sold a company for 8 figures, probably not. In fact selecting the ivy grad helps to further the mystique of these schools which works to their advantage. This is not to say that someone without pedigree but who has been a top performer every where they have been will not get into H/S/W. But this goes back to what the article and a few commenters have said; the kind of people these schools want to and will admit for the most, did not need an MBA from those schools to be successful. It is a snowball effect though. I think the HBS MBA brand does propel people into C-level suite. Take a look at bios of Fortune 500 executives. A good chunk of them went to Harvard (I have heard 1 in 3 of those with MBAs went to HBS). Unless HBS adcom can see the future, the name has to count for something. Moral of the story: If you are in your sophomore year at a no-name school, sit up, ace your academics, get leadership experience in clubs, get an internship at a firm with pedigree, hope they hire you full time, excel when you are there and then after 2years apply to HBS. Not a guarantee you will get in, but you will have a fair shot.

J said...

Does a PhD count as a blue chip or a vagabond (or an average joe for tha matter) or none of these? Does it matter what the subject is?

open eyez open mind said...

No offense, but I imagine that only folks who disagree with this post are those who didn't come from the blue chip background. This post is a rather hard pill to swallow, though true. Blue chips self-select most of the time, because they can. And if they end up at a sub-par school, it's most likely for a really good reason, not b/c they didn't have options.

Nicholas said...

Lets look at some recent exploits of HBS alumni once they went out into the real world:

1.) Robert Rubin (HBS: Destroyer of Citigroup),
2.) Stan O'Neal (HBS: Destroyer of Merryl Lynch),
3.)John Thain (HBS: Also helped destroy Merryl Lynch),
4.) Larry Summers (Harvard: PhD Economics: Almost single handedly responsible for half the Credit Crunch),
5.) Chris Cox (HBS: Head of SEC... epic FAIL)

Who needs an MBA? All it's going to do is teach you how to destroy companies, no create them.

star said...

if blue chips were the only folks who mattered and made all the difference in the world after graduating then whoever thinks along this line is thouroughly misinformed.dont forget that mr bill gates was a harvard dropout and he wasnt such a hot shot blue chip when he was taken in..but he WAS..and now has become the case study of the top b school which according to you would have been the "best thing that ever happened to him". if he had been such a desperate average joe he would not have left the best b school ever.

T-Rex said...

this comment is retarded. Bill Gates dropped out of undergrad, not b school. If itwas b school, then it was after he started Microsoft and then we would call him a vegabond/blue chip because he was harvard guy that owned a 8 figure company applying to hbs

eileeny the meany said...
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