A Real Life Admissions Story

In the late 1990s, right before my academic career started, I went to business school to earn my MBA. The class was quite usual for a b-school class and quite usual for a group of mostly 20-something-year-olds being placed together in a group without knowing a thing about one another. We were by and large relatively high-achieving students from mostly decent or great undergraduate schools with decent or great test scores with good GPAs and an early, deep insecurity to impress one another. Get ready for all of this in your early week of law school, by the way. It will feel like high school for high achievers.

Then there was this one classmate of mine, Brian, who never seemed to have a desire to impress anyone. He wasn't talkative nor was he really trying to even make friends. Business schools are unusual in that they focus a great deal on team building – much more so than law schools. So, in our first week, we went into the woods with some wilderness experts every morning and did team building activities (incidentally, in the afternoon we were always in full business suits doing incredibly boring etiquette and networking building experiences – I'd take the wilderness part any day of the week over the suit part). Brian was really good at the wilderness part and really bad at the etiquette part. But neither seemed to impress or bother him. That's rare for this age/pressure group level, especially when you are thrust into these kinds of environments. Generally — and I would include myself very much in this group when I was in my 20s — you'd be very pleased to impress your new classmates and internally dissatisfied if you were unimpressive. We didn't have social media upvotes back then, but I have feeling I would care a lot more about those things at 24 than I do now at 48. Similar analogy, I think.

Here's the fun and instructive part of the story. Over time, I got to know Brian. He was a "conditional admit" — the only one in the entire class. His test scores were so low there was really zero reason for the school to have admitted him. His degree was from an almost unheard of college. I'm not even sure if he knew his undergraduate GPA. Brian told me all of this one evening as he and I entered a "tough man" competition. I doubt they still have these — if they do, someone please let me know; I'd enjoy watching one post-COVID — but back in the late 1990s, once a week, you could go to this jam packed bar, and maybe 18 to 32 people would enter their names with the bar owners, and you'd be randomly placed against one of the other entrants and literally fight them. Think "Fight Club" but much less brutal, as the fight was with boxing gloves (although all but a few of us were boxers). Brian wasn't a boxer at all, and my boxing experience was limited to being the sparing partner once of an Olympic-aspiring 230 pound former college linebacker who used to bash me from the Vanderbilt Recreation Center to somewhere around Utah every morning for a few months.

So what happened that night? I got paired up against this tough guy who, of course, happened to also be an upcoming professional boxer. He eventually won the whole thing, so he obviously beat me. And I'm still here today — so, arguably, worth the experience. Brian, with zero boxing experience, made it all the way to the quarter finals. He was just more tough and competitive and aggressive (despite being an entirely unaggressive person in real life) than each person they threw at him.

So, as the night came to its conclusion, we talked a bit more. I asked him about his background, to which he replied, "My wife and I are truck drivers." The natural follow-up question was, "Why are you in business school?" and the answer was that they worked for a company and wanted to have their ultimate freedom of doing their own thing some day. Driving trucks but as a company of two.

I don't think Brian ever had to take that second GMAT to satisfy his conditional admit. I don't think the school actually cared. He graduated — I'm sure he learned a good deal and did just fine with his work ethic  and went right back to driving trucks for a living. The entire reason he was admitted was because HIS STORY, his legitimate story, was unique to the school. He added a dimension that the class would otherwise not have. The admissions office assessed, incredibly correctly I would add, that we would be better as a group, better in teams, with his perspective. And we were.

What can you take away from this story? Well, I wouldn't run off and get married to a truck driver and form a duo just yet. But I have podcasted here about the most overlooked part of the three elements of admissions – Goals/Objectives, Strategy, and Tactics. We all know our goals — we pick which schools we apply to. I am going to guess Brian wasn't that great at tactics. Most people aren't. Most people have almost never been asked to write about themselves before, so the personal statement can be very challenging. Interviews can seem to carry so much weight that many people get thrown off their game and don't do quite as well on that tactic. Etc. But Brian won more than any other applicant that year on the strategy element in admissions, which is always that you have to differentiate yourself in some way against all the other applicants such that the admissions officer(s) want to admit you. That is always the strategy in both admissions and job searches. Positive differentiation. Brian's story was highly, highly differentiated.

I'm not sure if we all have really cool stories, but we all have stories that are unique to us. That's a great starting point in admissions at any level — not "How can I impress some unknown admissions committee?" but "What do I have that matters to me, that makes me who I am?"

As a postscript to this, I just looked for Brian on LinkedIn and couldn't find him. My best guess is he and his wife have their own trucking business and are out on the road somewhere.

– Mike Spivey