Urban Legends


Getting Admitted Against All Odds

    These four stories all have at least a grain or truth in them. In descending order of probability (least probable last) they are:

            1) M.I.T. – a minimum of humor.

            2) Stanford Business School - maximum application.

            3) Harvard Business School - the determined applicant: education – bottom tenth of her class at a no-name college; test scores – average; work experience – waitress; goal – an Harvard MBA.

            4) Harvard Medical School - the practical joker: “God has spoken to me.”




1) M.I.T. - a minimum of humor

    I knew of two graduates, close friends with one another from the University of Pennyslvania, who had tried humorous applications to Harvard Law School. Both had pretty good grades and law boards, fine for a third tier law school, adequate with a bit of luck for a second tier one, but miles away from the Ivy League law schools, let alone the top three then (and now) of Yale, Harvard and Stanford. As they had zero chance of admissions to Harvard with conventional applications, they figured they had nothing to lose. One of the two "make them laugh" applications actually worked! Amazing! 

     So I thought I would try that method the first time I applied to  to Harvard Business School. I still think it was the best application I ever wrote. For the essay on strenghts and weaknesses I wrote a single word, "conciseness".  For the essay on why I wanted to attend Harvard, I outdid myself, writing not a single word, but a single charachter, viz. "$". This masterpiece did in fact achieve special treatment. Instead of waiting for the normal mailing date to answer me, I got a personal rejection, NOT the standard form letter, by return mail the very same week. I am sure that if I had provided a FAX number, I would have been rejected the very same day by FAX.  

       In my second attempt at the top tier schools, I was more restrained. At the time living in Germany, I had noticed an interesting job advertisement for janitorial work in a research institute funded by the German Ministry of Defense. A security clearance would be required.

    Seeing the obvious opportunity, I immediately applied. The head of the institute, a barrel-chested, white haired professor, was curious. The German applicants had all been real janitors. I was the third American to apply for the position, all students. The other two students were out of Harvard. When he had asked them why on earth they wanted part time work as a janitor, their answers had been that they needed the money and wanted a “change of pace.” What was my reason?

    I said nonsense. The Harvard students had seen the same opportunity I had – a fantastic resume booster for graduate school applications. One would write that one had worked at a research institute, which required a security clearance from the German Ministry of Defense. Therefore one could not say anything more about the research. Furthermore, we knew that research papers were published in English. As native speakers, we would be able to help clean up the English of the German scientists. The janitor position would, we hoped, eventually fall by the wayside as our editing skills became appreciated.

    The professor laughed and said that was unlikely, but if I really wanted part time work cleaning toilets, the job was mine, assuming I passed the security check. On my MBA applications I prominently featured this “research” position.

    The Dean of M.I.T.´s Sloan School telephoned me in Germany (to my considerable surprise) to tell me I was being considered for the new accelerated program limited to 30 candidates. (One had to write a Master's thesis, had special privledges at Harvard, and earned a double degree.) He wanted to ask me a few questions. For starters, could I tell him a little more about this most unusual classified research position?

    I answered I would be happy to tell him all about it. I was a janitor there. I had taken the job as a resume booster. I sure hoped he appreciated the sacrifice of all those hours spent cleaning toilets. He started laughing, and said I must have been doing a little more than that, as I had a really impressive letter of recommendation from the head of the institute.

    I said I knew all about that. I had carefully read the instructions about the letters of recommendations – and that I was not supposed to read them. I wanted the Dean to know that I had obeyed that instruction 100 percent. The Dean started to say something, but I interrupted him to continue. However, I had noted that there was no prohibition about my writing them. Therefore I had done just that. I could assure him that after they were signed, I had religiously avoided reading them.

    The Dean should also know that the professor had been the most difficult of all the recommenders to get to sign. The Dean said I really shouldn’t be telling him all this, but given the strength of the letter, he could certainly see someone hesitating to sign it. I answered no, no, wrong direction. The professor had kept on sending me back for re-writes, not to tone the recommendation down, but to make it even stronger. I had wanted him to say I loved the water and really enjoyed swimming (= learning). He had wanted to say that I “flapped my arms to fly over the water.”  Eventually we had compromised on “other rare individuals can walk on water, but few indeed can sprint across it the way he does.”

    I explained to the Dean that my admission, specifically to M.I.T., seemed to have become a cause célèbre for the German professor, a peculiar sort of ego trip. He wanted to be able to say that the people at his research institute were so good, that the lowliest person of all, the junior janitor, had gone on to graduate study at M.I.T. The Dean said I certainly was one of the more unusual candidates.  A sense of humor didn’t hurt and an offer would be forthcoming.



2) Stanford Business School – maximum application

    At the time I was working in Silicon Valley and a member of the Steering Committee of the Stanford New Enterprise Forum, an alumnae association of Stanford Business School. Because of my serving on that committee, a young woman had made an appointment with me. She wanted me to review her application to Stanford Business School. She quickly explained that she did not want it edited or anything like that. Rather she wanted feedback along the lines of: “You really need to improve this part, add this kind of experience, before applying.”

    Curious, I agreed to see her. To go over her application, point by point:

    GMATs – She had scored 99%, but just barely. That would rank her in the bottom half of the class at Stanford. (At that time, when the GMATs were a written test, a combined score of 700 was 99% and scores over 720 were rare. The average at Stanford came in at 710.) Therefore the GMAT was a definite weakness.

    Grades – Her Bachelors was Summa Cum Laude from Stanford with a major in mathematics. She explained to me that she had had good days and bad days, but never so many bad days as actually to get a B in a course. The grades were a strength.

    Work experience – She had worked three years in pharmaceutical sales, setting a sales record for the territory assigned to her, therefore receiving a larger territory, again setting a sales record, again receiving a larger territory, three years in a row. However she was not managing anyone. The work experience was basically neutral.

    Essays – The quality of the writing was adequate, not exceptional. However the content was strong. She focused on her experiences as a member of the U.S. national soccer team. Now her GMAT and grades might only have been in the 1 in 100 category. However her making the national women’s soccer team put her athletic ability in the 1 in 50,000 category at the very least. Therefore her essays were a strength.

    Letters of recommendation – Had she controlled them?  Here comes the part that strains credibility. She was assuredly just having some fun with a tall tale. She stated that she certainly had. And one of the letters was very good indeed. As part of her “attack plan” she had found out which professors were active on the admissions committee. She had found a young, attractive one, and seduced him while she was at Stanford. That had taken her the best part of two years, but in the end she had managed it. Frankly, she would have been willing to seduce Attila the Hun, any warm-blooded mammal, indeed even a reptile, but she had been lucky. The professor was a really great guy. His letter of recommendation for her was “awesome.”

    Given all of the above, what purpose was her meeting with me supposed to serve?

    She said her procedure was to show her application to top school MBAs with a challenge for them to find something to improve. For instance, a previous reviewer had said her application came across as arrogant. She believed she had fixed that. Her goal was to have three reviewers in a row say to her: “You could make minor changes here and there, but what you have is about as good as it gets. Submit it.”

    I said that summed up my judgment precisely. She sprang into the air with a shriek, “Finally!”  She told me she had been following this procedure for over a year, and the last reviewer always seemed to have a suggestion for a significant improvement. She just could not be more pleased that I had not had one.

    She followed up with a thank-you letter. She wrote in it that she had been a “Category II” admission. Who, then, would be “Category I”?  Examples would include a female neurosurgeon from Germany and a man who had been a speechwriter for the President of the U.S. A personal letter of recommendation from the President of the U.S. doesn’t hurt, and presumably his essays were pretty good too.



3) Harvard Business School – the determined applicant

    She had been good in math at high school, good, but not great. She went on to a state university and studied engineering. She did poorly, graduating in the bottom tenth of her class. She took the GMATs and scored in the middle 500s, in the 70% - 75% overall. (Although Harvard does not have an official “cut-off,” hardly any foreigner, let alone a native speaker of English, is admitted with such scores – 95% is already well below the Harvard average.) Her only work experience was waiting tables as a college student. She decided she wanted an Harvard MBA, nothing less would do. She managed it and without seducing any professors either.


    How?  Pause here and develop a long term interview strategy for her. It took her three years to make it happen, but realize that a Harvard MBA is a life-changing degree. She did not cheat. She did not seduce anyone either. She got in through relentless, sustained dedication to acheiving her laser focused goal - admission to Harvard, and ONLY Harvard, for her MBA. How did she manage it?  The answer is given at the very end.

         Do yourself a favor and do NOT skip ahead to read it until you have come up with your own admissions strategy for her. Talk to your professors and friends for ideas on how she achieved her goal.


    But -- you will object upon reading it -- that took an awful lot of work over a long period of time and entailed considerable risk. Furthermore Lady Luck smiled at her; she was in the right place at the right time. True enough. Did you really think that with an ordinary, run-of-the-mill background getting admitted to Harvard Business School was going to be accomplished with a simple, easy to learn trick, without luck having played a role?



4) Harvard Medical School - the practical joker

Background information- U.S. Medical Schools

    One does not apply to medical school in the U.S. from secondary school at 18, but rather at 22 after completing a four year Bachelors program in “pre-med:” chemistry, biology and physics. There are 2300+ colleges and universities in the U.S., of which 131 have medical schools.1 Therefore the ratio of universities/colleges to medical schools is about 18 to 1. In other words there are applicants from 18 different undergraduate schools all vying for the limited places at one medical school. If the applicant does not make it his first attempt, he often continues for a Masters in Chemistry, Biology or Physics and then re-applies at the age of 24 for the six year program of medical school.

    In short, the U.S. presents yet another interesting paradox. On the one hand, it has an abysmal general health care system, cf. "U.S. Health Care, a Modest Proposal" at “Papers.” On the other hand, it has some of the best medical education with the most demanding entry requirements in the world. Furthermore the medical schools themselves have a definite, steep hierarchy. The half-dozen at the very the top of the pyramid, associated with world-class teaching hospitals, include, naturally, Harvard and Stanford.



Background information – SATs and MCATs

    In the U.S. the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in English and Mathematics are administered nationally to people in their last year of high school. These multiple-choice tests have been re-scaled several times since the 1960s and 1970s to make them “politically correct.” (Apparently minorities were just not doing well enough on them.) The maximum score is 800 in each subject. In their original format people could and did receive 799 points. Getting an 800 in math was not that unusual, obtaining it in English much more rare. Getting the double 800 was rarer still. About 1,050,000 people took them the year the author did. Of these 17 achieved the double 800, i.e. about 1 in 60,000.

    The MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) are the multiple choice test one takes in science (also with an aptitude section) as part of applying to medical school, similar to the GMATs for business school, but more demanding.



Introducing PJ, the practical joker

    PJ left high school with the magical double 800 – in the days when 1 in 60,000 managed it -- and admission to Harvard. His intention was, after four years of pre-med there, to continue at Harvard Medical School to become a physician. Therefore he had taken advanced placement courses in chemistry, biology and physics at high school.

    Upon arriving at Harvard the pre-med program dismayed him. The courses seemed to involve an awful lot of work. He had worked really hard at his high school courses. Now should be “party time.” He decided the heck with pre-med. He would be a general studies major. With his brains, he could do a bare minimum and still get a gentleman’s C – with lots and lots of time to party. However he still wanted to go to medical school. What to do?

    He waited until the “drop and add” period was over. Then he went to the professors of various science courses and asked if he could unofficially sit in, as he was really interested in that particular chemistry, biology, or physics course. He had waited with the request to be sure a professor could not suggest his auditing the course. Audited courses appear on one´s transcript, even though they are not graded. PJ would prepare himself carefully for his "spontaneous, unfortunately too late for auditing" request, including reading the professor’s articles in arcane academic journals. He was quite successful at talking his way into all kinds of science courses.

    Once there, he focused on learning that part of the material that was specifically relevant to the MCATs. Now on the basis of natural talent, he was already in the 1 in 60,000 category on multiple-choice tests. For the MCATs, he was diligently studying three full years before taking them his senior year. He was shooting for results in the 1 in 100,000 range.

    At the end of his third year at Harvard, PJ puts his application plan into action. He succeeds, after considerable effort, in getting the Dean of the Medical School at Harvard on the telephone. He explains to the Dean that he is a Harvard undergraduate student who has just had a vision. God has spoken to him. God has told him to become a physician. PJ explains that he is a general studies major. His transcript will confirm that he has never taken a science course in his life, in fact, never even audited one.

    He does not want to have to start from zero, as he would not even qualify as a freshman pre-med student without high school science courses. However, God has told him not to worry. God will teach him all the science he needs to know over the summer, as will be demonstrated by his future MCAT scores. The Dean should understand that his grades will continue to be low Cs, as God has told him he should spend his time in the library reading about science.

    The Dean is polite, as it behooves one to be with religious lunatics, at Harvard or elsewhere. The Dean probably shakes his head and chuckles after the call. PJ makes sure to send the Dean personally a copy of his, of course phenomenal, results on the MCATs. The admissions committee at Harvard Medical School, no fools there, is skeptical. These results, with no science courses, could not possibly be legitimate. Obviously the candidate has cheated. The only question is how. The best guess was that he had managed somehow to hack into the MCAT computer system and generate fictitious scores.

    PJ is called in for an interview. There he faces three grim faced, glowering, highly suspicious medical professors, with his application and MCAT scores in front of them. They begin to ask him some science questions, beginning with some pretty basic stuff, like what does H20 stand for?

    PJ looks confused. He’s not sure. Could they give him a minute? He would like to consult the Bible for guidance. PJ pulls out a Bible and leafs through it, finds a passage and reads it carefully. He brightens and says cheerfully, he has it now. H20 stands for water.

    This routine is repeated with increasingly difficult questions, always with the same result. A professor leaps up and snatches the Bible away. PJ must have some kind of notes in it. Perhaps he is wearing contact lenses so he can read ink not otherwise visible. Let us see how PJ does without the Bible.

    PJ is distraught. How can he answer a science question without God’s written word to guide him? He has an idea! He will kneel down to pray. God will surely hear his prayers and give him the answers. PJ goes through the “kneeling and praying” routine for increasingly difficult questions, which eventually go considerably beyond anything on the MCAT. However he uses the “praying” time to compose carefully his thoughts before answering. From time to time he goes to the blackboard to write down, under God’s guidance, equation sets and solve them.

    At the end of the inquisition, which took the best part of a morning, PJ is dismissed. One of the professors has a word with him in the hallway. He tells PJ that he was out-voted. PJ would be admitted despite his vehement arguments against it. He did not believe PJ´s religious trip, not for one second. PJ was a con artist, pulling some kind of fast one. He did not know how, but what he did know for sure is that PJ had no business being at Harvard Medical School.

    PJ earned his M.D. with a “middle of the road” performance, and promptly went into business, never practicing medicine.




How on earth did she get into Harvard Business School?

Bottom 10% of her engineering class, average GMATs, and some waitressing


The first step was to move to Boston. Once there she enrolled in a secretarial school, one ov the very best. She took the courses



1 As of 2010 there are plans, encouraged by the Obama administration, to charter an additional 18 medical schools.