I’m Thankful to Be a Three Time Harvard Reject

three time harvard rejectI’m a complete failure, at least as far as Harvard is concerned.  I wanted to go to Harvard ever since I was a kid after watching the movie Legally Blonde. I love learning, and to me being at the world’s best university seemed like the pinnacle achievement in a young lifetime. Fast forward to the present, and I’m a three time Harvard reject. Someday, I will probably need to send them a thank you note because my life would be so different right now if not for this lucky break.

My First Attempt: High School

High school Travis was far more impressive than late 20 something Travis. He had a 1490 SAT, was valedictorian of his class, and was also very socially awkward and nerdy (maybe I still am, ask my friends). I was in virtually every extra curricular activity my medium sized community of Pensacola, FL offered.

I was an Eagle Scout, sang in several choirs and performing groups, volunteered, and earned three championship rings at the state and national level for Quiz Bowl (our football team was only able to earn one championship, and that was after I left haha).

Anyhow, I applied to Harvard undergrad as a highly qualified applicant, but so are the other several thousand applying. I had great recommendations, but I was a lower middle class white male without a stunning application.

I sat in front of my computer anxiously awaiting their decision. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t wait to see what they said. The email came into my inbox, and I opened it up. WAIT LIST! I was crushed. What did that mean? Should I hope for the best or should I let my dream go?

I got accepted into a lot of other schools, but my mom filled out the FAFSA wrong and included her retirement accounts as if it was money in the bank, so I got poor financial aid offers despite our ~$40,000 family income. The best offer I had was a full ride at the University of Florida through the Lombardi Scholarship. As I couldn’t bear the thought of getting in off the wait list but not being able to afford Harvard, I removed my name and committed to Florida.

My Second Attempt: Right After College

After I entered my junior year of college, I was clueless about my future. My focus was on getting into a PhD Economics program, so I was triple majoring in Econ, Stats, and Math. In preparation for applications to top economics programs, I took a Real Analysis course that was supposed to be the capstone for my Math major. Unfortunately, the professor was a real jackass. He failed everyone except for about 5 students, and the other 20+ either failed or had to withdraw. You could tell in class he had no interest in teaching undergrads.

That completely destroyed my plans. I was going to be Professor Hornsby, PhD. I was going to write Freakonomics, win the Nobel Prize, and write a column for the New York Times. Actually, I was completely clueless. Hence, I started looking at graduate business programs and jobs.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Harvard’s 2+2 program.  It allows college students to apply to Harvard Business School (HBS) for a MBA. You work for 2 years for a prestigious employer and then go to business school for 2 years. You come out of the program as a 26 year old MBA, assuming you graduate undergrad by 22.

Harvard says that this program is targeted towards applicants in the humanities and STEM. I think they also have a goal of using the program to increase underrepresented students, aka not white male me. That’s fine. I get that increasing access is important. Since this 2+2 program didn’t specifically exclude anyone, I decided to apply again.

My college resume was admittedly less impressive than my high school resume. Sure I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Stats / Econ double major, but that’s not that impressive compared to some people. My application showed little activity that would suggest I had entrepreneurial promise.

I was the President of the Economics Club and was involved in a few things on campus, but nothing stunning. I was not an Olympic swimmer managing part of their college endowment fund while directing the Symphony, and I imagine some of my competitors had profiles like that.

So the second rejection came swift and sweet. No niceties, just a rejection letter saying ‘better luck next time.’

Then I Got Rejected From a Program for Being too Qualified

Since I had no freaking clue what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to apply to a master’s program at University of Florida in finance. It would last only a year and cost a minimal amount of money. At the end of the program, I’d get a decent corporate job working 60-80 hours a week doing some kind of financial modeling.

They asked me to take the GMAT to get into the program, so I studied for a week with two practice tests and got a 740. If I had tried to get that score, I don’t think I could’ve done it. The guy that printed my report at the GMAT testing site told me ‘dude don’t go to UF apply to some Ivies bro.’

I felt really good about getting into this 1 year University of Florida master’s program with my credentials. I submitted everything to the program director and got a call back. She told me that my career goals I put down in my application were were achievable with a bachelor’s degree.

She told me with my score that I should just go into the work force and apply to a top MBA program, and then she told me they were rejecting me. The program director probably denied me because I would have messed up the average starting salary statistics because I was a bum without a plan. I’m extremely grateful to her for stopping me from making this mistake. I went straight into working in the corporate world instead.

My Third Harvard Attempt: After 2.5 Years of Working

After working for several years in a large corporate environment, I felt trapped. Life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, and I felt like my skills weren’t being utilized to the fullest extent. I enjoyed living in the Northeast and had some great friends, but intellectually I felt stagnant.

Hence, I decided to give it one last go and apply for Harvard Business School directly as a traditional MBA applicant. I lined up what I thought would be good recommendations and wrote some stellar essays about how I was going to change the world as a financial technology entrepreneur. Essentially, I made something up that sounded cool because I had no idea what I wanted to do. That’s why I’m applying to Business School duh!

I also applied to Wharton just in case they would take me if Harvard didn’t. Basically, if I couldn’t get into either Wharton or Harvard, I was just not going to get a graduate degree. People were really confused at this. They were like “dude why don’t you go for Columbia or Booth or MIT, you’re selling yourself short.”

I just didn’t want to spend big money and go to a program if it wasn’t one of the best, so those are the only two places I applied.

I submitted all my application materials, and got another flat out no from Harvard. I wasn’t nearly as crushed, because by this time I was really good at getting denied by elite educational institutions. The dream of graduate or professional education was over for me. If you watched the movie ‘Accepted,’ I’m like the girl who applied only to Yale, got rejected, and then had no backup plan.

What I Did After Becoming a Three Time Harvard Reject

I had a 740 GMAT, stellar undergrad grades, a pretty good application, but I wasn’t good enough for Harvard or even Wharton. I applied only to those two schools in the final year of my GMAT score eligibility since I took the test junior year of college. So if I wanted to try again, I’d have to retake the GMAT. Not happening. At least I more than made up for my original testing fee by posting GMAT tutor ads on craigslist.

After realizing that my job was going nowhere fast in my 2014 end of year performance review, I started preparing my finances for extreme early retirement as a 25 year old in early 2015. A couple months before I left in June 2015, I wrote my first book 25 is the New 65 on the train back and forth from work.

When I worked as a bond trader, I felt like I was living under a communist regime with no freedom of speech since the regulatory body FINRA controlled my every utterance on financial markets. I couldn’t write, blog, editorialize, or do anything without the fear of suffering consequences. Perhaps for this reason, as soon as I quit my job I started this blog Millennial Moola to irrationally give away free financial advice and education.

I’m currently writing my second book on Managing Money in your 20s and 30s that’s going to be the most useful 150 pages you’ve probably ever read about personal finance. It’s coming out late December 2016. My goal is to sell it for under $10 at least for the ebook, even though the advice is worth thousands of dollars.

Because I didn’t have a job as an early retiree / bum (depends on who you talk to which one I am), I started doing student loan consulting on the side. After my student loan spreadsheet went viral on Business Insider and received over 300,000 views, this became a full time business.

Now, my flat fee student loan consulting startup Student Loan Planner is on track to produce more revenue than when I was working for the man as a bond trader. Oops! There goes my Obamacare subsidy. Hit me up at [email protected] if you have a lot of student debt from grad school.

Where I’d Be if Harvard Had Accepted Me

I’ll focus on if I had gotten into Harvard Business School. The total cost of an MBA after tuition, fees, and accrued interest is easily $150,000 by graduation. I would have depleted my taxable assets to zero and then taken out a little bit of debt as well.

Say I started off as a consultant making $150,000 in a high cost of living city after Harvard MBA. My take home pay would be around $90,000, and after deducting a reasonable housing expense that would be around $70,000.

I’ve noticed that many MBA students like to stay in really nice hotels when traveling around the world, and I imagine for many this lifestyle extends to when they’re working. Say I had another $20,000 in lifestyle expenses to fit in at the office. After all, I was told that I dressed horribly and needed to buy several Brooks Brothers suits in an interview for a grad program once, and those aren’t cheap. Now I’d be down to $50,000.

Take off another $15,000 for miscellaneous high stress living expenses. After all, if I was working 80 hours a week mostly on the road, I’d probably want to party harder when I was home and order takeout for every meal. My health would probably not be as good, so I’d need to spend more on healthcare. Perhaps I’d drink more too to wash away the pain of not having as much free time, who knows? I’m being a little ridiculous but you get my point. Now I’m down to $35,000 in take home pay.

Since my investments that I would have sold to pay for business school would also lose out on investment return, I estimate a break even point of 7 years after getting into business school before I’d be indifferent between not going and going financially. That means by 2022 I’d finally be making some money.

However, if I had gone to Harvard, I never would have started this blog, written two books, founded a startup, traveled to almost 40 countries in a year, failed at starting a podcast, saved people millions of dollars on their student loans, or exposed horrible conflicts of interest in the financial advice industry.

I would have an excellent chance at being an affluent senior level leader at a Fortune 500 company, and I would have had an equally good chance at working there until I was 65 years old. There’s no possibility I would have considered early retirement, because my peers would have judged me for that.

Being a ‘Poorly Educated’ Three Time Harvard Reject Freed Me of the Burden of High Expectations

I had a fun conversation one time with a buddy of mine who’s pretty high up in a top 3 consulting firm (Bain, BCG, McKinsey). He talked to me about the stress of picking a worthwhile path in employment and wondering if doing a startup was worth it from an opportunity cost perspective.

This is why I’m lucky to be three time Harvard reject. I have none of these burdensome expectations on my shoulders. Many of my friends from University of Florida are highly successful professionals. However, most aren’t knocking at the door of being CEO of some boring but gargantuan pharmaceutical company in the next 5 years. That means I get to live my life not worrying about comparing myself with someone else’s career trajectory, promotions, or salary.

I set my own path. I’m an early retiree, except I work over 80 hours a week right now across all my ‘business’ activities. I’m having so much fun, it’s not work to me. The first year I made basically nothing, as Millennial Moola is not a good money maker. Then I discovered Student Loan Planner, and I think I have a 5% to 10% chance at making it a $10 million business. There’s no way I would be looking at that possibility as a bond trader at Vanguard, or even a Harvard Business School grad.

My girlfriend likes to joke that I’m one of the ‘poorly educateds.’ She is a fellowship trained professor of surgery with 10 years of education past college. I had a minor in Spanish at least, that should count for something right?

If I am a ‘poorly educated,’ then I’m glad I am. In my student loan practice, I routinely see folks with over $300,000 in debt who have no choice but to continue working in their field for decades to come. Because I’m a three time Harvard reject, I have freedom. If you’ve ever felt bad about getting rejected from your dream school, don’t. I’m successful in life BECAUSE Harvard didn’t want me.

PS If anybody from Harvard Business School admissions is reading this right now, I’m just kidding give me a fourth try

PPS If you got into a prestigious grad program (med, dental , law, vet med, etc.) and have the student debt to show for it, seriously send me an email to [email protected]. My average client has over $250,000 in debt and average savings are in the tens of thousands. That is, if you trust a three time Harvard reject like myself to give help you 🙂

6 thoughts on “I’m Thankful to Be a Three Time Harvard Reject”

  1. I went to one of the “little Ivy’s” for undergrad and I think it was a waste of money mostly. It was only after starting my own websites did my career truly take off. There is so much pressure to work in top finance jobs or consulting so I felt like a failure when I couldn’t get hired into those fields right out of school. Now I’m glad I found my own path and have learned about early retirement, entrepreneurship, and blogging. Great post!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Travis. This was really interesting. I think, as evidenced by your personal experiences, credentials are less important than ever before. The internet makes it easier to bypass traditional barriers to success an individual entrepreneur. Well-done for seeing the bright side of things and I’m happy you’re happy with the way things are working out for you! 🙂

  3. I admire the tenacity! At least you’ll look back and have no regrets that you tried. I didn’t want to go to private school when I was in HS b/c my parents didn’t make much money. Instead, I went to The College of William & Mary where tuition was only $2,800 a YEAR.

    Ever since going to public university, I became a fan and went to Cal Berkeley for my MBA instead. Saving money on an education is great!


    1. Hey Sam! Yeah sometimes I’m still hit by pangs of regret for not being ‘good enough’ and then I realize that there are free courses from Harvard and MIT online for free and that I interact with people of that caliber all the time thanks to running blogs like this one and StudentLoanPlanner.com and feel very blessed. Can’t believe that price tag William and Mary is one of the best out there and to get it for that price was an insane steal. I guess I’m on the Tim Ferriss MBA track where I’m spending money to make all these business mistakes and learning by trial by fire instead.

  4. Great story and I totally agree.
    I went to university here in Australia. It took me 10 years to pay off the student loan.
    Once I was working in the industry I found I didn’t even need the piece of paper for my line of work!

    1. I wonder how generous or strict Australia’s student loan system is. Ours is very messed up and bureaucratic. I know we have some US citizens living in Australia to dodge their student debt

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