My Path to Business School—Tanner Johnston

Tanner J., an expert Leland coach and MIT Sloan MBA, outlines why how he went from a non-target school studying Engineering to an M7 business school.

Tanner J.

By Tanner J.

Posted January 10, 2024

When Mrs. Finch—my 2nd-grade teacher—asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I confidently told her what I told everyone at the time: I wanted to be an inventor. A few weeks later, she had somehow arranged for an engineer at the local air force base to come and talk to me in the back of the classroom. The only thing I remember him saying was that MIT was the best school in the world for people who wanted to be engineers. As a 9-year-old, I set my sights firmly on MIT. For the next 9 years I got straight A’s, took the ACT multiple times until I got the score I wanted, and did every extracurricular I thought would give me an edge. I only applied to MIT, Harvard (because why not?), and my two local universities.

I was absolutely crushed when I was only accepted to the local schools. I still to this day remember sitting at my kitchen counter, on the second stool from the left, sobbing uncontrollably. After several days of moping, the only consolation my mom could offer me was: “You can go to one of those other schools for grad school!”

After spending two years in California for a religious proselytizing mission, I ended up at BYU studying mechanical engineering. Through my studies, however, I recognized that my skills and natural proclivities lent themselves better to business rather than technical engineering. I therefore pivoted, shifting my long-term goal of going to MIT for a master’s in engineering to the goal of attending a top-tier business school.

As I came to the end of my BYU experience, I set my sights on MBA programs. I knew I only wanted to take the GMAT once, so I spent 8 months studying for the test, dedicating at least 30 minutes per day. I spent the next two and a half years talking with people in my network—and when I exhausted everyone in my network, I cold messaged people on LinkedIn who had gone to top business schools, asking them about their experiences, favorite memories, and advice for applications. When the time finally came to start my applications, I was confident in my application strategy.

This confidence didn’t last long. The MBA application was one of the more mentally and emotionally draining processes I’ve ever been through. Feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, and sheer exhaustion ran rampant. Was the story I was telling accurate? Too accurate? Should I focus more on what the school wanted to hear? Or should I stick with what felt true to me? I can’t count the number of times I stared blankly at a Google Doc titled “essay_v27” at 3am, waiting for hours for inspiration to strike. I never wanted to quit, but there were certainly times when I closed my laptop and said, “That’s enough for a few days.”

I only applied to three business schools. I interviewed with two, and was accepted into one: MIT Sloan. It’s fun to think that things have come full circle; I wish 9-year-old Tanner could see that the 29-year-old Tanner was finally accepted into the school of his dreams.

Now that I’m finally headed to MIT, the thing I’m most excited about is the people. I’m excited to learn from my classmates, and hear from the diversity of experiences and backgrounds. As I look to the future though, I can’t help but feel extremely grateful for all the people who’ve helped get me here: my parents; my wife, Jessicah; my teachers throughout the years (including Mrs. Finch); managers and supervisors who took a chance on me and wrote my rec letters; the folks and coaches at Leland, who were a huge support; everyone who I’ve bugged over the past few years to tell me about their b-school experiences; and all of my friends who gave me feedback on my applications and essays (there are too many to count here).

To everyone who has been a part of my story over the past twenty years, thank you. And to everyone who will be a part of my story over the next twenty years, let’s get to work!

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