First off, let me compliment you on being extremely proactive in thinking about the process -- and really, you can never start too far in advance. You have taken GMAT, and therefore any efforts you undertake in terms of developing a schools list can be considered legitimate and productive. (Because of the "adrenaline factor" no matter how high your scores on practice tests, practice tests are never 100% guaranteed predictors of the, er, magic of test day.)
Furthermore, with your GMAT, there is no school that is out of your consideration set. Note well that this by no means translates to "you are a shoo-in candidate". It simply means that GMAT couldn't possibly be the reason if, somehow, you got disappointing news.
You raise a good point with your undergraduate experience. To opine authoritatively would require detailed data sharing, but basically it boils down to this:
[*]you're not the first smart & talented person who did not optimally manage the transition from living in mom & dad's house(s) to the comparative freedom and unstructured life of a dorm
[*]there is no shame in this whatsoever. None. At an aggregate level, it's part of what young people are, in fact, supposed to do.
[*]so, provided that once faced with the notice of your sub-par performance (in the form of those grades -- you know which ones I mean), you took corrective action that paid off (in the form of grade that improved) You yourself seem to indicate that this was the case, although this is where details matter: taking 4 semesters to get your act together is less impressive than a subsequent semester improvement that would be indicative of getting the message, processing its seriousness, internalizing it, and planning accordingly
As a general rule, you should apply on the basis of your actual career interests. (And in fact, you should make career choices on the basis of your own satisfaction drivers and/or needs -- not those of your parents, significant other, buddies, peers or colleagues: for you. It's your life). It would be overstating the case to declare that it "worried" me that you're contemplating a "switch out the face-plate" approach to applying to schools as competitive as those on your list. My reasoning is two-fold.
[*]First, as anyone who reads mass volumes of essays can tell you, readers develop a keenly tuned nose (think: bloodhound) for stories that seem overly self-conscious, staged or ring false. Top tier schools -- the "usual suspects" -- can afford to be choosy across multiple dimensions (strong GMAT and academics are, for these programs, essentially a given), so they can evaluate candidates on intangibles such as maturity, discerning judgement, wisdom & thoughtfulness.
[*] Second, your use of "refined set of management skills" is ever so slightly revealing. The truth is: top MBAs are not magic wands. Admissions offices are not in the business of wish fulfillment. You need to identify and specify the skills that you have, in the course of your professional evolution to date, realized that you need to know more about -- and how/why this realization occurred, including contextual details, should not be omitted from the telling. By sharing the how/why in addition to the skills, you're demonstrating and signalling to the reader that you've given this considered though, and that it's not just a vanity project or following in the footsteps (or is that the long shadow cast by) your brother. The essential murkiness of the psychological terrain that applications touch upon is covered in a blog posting I wrote, a PDF of which I've attached to this response. Convince the reader that you have figured out for yourself why you want the MBA and what you expect from it -- do that, and you're golden.
Basically, the best way to win over the reader is to establish credibility as a narrator of the events in your life, and share with them what you saw/experienced, and how you reacted to/processed it. You should do so in a way that conveys what you knew then -- don't append the benefit of today's hindsight to make "younger you" seem wiser than you were. The problem with your "refined set of management skills" enables (stronger even: facilitates) doubt in the reader's mind. So one of your key take-aways should be: spend those next "few years" really figuring out why an MBA works and why it's right for you. It is not finishing school, and I trust you can see why an HBS reader might be less than thrilled at any such implicit positioning of HBS that an essay might engage in. MBAs work for a related set of reasons -- a mechanism, if you will. Convey to the reader that you have identified some of these, and you're well on you're way.
Write in a way that suggests you're simply filling space or saying what you have somehow come to think "ought to be said" -- that's a fast path to the ding pile.
One final consideration of your family business situation. Compared to staff/employees, applicants who write about their family expectations of them with regard to the family business are generally given much more leeway for overly ambitious trajectories of success. Simply because it stands to reason that there would be preference and the absence of arm's length competition. But remember: if your family business 'scenario' is something you're faking so as to please your parents (but it doesn't please you), truth is: we'll likely be able to tell.
Spend your time figuring out who you are and where you've been -- and how those, in turn, have shaped what you want (and why). You can't hope to persuade someone else of something you yourself don't understand, and if there's one thing I've learned in this business, is that people (in general) are often not terribly conscious of their un-examined assumptions -- and un-examined assumptions are, in the application essay context, like a minefield waiting to explode.
I hope this has helped.
Darren S. Kowitt (Columbia'97)