Sandy On Harvard’s New MBA Application

by John A. Byrne on

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com

Harvard Business School kicked off the unofficial start to the 2013-2014 MBA admissions cycle today (May 30) with a radical change in its application process. The school reduced the number of essays to just one open-ended question–and even suggested that it would be possible for prospective applicants to the Class of 2016 to skip the essay entirely.

For analysis and commentary on the change, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, of HBAGuru.com, a prominent MBA admissions consultant who works closely with candidates who apply to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. In a wide-ranging interview, Kreisberg commented on who will gain from this new format, who will be in danger, what mistakes to now avoid, his suggested word counts on both the single essay and Harvard’s post-interview reflection and other issues.

JOHN A. BYRNE: So Sandy, there’s big news today from Harvard Business School. Dee Leopold, the admissions director, shook things up last year and she’s at it again with a new application that requires only one essay. Last year HBS asked applicants two questions,

Tell us something you’ve done well (400 words) and Tell us something you wish you had done better (400 words).

The new question is “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” and there is no word limit. What is going on?

SANDY KREISBERG: A lot and nothing.

Let’s start with the nothing. The essay, however mystical it can seem, and this one comes wrapped in mystery, with no word limit, remains some other piece of the application–along with the rock hard facts of your GMAT/GRE, college  and GPA, your major (HBS likes STEM), your age, your  work history and its selectivity, your recommendations and extras, plus the usual identity politics issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. As Dee says, the essay is one piece, and that is true and unchanged.

The essay BY ITSELF can, in some 10% of cases, damage you, and in some 20% of cases help you, and in most cases, confirm what they already know from the other stuff — which is a lot. To that extent, nothing is new. The new HBS essay is actually very similar to the famous Stanford essay, “What Matters Most to You and Why?” in that it is open-ended, and especially in the no word limit format, it can provide lots of room for you to drift into trouble. To the extent you can drift into trouble because it is open-ended, well, I suppose that is new and important. It was really harder to screw up last year’s essays and become offensive or annoying. That is now easier. On the positive side, it gives some people lots of room to explain their backgrounds (that was not the case last year), career goals, if they are career switchers (that was also hard to do last year) and you have the satisfaction of being able to say whatever you want.

BYRNE: How can the essay damage you?

KREISBERG: As noted, you can drift into trouble, especially since it is open-ended. The most common way is that you can go down some rabbit hole of personal story telling, quirky affectations, “literary” style, and bragging. To that extent, developing a personal voice in the essay versus just being bland in some acceptable way, can be dangerous if 1. you were marginal in the first place, 2. your voice turn offs the reader in  some hard-to-define but easy to feel way. You can sound dislikable, whiny, immature, and unaware.

BYRNE: Give me some examples.

KREISBERG: Well, bragging in all its many overt and covert forms is the most common way to seem immature and silly. Writing an essay along the lines  “that I would like you to know what is behind those bullets on my resume and what  a swell job I did on  projects X Y and Z”  and then straining to make that case, even if true, by rehearsing a lot of facts and cliches, and then having that pile up, for a lot of examples, even if all of them are ‘true,’ well, yeah, I could see that turning some OK candidate into someone you don’t want to interview. They would blame you for the lack of self-awareness, for not knowing how you are coming across.  At HBS, being boring or unaware or immature then leads to the $64 Billion Dollar Question, “Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?” And the answer is NO!. There are a million variants of bragging. There is being boring, there is saying too much of the same thing, there is presenting OK material with cliches and overstatement. There is just sounding immature, in all its varieties, which is probably more frequent and deadly than sounding boring, although boring is not good either.

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  • JohnAByrne

    Sandy will be happy to answer any questions you have on the new HBS application. Just fire away!

  • Namibia entreprenuer.

    700GMAT and 4 GPA only, anything else won’t /does not count.Top business schools are now projects by Academics for Academics. If your quant is average like mine, forget about entering a top MBA school. All they want is STEM or some math wizard who scores 780 on GMAT,not everybody has access to GMAT facilities in the emerging market,that is a fact. You don’t need to be academically smart to start a billion dollar company, manage WHO,UN, or being a minister of finance in Germany for instance. In reality, anyway the MBA course work is easy,hardly anybody fail.

  • hbsguru

    Hmmmm, actually if you have a 4.0 GPA and 700 GMAT, and some story about starting companies in Africa, as either a desire or accomplishment, the new HBS is better for you than the old one, you have unlimited space to tell your story. If your post means you DO NOT have a 4.0 or 700+ GMAT, well, new app still could still help you, if you have OK stats, and real powerful story and you are, as your sign-in suggests, fr. Namibia. If you have real scattered experience, none of it provable, and low grades, etc. at real no-name school, I agree, getting into top US business school is going to be real hard.

  • Namibia start-up entreprenuer

    I got rejected already and I have made peace with it, focusing on relocating my company to Sillicon Valley for now. Yeah my GMAT is 640 and 66% GPA From Namibia’s top University(UNAM).
    ”What HBS wants is a 740 GMAT and a 4 GPA,that is a brutal truth,essays don’t carry any flipping weight ,been there ,done that.HBS inter alia other top 100 MBA frankly live for the rankings not for the real job market. These are ridiculous requirements by academics for academics,forgetting that business schools for all intent and purposes, are there to teach management practice in all sphere of life and enterprising .Sucking up to the ranking media houses is simply bad for business” …(self -quoted).

  • Bronze or Silver?

    I like when Sandy said this can turn silver into low gold but not bronze into gold; question is the bronze people tend to think that they might be silver, and it’s hard to tell. I think I am like in between a silver and bronze, so this new question might be a bit more helpful to me.

  • hbsguru

    could be, if you give me basics, I’ll tell you bronze or silver.

  • Tia Trussardi

    I got accepted at Stanford GSB with a 57th percentile quant score and an overall score not much higher than yours. The GMAT spread in the HBS Class of 2014 ranged from 570 – 790, so people with scores lower than yours still got in. Only 34% of the class did a STEM subject at undergrad. These stats are all listed on HBS.edu

    I would have thought being from Namibia would have been a huge advantage. The schools love to talk about their diversity of nationalities and Namibian applicants must surely be extremely rare indeed. Stanford, whose dean is from South Africa, has even started a special fellowship program exclusively for African applicants.

    I haven’t seen your application, but having been through the US b-school experience myself, nothing you have said would have been a dealbreaker. I would go so far as to bet that you got extra special consideration due to being from Namibia, but somehow your application still did not put you over the top.

    Perhaps you just didn’t push the right buttons in your essays/ goals etc? If you applied to Stanford, you must have done something really wrong to get knocked back by them. They are into underrepresented nationalities in a MAJOR way and anybody applying from an African country definitely gets their undivided attention.

    The one caveat might be if you are a white Namibian, though…

  • Raj

    Sandy,

    Is the new application designed to negate or somewhat lessen the impact of top-notch MBA admissions consultants? It seems to me that Harvard is trying to “Sandy-proof” the admissions process and force students to do most, if not all, of the heavy lifting themselves. In fact, I visited schools such as Wharton and Booth, where I got the sense that admissions folks have become more adept at spotting applications which have been crafted by top consultants such as yourself; one of them told me that she had it down to a point where she could somewhat confidently tell whether an applicant had used a consultant or not; interestingly enough, she did not mention whether this had an adverse impact on the applicant.

    My opinion is that HBS is playing right into the hands of admissions consultants by raising the stakes; only one essay to close the deal means that wow more than ever, students will be looking to gain every possible edge to separate themselves from the rest of the crowd.

    On a slightly unrelated note, do you think more schools will push towards the video essay format and other non-traditional approaches? Hass and Booth already have a significant “multi-media” component. I hear that more schools are actively looking into this format. Ross and Wharton are forging ahead with group discussions. I hear from a highly placed source that at least one top school is looking into a format where every student that is invited to interview does a 5 minute powerpoint presentation, followed by a 10 minute question and answer session with a panel of current students and admissions officers.

  • Bronze or Silver?

    Stats:GRE 160V 157Q
    Academics:Graduated from Top university in Morocco in HR
    Worked: Four years in strategy consulting at Deloitte in Africa while going to school
    Extras:Member of Alumni organization, 3 years of volunteering setting up micro- finance and schools for women and children in Morocco, participant at the Hult Startup entrepreneur, member of two other clubs.

    Applicant from Cameroon living in Morocco.

    Am I bronze, silver, or gold? what would you recommend to improve my chances into top tier US and EU business schools? Would you encourage me to use a coach?

  • Sameer

    Sandy,

    As you mention that, among the essays and others, age and major are some of the hard facts that shape your application, please advise me if the new guidelines are helpful in my case.
    I am 32 year old male with an MBA degree from India (top school), 9 years of experience (mostly in investment management), GPA – 7.25/10.0, GMAT of 750.
    I understand the top b-schools programs have gone younger over the years and typically do not encourage existing MBAs, but can this open ended essay help me present my case strongly?

  • CuriousCanuck

    This looks like a pure quant move by Harvard:

    Admissions = GPA + GMAT + Pedigree (and we can infer what we need to about you based on the three variables – ie. that’s your story).

    Sandy – would you say these changes favor those with strong
    GPA + GRE/GMAT score?

    Caveat being, interviews will weed out the uber-nerds/socially
    inept.

  • hbsguru

    Nah, the new application does not really favor anyone, except maybe some marginal cases who need extra room to tell a compelling adversity story–the elements you isolate are super important, but they have always been important, and they have not become MORE important. GPA + GMAT PLUS SELECTIVITY of colleges and jobs, is sorta the formula. If you are outside that formula, the new essays give you more room to explain yourself. But that is a minor and technical issue. The essays count as much as they ever have–they can help some 10-15 percent of applicants + harm 20 percent, all of whom are on the bubble and either do well or screw up in some dramatic way.

  • hbsguru

    Yeah, if you have a case to present. Which given facts you cite, you probably do not. Just working w. your outline. They only element that would tilt this for you is some story about overcoming prejudice, adversity, and using that juice to help reform finance in India blah, blah, or any variant of that. Depending on firm you work for, and some other factors, e.g. you might get in all by yourself without any super story and just some blah essay–what is track record of your firm placing kids at HBS? If slim or none, this is going to be hard, and now amount of huffing and puffing outside a real adversity or innovation story is going to change that.

  • hbsguru

    HA, HA, next time ask that Wharton admission lady which consulting firm she plans to join once her stay at Wharton is over. Wharton should list admissions consulting as one of its feeder industries along with banking since many consulting companies with lotsa hired hands (accepted.com and clear admit) are founded by Wharton MBA’s and hire W grads and ex-adcomers. There is no sure way to tell if an app. has been the result of using a consultant vs. edtied by friends, folks in the office, etc. altho sure, some guy w. real real low TOEFL or V-GMAT or AWA scores who turns in really glib app, well, good guess that guy used a consultant, but most consultants are too smart to let that happen. I dont think new HBS app. was created with consultants in mind, one way or the other, it was created b.c. Dee L. the HBS acom head, is always tinkering and is mildly devilish behind a conservative exterior (OK,part of that might be some glee at sticking it to consultants) and just thought this would be fun, useful, less work for the many mothers currently on the HBS adcom, and what hell, who cares and it going to make any real difference on her end, except less reading, longer and more clear Xmas break, and just two days or so of news coverage (today being day 2). Seriously, it was nothing more than that, which is to say, she is doing her job in some highly confident and competent way — it is always the case that folks on the other end of a one way barrel (applicants and consultants) will be reading the tea leaves for conspiracies and plots. Such is the culture of victimization, if you want to call being an applicant being a victim, which it is in some minor ways, since you are subject to arbitrary and semi-transparent rules and processes in a matter that is very important to you, and it is, after the smoke + nice-nice clear, a real case of crabs in a barrel since there are X spots and 10X crabs trying to crawl into those spots.

    Multi-media jive like video essay etc. Sure if that process becomes manageable–right now it takes about 60-120 seconds to read an essay vs,. 3x and 4x that time to watch a video, etc. and essays easier to file, etc. That is the issue, not which is better evidence of success in B school.

  • hbsguru

    another caveat would be, as suggested by posters sign-in, that he graduated fr. Namibian college w. so-so grades, and did not ever get a job with prestige company, but started his own business, which had mixed success and he applied to HSW with dream that those schools would magically transform him into a winner. Another caveat would be if poster has a chip on his shoulder and he let that show.

  • Tia Trussardi

    The poster has listed the graduating grade as 66%, which is a 2.1 degree, which should be fine. The GMAT is below average for top schools but comfortably above the low end of the range of admitted students. You cannot even take the GMAT in Namibia at all, by the way. The nearest exam center is 733 miles away in Johannesburg, South Africa, so a resit is a logistical nightmare.

    There are no MBB or IB offices in Windhoek, Namibia (a desert nation of 2.5 million people) but my classmates from Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia had never worked for blue chip companies either.

    My point was merely that certainly a school like Stanford would have bent over backwards to try and admit someone from Namibia if the application was half-way decent and that it should be entirely possible to get admitted with those stats if the presentation is right.

    S/he should really figure out how to play the Namibian card in a way that will get the adcoms excited and apply again if you ask me!

    And yes, s/he should also check his/ her sour grapes at the door.

  • hbsguru

    I agree, I was just noting that if, as suggested in post, the applicant’s only work ex. was a start-up which did not succeed, and on top of that you had so-so stats, that could be an issue, esp. if compounded by any attitude problems. Where DID your classmates fr. Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia work, my guess is, some established outfit, even if not blue chip MBB etc. often for the government, international agencies, or local energy companies or leading national retailer, etc. –that is really my point.

  • Tia Trussardi

    You’re really not going to get an honest answer to this unless you mention your GPA, which has already been highlighted as the potential red flag on your application.

  • Tia Trussardi

    One guy had founded a non-profit for children and the other one was an engineer for a firm that I was unfamiliar with. Stanford in particular is really crazy about having under-represented nationalities in the class and they are really, really, REALLY into Africa right now also.

    In general, there was a clear divide between the work experience of the students from the developed world and those from the developing world. Stanford at least does not, in my opinion, expect the same kind of resume from an African applicant still working and living on the continent as they would expect from e.g. a native New Yorker.

    Dean Saloner did his own MBA at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

  • Bronze or Silver?

    GPA 2.3

  • Jim

    Hi Sandy– Longtime reader of your analysis.. first time poster. I’d really like to hear your advice on how an undergrad business major could apply to the 2+2 program at HBS and be competitive. They say they do take some undergraduate business majors, but I imagine angling is quite important. Here is my bio:

    Stats:
    - Just finished my junior year at Wash U.
    - GPA: 3.64, Double major in business and anthropology (made 1 C in Accounting)
    - GMAT: 730 q49, v41

    - White Male

    Awards:
    - Finalist for the Udall Scholarship
    - Won a $22,000 college scholarship for excellent academic performance after my sophomore year.

    -Won a $350 poetry award freshman year.

    Work:
    - Founded a non-profit that provides prosthetics to disabled children in rural Panama. Great story about my time in Panama.
    - Interning at Boston Consulting Group this summer (I don’t think I’ll be able to get a BCG rec for my summer 2+2 application because I’ll have only been on the job for a couple weeks.)
    - Sit on the board for a small non-profit that provides learning materials for at-risk children in urban St. Louis
    - Served as an TA for “Anthropology of Latin America” for two semesters
    - Accepted to Teach for America (as a junior) to teach in the Bronx after graduation.

    Two questions for you:

    1) Objectively, what are my chances for the 2+2 program?

    2) How should an undergraduate business major (double major, though!) like me make the most of this new essay??

    Thanks!

  • hbsguru

    2+2 takes non-STEM stars –kids from majors other than science, tech, enginer. and math with super grades, internships, and some kind juiced story, freq. from Ivy schools. 2+2 takes kids in STEM fr. oddball schools, esp. Tier 1/2 and half tech schools, GM college (Kettering?) etc. Wash U is a school HBS likes for reg admission since they often get real smart kids who did not connections of culture to get into ~Ivy first time. Not sure what Wash U’s 2+2 record is, yoiu might sniff around, and my guess, prob. mostly STEM.

    You got OK but not knock-out stats, 3.64/730, and real good gigs at BCG, TFA etc. You might seriously think about applying in Sept vs. Summer and DO get the BCG rec.

    What you need to do in the essay is work up some story about how the pieces in your resume fit together, what you learned fr. each, and how that impels your decison to go to TFA and HBS and what you see as possible outcomes. That actually IS something that is not clear in your resume, grades, recs, etc. so like the quesion is made for a guy like you.

    Chances of success are ~30 -35 pct –depending a bit on how you spin this, and boffo recs.

  • hbsguru

    Jim Hi Sandy– Longtime reader of
    your analysis.. first time poster. I’d really like to hear your advice
    on how an undergrad business major could apply to the 2+2 program at HBS
    and be competitive. They say they do take some undergraduate business
    majors, but I imagine angling is quite important. Here is my bio:
    Stats:
    - Just finished my junior year at Wash U.
    - GPA: 3.64, Double major in business and anthropology (made 1 C in Accounting)
    - GMAT: 730 q49, v41
    - White Male
    Awards:
    - Finalist for the Udall Scholarship
    - Won a $22,000 college scholarship for excellent academic performance after my sophomore year.
    -Won a $350 poetry award freshman year.
    Work:
    - Founded a non-profit that provides prosthetics to disabled children in rural Panama. Great story about my time in Panama.-
    Interning at Boston Consulting Group this summer (I don’t think I’ll be
    able to get a BCG rec for my summer 2+2 application because I’ll have
    only been on the job for a couple weeks.)
    - Sit on the board for a small non-profit that provides learning materials for at-risk children in urban St. Louis
    - Served as an TA for “Anthropology of Latin America” for two semesters
    - Accepted to Teach for America (as a junior) to teach in the Bronx after graduation.
    Two questions for you:
    1) Objectively, what are my chances for the 2+2 program?
    2) How should an undergraduate business major (double major, though!) like me make the most of this new essay??
    ===============
    SANDY SAYS
    2+2 takes non-STEM stars –kids
    from majors other than science, tech, enginer. and math with super
    grades, internships, and some kind juiced story, freq. from Ivy schools.
    2+2 takes kids in STEM fr. oddball schools, esp. Tier 1/2 and half tech
    schools, GM college (Kettering?) etc. Wash U is a school HBS likes for
    reg admission since they often get real smart kids who did not
    connections of culture to get into ~Ivy first time. Not sure what Wash
    U’s 2+2 record is, yoiu might sniff around, and my guess, prob. mostly
    STEM.
    You got OK but not knock-out stats, 3.64/730, and real good gigs at
    BCG, TFA etc. You might seriously think about applying in Sept vs.
    Summer and DO get the BCG rec.

    What you need to do in the essay is work up some story about how the
    pieces in your resume fit together, what you learned fr. each, and how
    that impels your decison to go to TFA and HBS and what you see as
    possible outcomes. That actually IS something that is not clear in your
    resume, grades, recs, etc. so like the quesion is made for a guy like
    you. Your Panama exp, could be powerful if presented as part of a personal development story, etc
    Chances of success are ~40-45 pct –depending a bit on how you spin this, and boffo recs.
    You HAVE done a lot of cool stuff, and sound like a winner. Just package all that into some story about who you, what made you, who you want to be.

  • Steven

    Hey Sandy,

    Could I please have an assessment on
    my chances at:

    Wharton, Sloan, Booth, Tuck, Yale,
    McCombs, Rice

    My Profile:

    -GMAT: 680, essay 6/6, IR 8/8 (first
    time taking it without any practice tests; I’m assuming I could get it up to at
    least a 720 after some practice)
    - 3.78 GPA in mechanical engineering from UT Austin
    -Certificate in Business Foundations (24 hrs of business; 4.0 GPA)
    - 3 years at Shell as an engineer
    - President for Pi Tau Sigma
    (mechanical engineering honor society), as well as Vice President and Service Coordinator
    -Was a teaching assistant, undergraduate research assistant, and tutor during college
    -captain of intramural basketball, flag football, soccer, and softball teams at UT over 4 semesters
    - 24 yrs old (biracial male; lived in Korea for 13 years)
    - Goal: to be a VP or Director in the oil/gas or finance industry

    Thanks in Advance!

  • Danzig

    Hi Sandy,

    In the interview you said that most of the adcom officers are liberals. So, I don’t know whether I should mention that I am Catholic. You know that we, catholics, are very conservative in aspects such as birth control, for example.
    I would like to mention that I am catholic because my faith played an important role in my professional experience. For instance, I left my job in the best bank of my country to work in the government to help to reduce poverty.

    What do you think?

  • arjun

    Sandy,
    I just entered by final year of civil engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology, India. My GMAT score is 730 and my GPA is 8.9 ( on a scale of 10). I have done an internship in LnT and also joined a start up company in college in which i was the head of the marketing department. I have done a decent amount of extra curricular activities.
    What are my chances of getting into HBS, Stanford, Wharton etc?

  • hbsguru

    Catholic is OK< but you need to present as a liberal Catholic, Vat-2 Catholic, versus Opus Dei Catholic. Or more simply, just avoid social issues, and stick with going to Mass, loving the religion, and helping the poor.

  • arjun

    Sandy,
    I just entered by final year of civil engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology, India. My GMAT score is 730 and my GPA is 8.9 ( on a scale of 10). I have done an internship in LnT and also joined a start up company in college in which i am the head of the marketing department. I have done a decent amount of extra curricular activities.
    What are my chances of getting into HBS, Stanford, Wharton etc?

  • hbsguru

    great book review on the rise of Indian financial elites in USA

    THE BILLIONAIRE’S APPRENTICE

    The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund

    By Anita Raghavan

    Illustrated. 493 pp. Business Plus. $29.

    Just a few years ago, Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta were two of the
    most admired business luminaries from the “twice blessed” generation of
    South Asian immigrants. Both were born after India achieved independence
    from Britain in 1947, and both came to the United States after the
    Hart-Celler Act of 1965 abolished national origin quotas. Like many top
    students at the time, they sought graduate business degrees: Rajaratnam
    at the Wharton School, Gupta at Harvard.

    Rajaratnam founded the Galleon Group hedge fund and became a
    billionaire, and was considered the richest Sri Lankan-born person in
    the world. Gupta rose within McKinsey & Company to become the elite
    consulting firm’s three-term leader and the first Indian-born chief
    executive of a multinational company. Both were rich and reputable,
    traveling in the most exclusive social and business circles. Rajaratnam
    was dedicated to helping victims of land mines; Gupta presided over
    global efforts to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

    Needless to say, neither of these men needed to engage in insider trading.

    And yet (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read the business pages
    since 2011), in separate trials, juries convicted each of multiple
    counts of securities fraud. Investigators discovered that Rajaratnam had
    been given insider tips and used this advantage to make millions of
    dollars trading shares. Gupta was one of his sources. Rajaratnam
    received an 11-year sentence, the longest in American insider trading
    history; Gupta got two years.

    In one particularly dramatic instance, Gupta, on a conference call with
    Goldman Sachs’s board of directors one week after the collapse of Lehman
    Brothers, in 2008, learned that Warren Buffett was prepared to support
    Goldman with a $5 billion investment. Within minutes, Gupta called
    Rajaratnam and Galleon purchased nearly $25 million of Goldman stock,
    mostly for Rajaratnam’s portfolio. The following month, when Gupta
    learned Goldman was about to report a loss, he called Rajaratnam 23
    seconds later. Galleon soon began dumping Goldman stock.

    The cases against these two men are the twin pillars of Anita Raghavan’s
    true-life business thriller, “The Billionaire’s Apprentice.” Raghavan, a
    reporter who spent 18 years at The Wall Street Journal and has
    contributed to The New York Times DealBook, scoured documents and
    dissected testimony, adding color from more than 200 interviews on three
    continents. Her reporting is meticulous. The minutiae are instructive,
    though at times relentless. There is as much men’s clothing here as at
    Barneys New York, and these two defendants really are what they wear:
    the roguish Rajaratnam in a white captain’s cap smoking pot on the upper
    deck of a yacht; the genteel Gupta in a black Nehru suit with a red
    handkerchief at President Obama’s first state dinner.

    The book’s prefatory Cast of Characters sets a big, complex stage. My
    edition of “Hamlet” lists just 18 named dramatis personae at the outset,
    whereas “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” lists 81. For Wall Street
    insiders, there are large dollops of gossip about the bit players. Preet
    Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, idolizes Bruce
    Springsteen and calls his father a “tiger dad.” Judge Richard J. Holwell
    mispronounces the name of Goldman Sachs’s chief executive Lloyd
    Blankfein. Raghavan’s coverage is encyclopedic. Some readers will wish
    she had heeded Elmore Leonard’s advice and left out the parts people
    tend to skip.

    But the details of the two cases support a larger edifice, what Raghavan
    calls “the rise of the Indian-American elite.” Vijay Prashad, a scholar
    who has written extensively about South Asian history and Indian
    immigration, argues that men like Rajaratnam and Gupta benefited from
    two of the greatest social movements of the past century: independence
    in India and the struggles for civil rights in America. Those were the
    changes that made them “twice blessed.”

    Nevertheless, as Raghavan shows, it took time and work for this new
    generation of South Asians to penetrate American financial firms.
    Rajaratnam was the only Sri Lankan in his class at Wharton, and Gupta
    had perfect grades after his first term at Harvard but couldn’t get a
    job. One McKinsey source recalled how a partner asked, “Will our senior
    clients ever relate to you?” As Rajaratnam explained in a 2011 interview
    with Newsweek: “Wall Street was tough to get into for us. Not to be
    crude but there’s a Jewish mafia, and a WASP mafia, and an Irish mafia. .
    . . They hire their own; they socialize among their own.”

    The barriers fell slowly, man by man. Anshu Jain, the co-chief executive
    of Deutsche Bank, joined Kidder, Peabody & Company in 1985. Arshad
    Zakaria, the brother of the journalist Fareed, joined Merrill Lynch in
    1987. As finance became more mathematical, Wall Street firms began to
    hire skilled graduates, mostly men, from the ultra-competitive Indian
    Institutes of Technology, which were run as pure meritocracies. The
    I.I.T.’s are “a beacon of excellence in an India bedeviled by cronyism
    and back-scratching,” Raghavan writes. Indira Gandhi wanted her son to
    study at the I.I.T. in Delhi, but he couldn’t get in; he went to
    Imperial College London instead.

    I witnessed some of the transformation firsthand at Morgan Stanley in
    the 1990s. As my firm, traditionally a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant
    enclave, opened its doors to minorities, South Asian immigrants rushed
    in. In the derivatives group, my boss was Indian-American. His boss,
    Vikram Pandit, more recently the head of Citigroup, was
    Indian-­American. One of our junior colleagues, now a partner at Goldman
    Sachs, was Indian-American. The situation at other firms was similar.
    As Raghavan shows, this shift in ethnic composition was a widespread
    phenomenon.

    Indian-Americans populate every aspect of this story. On the government
    side, Preet Bharara oversaw both trials. Sanjay Wadhwa, a dogged
    securities investigator, connected the dots. On the private sector side,
    Rajaratnam created a South Asian network of tipsters and rogues whose
    debauchery makes Morgan Stanley look like a nunnery. Rajaratnam offered
    thousands of dollars to anyone who could finish 10 tequila shots in a
    row or eat an entire loaf of bread without taking a drink of water. The
    alcohol, drugs and locker room antics are worthy of a Bollywood version
    of “Animal House,” starring Raj Rajaratnam instead of John Belushi.

    Ultimately, the story has an Indian-­American Judas as well: Anil Kumar
    (“charcoal suit, white shirt and blue tie”), another successful Indian
    immigrant who attended Wharton with Rajaratnam and was Gupta’s protégé
    at McKinsey. Kumar was the government’s star witness, explaining how
    Rajaratnam wired money to an offshore bank account in the name of
    Kumar’s housekeeper in exchange for inside information — as much as a
    million dollars for one tip. Kumar also testified against Gupta, his
    longtime friend and mentor.

    Gupta — once a “corporate rock star,” according to Raghavan — fell
    further than anyone, from the boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter &
    Gamble, American Airlines and numerous nonprofits. Pending appeal, he is
    most likely headed to the Federal Correctional Institution in
    Otisville, N.Y., presumably the inspiration for the “Otis Federal
    Prison” that housed Gordon Gekko for eight years. Like Gekko, Gupta
    remained classy until the end. When he surrendered to the F.B.I., he was
    “impeccably dressed in a blue suit and salmon-colored Hermès tie.”

    In addition to setting forth the record of these two pathbreaking cases,
    “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” raises important policy issues. Of
    particular note, although federal prosecutors frequently use wiretaps to
    target street crime and terrorism, Rajaratnam’s trial was the first
    time the government employed on-tape conversations to prove insider
    trading. Gupta used at least 13 different phones, and without the
    wiretaps the cases against both men probably would have failed. But the
    use of wiretaps in prosecutions of financial crime is contested
    territory; Rajaratnam’s lawyers asked a court to set aside his
    conviction, arguing that the wiretaps violated his constitutional right
    to privacy. (To which one might ask: Why should society value the
    privacy of securities traders so much more than that of urban youth? And
    given how much the government has been intruding into all aspects of
    our private lives, why didn’t it use its wiretap power to prosecute
    fraud related to the subprime mortgage meltdown?)

    “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” is not without flaws. The title is
    confusing: Rajaratnam is the book’s billionaire, but Gupta, the other
    major player, was an experienced elder, not an apprentice. (The word
    “accomplice” would have made more sense, befitting both Gupta and
    Kumar.) Some names are misspelled: the 1965 immigration law’s co-sponsor
    was Representative Emanuel Celler, not Cellar. Many sources are
    anonymous and quotes “recreated.” And although Jeffrey Skilling — the
    former chief executive of Enron and convicted felon — is a brilliant
    man, he is not the ideal source to cite repeatedly as an expert,
    especially on such issues as whether Rajat Gupta was transparent and
    trustworthy.

    Yet these are quibbles, and the guts of the book are the best form of
    journalism, an early draft of history. Although the bulk of the evidence
    won’t be new to anyone who followed the media coverage of the two
    trials, it is useful to have the details compressed into one volume.
    More important, the overall picture of Wall Street that emerges is more
    diverse and complex than the prevailing image of a decade ago. Today,
    every aspect of finance — even insider trading and its prosecution —
    requires greater technical skills and smarts than it did in the past. As
    financial innovation has accelerated, the “rocket scientist” graduates
    of technical schools have obtained a comparative scientific advantage.
    The good guys are now more ethnically and culturally varied. And so are
    the bad ones.

    “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves,” David Ben-Gurion reportedly
    said, “we’ll be a state just like any other.” Anita Raghavan’s
    comprehensive account shows that the quip, which she cites, applies to
    other crimes and other places. On Wall Street, South Asia has finally
    arrived.

    Frank Partnoy is a law and finance professor at the University of San
    Diego and the author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.”

  • Gangul

    I had a weak under grad engineering GPA at a state school (2.8). But got into an Ivy League engineering masters program and did much better ( 3.7). I’ve worked at 2 fortune 100 companies as an engineer and been a low number employee at a now flourishing startup. Do I stand a shot?

  • Sanjay Sharma

    It’s interesting to watch the rat race in life. Everyone is trying their best to be exclusive and separate from the other. Outcomes on planet earth is based on interdependence, and yet all of the hallowed halls of fame in education try their very best in selective segregation, be it by intellect, net worth, influence etc. With this mixed message, are we really creating the leaders of tomorrow or schizophrenic self centered individuals who will indulge in acts of greed and drive the globe to extinction?

  • Noorun Mubeen

    Friends! Remember please,that the greatest minds in the history of human race didn’t have any MBA or anything else,they didn’t study neither at Harvard nor at Wharton…but they made our life more valuable and interesting! Do not forget that please!!!

  • Pakistani Kid

    Hello Sandy,

    Please see my profile below, let me know if it interests you for an analysis.

    - GMAT: 740 (80th percentile in both)
    - GPA: 2.5
    - Electrical Engineering with Minor in Economics from University of Waterloo (Pathetic GPA I know from a top tier school I guess)

    - While in school internships at Provincial ministry of Health and Long term Care, Federal Government of Canada, Alcatel-Lucent and BlackBerry.

    - Landed a full time job at Sony Ericsson in Montreal, moved to Bell Canada for 2 years and now working in a senior strategy and technology development role at Rogers communication. Have an interview lined up with Apple in California.

    - Hobbies include performing arts at a professional level. Always thought arts and business could some how merge. Theater work in school and in Toronto. Professional training as an actor at Armstrong acting studios (Yes, Miley Cyrus went to my school). Credits include a few short films and commercials. Still doing this part-time.

    -Some Volunteer work at local MP`s office as well as Cure for Cancer society volunteer.

    - Passed CFA level 1 since was interested in finance and used that knowledge to make investments and generated over 100K in profit. Used to payoff my undergrad loan and save for business school.

    - Pathetic GPA because of severe financial problems, always worked 30 plus hours while in school full time.

    - First in family to go abroad for undergraduate education.

    - Minority group as well Pakistani Canadian.

    - Schools: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Tuck, Ross, LBS, INSEAD, Wharton, Cornell

    - Goal: To get into Investment Banking for the Media/Technology sector companies leveraging my engineering and arts background, eventually make radical changes to the world of arts/movie making/theater by introducing new technologies and business strategies.

  • CB

    Profile below. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts–I think I’m representative of a large number of liberal artists who, if the legal market hadn’t fallen apart, would have otherwise ended up in law school.

    - 3.8 GPA in history from Middlebury/Haverford/Bowdoin type of place, various academic honors
    - 760 Math + 740 Verbal on the old GRE scale (ETS claims that equates to a 750 GMAT)
    - Internship at a hedge fund with full-time offer that blew up when the fund blew up. Scrambled to find something else in finance and almost got hired at a few different places, but nothing panned out–I graduated in 2010 when things were still really bad.
    - Worked at a white-shoe law firm as a legal assistant for two years before leaving to join a somewhat precarious early-stage media startup where I’m second in command. It’s pretty unknown but we make payroll every month and do decent work.
    - White male from a nice suburb who was on the prep school –> elite college gravy train from an early age, but who didn’t follow the IB –> PE path that most of my high school classmates did, mostly out of idealism and just thinking that wanting to do that when you are seventeen is kind of gross.

    While at the hedge fund I actually realized that I’m quite passionate about investing (and quantitative decision-making in general). In my ideal world I’d like to make it into asset management at a REIT or mutual fund because I like investing, but I’m willing to say I want to be a consultant (and willing to actually be a consultant) if investment management is now off the table, as I think it might be.

  • Rajiv-IITB

    Manipal is not a good engineering college. You’re neither from IIT nor from BITS, which makes you a nobody in Indian standards.

  • Jamie

    Why are you Indians so rigid w.r.t. each other?

  • gill

    Seriously, why the hate here? Nasty.

  • Malik

    The fact that your college lacks in reputation is something you can more than well make up through your GMAT, recommendations, and work experience. The admission officials are not fools…they look at each application in its entirety.

  • Archit

    What should i choose between Indian Institute of Technology(IIT)(some of which are lower in rank than BITS) and Birla Institute of Technology and Science(BITS)(the best private engineering institute in India and ranked better than 9 IITs(total !5 are there) for enhancing my future chances at top US B Schools…..considering the other factors (GMAT etc.) to be constant

  • Karan

    haha you pompus little sh*t, that fact that you have IITB in your username just says thats the only good thing you have going for you, you may have a better college but he is definitely a better person.
    As far as getting into Harvard goes, there is in fact a lot of emphasis on the undergraduate GPA, and as Jamie said, the do make a well rounded assesment of the application.

  • Kaushalya Nandan

    I am neither an MBA aspirant, nor an engineer. I am just an ordinary 19 year old guy and I stand nowhere among these IITians who are commenting on this thread. I was just reading this blog, and this comment attracted my attention. I know I don’t have the credentials to make it to HBS(neither I want to) but this short span of life has given me enough wisdom to be humble to whoever I can. Rajiv’s remarks strike me with surprise. All I want to say is that the current CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella is the alumni of the same Manipal Institute of technology(about which you spoke so lowly about, with disrespect and contempt), Masters in Computer Science from University of Wisconsin and an MBA graduate from Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. Many of his contenders were from the prestigious institutions but he finally emerged as the winner. I would suggest you people read more about him. I would not blame Rajiv for his preposterous remark, as his mindset represents a prevalent sickness present in the society. People like him first study engineering at IITs and NITs due to parental pressure(in India, the conservative parents believe that you can succeed only if you become a medical doctor or an engineer). The Indian government highly subsidizes their education so that these people can contribute towards various sectors in India after they get an affordable good education. This was the intention behind forming the IITs, as dreamed by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India . But then, most of these probably go for prestigious business schools in the US, all their lives eyeing for a plum job in some large investment banking enterprise on the wall street, ungrateful to their country whose citizens pay taxes from their hard earned salaries so that ungrateful people like him can get some decent education. Also, it is very competitive to get into the IITs, and when people like him go for jobs on the wall street, not only it is a waste of national resources, but also education. Someone, who might have been glad to study engineering, was not offered a seat at the IITs because you took it. Goddamn it Rajiv, at least follow your passion! I may be a nobody by Indian standards, but remember, people like you are nobody by international standards. What is the world ranking of the IITs? May be somewhere in 300s. Using your rotten logic, even you don’t deserve to get into top business schools, and then you have the audacity to mock people who have graduated from private institutions in India? Spare my language, but who the hell gave you the right to say that some college is shitty or that someone is a ‘nobody’ by Indian standards?
    I hope this message reaches everyone in time and specially nincompoops like Rajiv. Thank you.

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