How An Indian Engineer Beat The Odds To Get Into Harvard Business School

Shantanu Misra, 26, plans to pursue a career in social enterprise after getting his MBA from Harvard

Shantanu Misra, 26, plans to pursue a career in social enterprise after getting his MBA from Harvard

It was nearly 9 p.m. in Geneva, Switzerland, when Shantanu Misra strolled out of a movie theater with friends just as his cell phone rang. On the line some 3,670 miles away was an admissions official from Harvard Business School.

There was good news: After a more than three-month stay on the waitlist, HBS was inviting him to occupy one of the 942 seats in this year’s incoming MBA class. Of the 9,759 candidates who applied to Harvard, he would be among the 11% to gain an acceptance.

Overjoyed, Misra let out a yelp in Hindi on a quiet, dark Geneva street.

“Finally,” he shouted, “they had to give it to me!”


For the 26-year-old Indian, the call represented the end of a long, angst-filled journey to one of the most highly selective business schools in the world. His anxiety was well-placed, because Misra was in the most over-represented part of the elite MBA applicant pool: Indian engineers. It’s not known exactly how oversized that candidate pool is, but it is known that highly qualified Indian engineers routinely confront rejection rates that can be four to five times the average at leading business schools.

If that ratio holds true for Harvard, which does not disclose such detailed figures, it would mean that HBS’ acceptance rate for Indian passport holders who apply to its MBA program is not much more than 3% to 4% — much lower than the overall 11% acceptance rate. Misra faced daunting odds of admission. Consultants estimate that as many as 1,300 Indians apply to Harvard Business School in any given year, but a typical HBS class boasts no more than 40 Indian passport holders out of some 940 students.

“For me, the biggest area which gave me sleepless nights was not the GMAT,” says Misra, who scored a 770 on the test. “What I really was worried about was how to position myself given that there are a lot of people from India who apply. I wondered, ‘How could I differentiate myself?’ I knew there were many ways I was different from other engineers in India, but how could I make that clear in an application?”


Son of an engineer and a college-educated mother who stayed home to raise him and his sister, Misra grew up in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. He was an excellent student at Seth M.R. Jaipuria School in Lucknow, which has been ranked among the top ten schools in the country. When he graduated from Jaipuria, Misra went on to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur where he earned a bachelor’s degree in tech and a master’s in geoinformatics.

He joined The Boston Consulting Group as an associate in the firm’s Mumbai office. A year and one-half later, Misra gained a promotion to senior associate and an assignment in Singapore. But he left in eight months to pursue a long simmering passion for social enterprise, moving to Geneva to join Gavi, the vaccine alliance, as strategy manager. The organization brings together public and private sectors to provide equal access to vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries.

Misra never even thought about doing an MBA until he landed the job at BCG. “Once I got into BCG, I was locked into the management world,” he says, noting that the MBA was a credential on virtually every partner’s resume. “I still wasn’t sure. But I am really passionate about social entrepreneurship which is why I transitioned into Gavi. It was during my time there that I realized the MBA was the right path for me to get core business skills and a more global perspective.”


Harvard Business School - Ethan Baron photo

Harvard Business School – Ethan Baron photo

For Misra, the journey to business school was a two-step process. “I started out by talking to a lot of colleagues,” he says. “BCG sends a lot of people to B-schools and hires a lot of MBAs so I had a lot of people in my network who either had MBAs or who were applying. Then, I did some webinars and I searched online, looking for the right fit in terms of the culture of the school in general.”

With a 770 GMAT obtained in April of 2014, Misra set his sights on only three business schools: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton. His immediate challenge: How to differentiate himself from other IIT-trained engineers from India. It helped, of course, that he worked in consulting, instead of engineering, and it also helped that he transitioned into social enterprise. Those career choices significantly set him apart. It’s doubtful his hobbies helped: he enjoys yoga, snowboarding, scuba diving and playing cricket.

In retrospect, Misra believes that two things made a real difference. “I had a good amount of global exposure. For BCG, I worked in five different geographies and then I spent one and one-half years in Switzerland for Gavi. And I made sure my career focus to be a social entrepreneur came out in my application. I think these two things really differentiated me.”