How An Indian Engineer Beat The Odds 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!”

SLEEPLESS NIGHTS WORRYING ABOUT BEING IN THE MOST OVER-REPRESENTED POOL

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?”

AN EXCELLENT STUDENT FROM UTTAR PRADESH

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.”

APPLYING TO JUST THREE SCHOOLS: HARVARD, STANFORD & WHARTON

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.”

  • Satyameva Jayate

    Your every point is valid. That said, I’d like to add that most inventors died poor (not poor by rural Indian standards but by global standards.) John Bardeen & William Schokley who sowed the seeds of fairchild did get the highly esteemed Nobel Prize but were not half as wealthy as the founders of Intel, albeit Intel emerged out of it.
    So, most people don’t want to be inventors or scientists. One the path is too much of an uphill and the results are not as guaranteed. Two – Without funding, the scientist wouldn’t have a lab. Those funds came from ex-MBB guys or ex-CEOs who never invented anything themselves. Vinod Khosla did not code the entire sun-microsystems product, he was the lead BD guy. Today, he is funding dozens of start ups. Dhirubhai Ambani was not a PhD in polymer science, Oil & Gas consultant neither. Look what he (& Mukesh Bhai) have erected today. One or two more RILs and they can fund ISROs and BARCs from their kitty. I have tremendous respect for scientists but what I’ve written is the reality. Last but not the least, even though BCG is not a Google or AT&T, Bain came out of BCG, and so did Netanyahu. Decidedly, the culture gets you going.

  • Satyameva Jayate

    Thank god he had not done his undergrad from Princeton or Yale! Then, he would have been worse of! No?
    I have had a few friends who got 760 and a 9.0+ CPI but could not go because they were unable to afford the fees and did not have anyone to sponsor their loans…of course this was a few years ago…but even then..those are the guys…IIT+BCG+Geneva actually doesn’t need an MBA…needs only HBS/GSBS/UPennW

  • pundit420

    Title is very misleading… i thought one of many struggling engineers somehow managed to get into HBS and could provide some roadmap for aspiring ones..

    770+IIT+BCG +social entrepreneurship… = HBS,

    770 + IIT is pure hard work and intelligence

    BCG +Social entrepreneurship is just luck + strong financial backing (thru parents or could be BCG client)

  • pundit420

    Admission officer must be surprised to see first Indian engineer without IT experience on resume…

  • ivyelite

    All hype.. high school is not the top 10 in india. Its not even in a big city. Its in the poorest state in India. Think some school in Alabama. Not in Mumbai or Delhi
    and IIT these days is for small town guys … no one from an elite school in Mumbai or delhi is dreaming of IIT
    Guy is exaggerating to the hilt

  • ivyelite

    This is an excellent point… very well said and spot on !
    for all the start up and STEM hype.. most HBS grads end up as middle management managers.
    Few might become eco’s, but 98% will be middle managers

  • Ogre

    John, stop trolling us with this garbage.

  • sehej

    “Of course, he had some natural advantages with IIT and BCG on his resume. And then there was that monster GMAT score. His 770 was 40 points above the Harvard median and solidly placed him among the top 1% of all of all test takers around the world. Without having to worry about the exam, Misra spent most of his time on the required essays and his CV. ”
    LOL.

  • Mehul Mishra

    This title makes it sound like its an underdog story. It is not . His profile is one of the best in the country. Infact people with his profile make it to HSW every year.

  • Apoorv Swarup

    I am yet to hear of any pedigree candidate exceptions at HBS especially with an engineering background (GSB is still less anal about pedigree if you’ve got an amazing profile, but even there I just know one guy who got in from a non-target engineering school who was a YIF fellow). You underestimate the pool-size of IIT grads (it would easily be over 500-600) with good (740+) GMATs and decent work-ex (across sectors) who apply every year, it is insanely competitive if you are an engineering grad even from a target school. Guys from Stephens/SRCC have an advantage from the outset by not being engg. grads

  • Warren

    even their matrix I heard it was stolen from poor guy.

  • Luke001a

    It’s surprising that the HBS admissions committee prefers students who studied engineering but have never actually worked in a STEM field. For all the lip service paid to entrepreneurship/startups, tech, Big Data etc., MBA program don’t want students who know math or stats or science or how to code. You certainly won`t get any technical skills from BCG doing 2 by 2 matrices and PPT slides all day. You will acquire the vacuous consultant speak: surveying key stakeholders, ensuring stakeholder alignment, leveraging best practices, KPIs, “what’s the so what”, pain points, best-in-class solutions, core competencies, etc… none of this requires a fraction of the intelligence needed to gain admission to an IIT. With all the thousands of people who’ve cycled through, nobody has invented or developed anything in the history of BCG except the BCG matrix.

  • AP

    Many people have had a lot to say about my comment. I’d like to respond:

    Firstly, I meant no disrespect to this individual when I posted my first comment.

    Secondly, even though this guy is an Indian engineer, he does not fit into the standard narrative by any stretch. He’s from one of the older IIT’s where the odds of being accepted into a program are roughly one in ten. (In fact, you can tell that his JEE rank wasn’t all that great by the fact that he was accepted into the GeoInformatics stream and not something like Mechanical engineering or computer science). After IIT, where his CGPA I sure must have been at least 8.8, he worked at BCG – an elite recruiter.

    In addition to all of this, he had phenomenal international work experience.

    What I am getting at here is that, there may be a handful of people like him in India who applied to HBS, Stanford, Wharton, etc. Now, I am sure not every single one of them got in, but, the odds of candidates with a similar background are certainly more than 3/100 as described in the article.

    Here’s what I know about those who have got into HBS – Almost all the engineers were from the older IIT’s (Bombay, Delhi, Kharaghpur, Kanpur, Madras) or BITS Pilani and had worked at either MBB or blue-chip banks. Many of them after the consulting or banking gig worked in a PE shop.

    There are some exceptions – I heard that one of two candidates from local colleges have been accepted into HBS because they have showcased incredible career growth and contribution to their employers and society as a whole.

    Again, this is not to demean this story or the individual who you have profiled. All I am saying is, if you’re an IITian and have worked at a blue chip firm, getting into HBS is certainly not as difficult as it is for a ‘run-of-the mill Indian engineer.’

    One more thing – the number of people from India who have studied at the elite Delhi Colleges – St. Stephens, SRCC, etc., and have been accepted into HBS is growing. You may want to check that out too!

  • Warren

    I have to admit, you are the most elegant troll of the P&Q.

  • C. Taylor

    Interesting take, but I don’t think anyone is bothering to check if IE or Oxford is accredited.

    charles wrote: “for career in banking in London, you suggest that LBS MBA is equal to HEC MIF/MBA?!!
    Yes.

  • charles

    Fair enough. But I think numbers support my argument. And I believe many would trust AACSB more than EQUIS and AMBA. It is quite funny how europeans tried to come up with an alternative management education system, CEMS, to counter the american system and FAILED. anyway, for career in banking in London, you suggest that LBS MBA is equal to HEC MIF/MBA?!!

  • C. Taylor

    The LBS MBA is an obvious option for finance. However, I see zero advantage for LBS over HEC Paris MIF/MBA in London/EU banking. You might well be better off with the MIF/MBA from HEC Paris. Few do the double degree at present so it is a differentiator. Same internship opps.

    charles wrote: “An MBA from a top 30 or so ranked american school is much better than any european school in term of education quality and life experience
    No.

  • charles

    Finance in EU/London, LBS is the school to go to. Apart from LBS and INSEAD, I see no real value of attending any european MBA program. EU is in an economic mess that most likely to last long time. The true business education is in US, the MBA is an american product and highly regarded by american business. An MBA from a top 30 or so ranked american school is much better than any european school in term of education quality and life experience. LBS plays on London location, and INSEAD on catering multinational firms with diverse affordable talents.

  • C. Taylor

    HEC Paris has a very interesting program for those who wish to work in finance in the EU: the two-year MIF/MBA program. A tier-one option for those guys, I’d suggest.

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Why dont you instead focus on popularizing some of the very good b-schools in india/asia through your articles…. Look at the entry cut offs and criteria for those colleges. Interact with few students there and see they are so much more brighter. You will be baffled to see that getting admission into IIMs/ISB in India for an Indian is so much more difficult than getting into HBS/Kellogg (for an American)

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Doesnt happen… Cuz U can get the Harvard brand only if you satisfy one or more criteria:

    1) u look good on paper (they dont care about how big a noob u r in reality)

    2) u already are associated with few big brands

    3) ur parents are super rich or super famous

    4) u can write touching stories eg how u survived the terrorism in Kashmir …

    I know few ppl from HBS…. MBB pre MBA…. Joined respective Industry post HBS…. Whats the point?? And honestly, i find all those folks full of ego (just cuz they are from HBS) and among the worst performers with lowest IQ… “Lets jot down a go-to market strategy” one HBS exclaimed out of nowhere during a meeting where we were already discussing an entry strategy for a region….

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Pls google

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Hahahaha so true

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Its all about opportunity… US economic condition is good and ppl get attracted to do mba in US… And once the crowd comes, the asmission criteria becomes stricter and the school gains an “elite status”. To say an Indian guy is “not fully qualified” is stupidity to the least. Its just that there are too many of them and then u want to select the “best looking – on paper” out of them… In terms of IQ and leadership skills, i believe each an every person getting into IIT is way way above any HBS or Kellog or whatever MBA…

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    School choice is normally based on the economy of the country/region. Hence Indians like going to US because salaries in India are low. Few decades hence, when the Asian economy picks up full throttle then see the number of applications to asian schools and how the admission criteria becomes stricter. Then lets see what poets and quants defines as an elite school. I already see a lot of HBS, Wharton, Kellogg MBA lining up for jobs in Singapore (just because the salary structure here is much better than in US or Europe and tax rate is low) but getting rejected because Govt want to absorb the locally produced talents. Same is gonna happen when India and China hit full boom….

    Trump or Hilary, US economy is gonna be doomed soon…

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Hahaha all the MCK dudes i know here in singapore, were sponsored for their MBA… Those guys could manage no more than 680 in GMAT and all joined INSEAD cuz it was the easiest to get in… And post their MBA, they have a sureshot job anyways…

  • nononsensegirl

    What a waste of space !!! Schooled from one of the top 10 schools in India, engineering from IIT, employment from BCG, well-off and educated parents. Accepted at Wharton, wait listed at Harvard and Stanford — John A Byrne calls this fighting against odds and winning. I would request the author to get some perspective on what a typical Indian engineer’s profile looks like !!

  • F500-HR

    First, I am not ignorant! second: I do not know Rahul Ghandi.

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    Hey ignorant…. Do u even know who rahul gandhi is??

  • F500-HR

    So, whats wrong with that?! you know business schools are businesses too!

  • Saumyadeep Datta

    If HBS accepted the likes of Rahul Gandhi, its proof enough how screwed up their “criteria” is. HBS mainly takes in children of rich n famous, who are anyways going to be “leaders” of their respective companies. In a way these “elite” school admits ppl who are already sure to become leaders and then take credit for their success.

  • TheDude

    “How An Indian Engineer Beat The Odds Into Harvard Business School”: by not being an engineer. Gee thanks P&Q, so informative.

  • charles

    It is quite funny that you make a lot of noise and eventually attend HEC MBA!! you know that HEC flagship program is not the mba! it is the master in management (grand ecole) and french don’t like the “american” MBA and look down to it. Looser people always complain and protest with deep feel of inferiority to the english successful world.

  • Apoorv Swarup

    An IIM although it attracts the best talent in India can’t exactly be considered an MBA, you have mostly got fresher’s or at most people with 1-2 years of work ex. It’s at best an MiM equivalent. A highly experienced guy won’t get any value for his work ex if he does go to a IIM. This is the very reason why the EMBA of IIM’s features in the FT mba rankings while the 2 year pgdbm (i.e. cat aspirants) features in the Masters of Management rankings by FT

  • Kaushik S.

    Interesting how these comments seem to demean the IIM degree. People should know before they comment that the IIM diploma is a diploma because the institutes are not deemed universities. Getting a top score in GMAT is much easier than cracking the CAT.

  • david

    Congratulations for the HEC offer. It is good school, although I don’t really see european schools are worth the investment. At the end, the result of european business education is useless and can be seen by the struggle of the whole europe , economically and socially.

  • Apoorv Swarup

    Again with the generalizations, my friend at INSEAD WAS sponsored by Mckinsey. Anecdotal experience from your cohort doesn’t make it universal truth. Also the IIM guys usually don’t get into HSW (btw the IIM is technically a PG Diploma). The real Indian talent IS going to M7 Schools (Satya Nadella: Booth Grad; Sundar Pichai: Wharton Grad, yeah avg. Indians end up becoming CEO’s down the line as well). Your assumption that Schools have made additional programs for solely Indian applicants who want more degrees is laughable to say the least. I shall be commencing my only MBA degree shortly at HEC Paris and can safely assume I’m better on most objective parameters than you (if you did indeed go to INSEAD)

  • david

    I am sorry. I did not intend to be offensive. The post was just a descriptive one. You do realize that nowadays it is quite common to find indians with two or three MBAs! one from IIM, another from INSEAD or IMD, and the last EMBA from top American school. Schools themselves realized this and start offer programs that specifically for MBAs, Yale MAM, MIT MSMS, Stanford MSx, etc.. Many admission people use indians for GMAT for ranking, nothing else, because the real indian talent will most likely work in technical stuff at Google, or Facebook, .. For INSEAD, you can check the sponsored consultants, it is hard to find indians sponsored by MBB. Indians target is M7 schools, if didn’t make it, then they go to INSEAD or IE or London, and they pretend to be looking for an international atmosphere 🙂 after many MBAs, avg indian end up doing GMAT tutoring, or back office work for partners in amesterdam or london! btw how many MBA have you done SO FAR?!

  • Even from IIT and BCG and a 770 GMAT (a score that put him in the top 1% of all test takers worldwide), he was first waitlisted at both Harvard and Stanford! This just shows you the hyper competitive nature of admissions at the elite MBA programs. I don’t think you would find “an Indian guy who went to a regional university and worked at Infosys or Accenture” and got into HBS. The reason is not because they are not fully qualified to attend. It’s because the pool is so incredibly competitive.

  • Apoorv Swarup

    You do realize that the average Indian at INSEAD is because of that very competition much better on all objective levels than the person of any other nationality? He could’ve been at HSW if they hadn’t limited the Intake of Indians to a small percentage of the cohort. Your comment reeks of bigotry, truly pity you.

  • david

    you are right, almost every indian at INSEAD is a reject of HSWB. I have seen how desperate they are for prestige, the first they do go to Wharton for two exchange, and then, believe it or not, they put it in the resume as WHARTON-insead MBA !! two years later, most of them reapply to Stanford MSx! ridiculous and trapped minds.

  • Apoorv Swarup

    How dense are you? Do you realize how crazy competitive it is for non-legacy Indian engineering admits to get into HBS? You first have legacy admits and later progeny of extremely influential (politicians/industrialists) who have insane resumes because they can. The sheer pedigree admit comes below both these categories and the competition for that is insane. Having a 760+ GMAT after being an IIT grad is par for the course. Which sector you have worked in prior to applying also comes into play. There would be hundreds of Indians from MBB/Bulge bracket IB’s who apply every year. Applying early and ensuring a distinctive profile becomes key. Knew a BITS grad who had done his masters from Stanford and worked in McK and later with me at TechnoServe got dinged from HSW.

  • GlobalMBA

    from regional uni and infosys or Acce and you want HBS to take him? are you serious? HBS does not make credits, they only take already made ones.

  • AP

    This is not the typical Indian engineer story. He is from an elite school – IIT and then worked at an elite consulting firm – BCG. Please write an article here when an Indian guy who went to a regional University who worked at Infosys or Accenture gets into HBS.

  • HBS-Toilets-Fan

    John,

    There is a very important point you never mention it here in P&Q. The HBS toilets. It is very important as this site is dedicated for HBS to the extent that there is a story about an applicant who got in while in Switzerland. So, why not write something about HBS toilets and how they were designed to serve the admitted students who got the call while in Swiss!