And what about workplace differentiation?
A lot of people try one of two things: They add a blue chip employer on their CV or they might go to a smaller outfit and have a bigger leadership role there so they can have evidence of a leadership role with impact. There also is a significant activity around startups in india so they might even lend some of their skills to a few startups. Applicants might get involved in early stage startups and look at functional issues that a startup presents to get exposure to finance or marketing while keeping their day jobs. That helps them differentiate even if they have Tata or Infosys as their primary work experience.
Last year I had someone who was working on IT consulting at Tata doing project management work but was working pro bono for a startup sharing used books for underprivileged kids. They created a marketplace for this. Over weekends and late hours, he was working on this idea to bring it worldwide. So he was able to show technical leadership transferring work experience into a different kind of a function and even helping in fundraising and understanding what it was like to raise seed funding. He could talk about this in the essays. He had a 710 GMAT and went went to one of the regional engineering colleges in India with an 8 to 10% acceptance rate. He graduated in the top op 25% of his class. He got accepted by INSEAD, Chicago and Kellogg and is going to iINSEAD because he thought that would help his international entrepreneurial goals. He ultimately wants to set up something back in India.
If you’re a look-alike MBA applicant from India with an engineering background, how much time do you think it takes to differentiate yourself?
I’ve seen quite a few accomplish this in less than a year. As long as they realize the importance of other aspects to differentiate their profile, they would realize that if they are in the top 5% vs the top 25% makes little difference. In their first position out of school, the top 10% may have gotten short listed for a top job with a consulting firm. We encourage them to start thinking about their interests and look at where they want to go early on. Candidates who understand this, the really good ones, take up an activity that connects to what their interests might be. If they are trying to do something to just impress the admissions committee, that is not going to work because it’s just not you. It’s not going to drive you into a good MBA program because it’s not what you would have naturally done. If you had six or eight months, it’s possible to achieve as much as a candidate could in two years if they align their activity with their true interests and passions.
If you are Indian and not from IIT or an engineer do you have a better shot?
Not necessarily. The reason is you also would have to have good work experience to go with it. Some of the non-engineers may not have the professional experience equal to engineers so it may be as challenging for them. But if they have significant professional experience and can build on it in terms of their goals then they would surely standout. Sometimes it is a question of giving these applicants the confidence to take a shot at a good program.
A lot of times, non-engineers may have more time on their hands to build their profiles. They may have done more volunteering abroad. The intensive nature of an IT program may not give you that much time to do things to help you stand out.
If you had the chance to burst one big myth about MBA admissions for Indian applicants, what would it be?
If there is one myth that we need to bust quite early on in the process it’s this one: In India, there are many choices available to the top 10% or !5 of any graduating class. Once you’ve started working, you think you are going back to an educational institution and that is how it is going to work. What we make them realize is that the fact that they were at the 30th percentile at an IIT may not be so valuable. The fact that they made it into that program is definitely something that is going to be respected. But a high GMAT and a high GPA is not a guarantee of admission. The slightly risky scenario is when they get a 780 GMAT and think they can walk into the top colleges. I had a sub-700 score and was lucky enough to get into the top MBA programs I applied to. But having gone through the process, the numbers don’t make up for the large amount of applications from India.
Give me an example of a client you recently worked with.
We had a candidate with a spectacular 760 GMAT and very good work experience at some blue chips firms in India and the U.S. He was one of my earliest clients. He tried to apply to some top colleges and did not get through. He then came to us and realized there is significant work to be done. Some of the things that needed to be highlighted in his application weren’t, especially his non-work leadership activities. This person had enormous team work experience in his community and wasn’t highlighting that.
Like many Indian candidates, he put it down to the fact that he thought the adcoms would largely be interested in his academic output and the job he had done. Indian applicants tend to concentrate a lot on their achievement and fail to give enough reflection on why they’re doing what they do and where it will lead. We had to work with him and he finally made it to MIT Sloan. HIs goal was to take his own company global in the IT space. It was a profile just waiting to be structured to bring out all the strong points. People think that if they work at Cisco and have a spectacular GMAT, that’s it.
I understand that another common problem among Indian applicants is the recommendation letter. Is it true that recommenders in India tend to write vague, non-personal endorsements of candidates?
A pro-forma recommendation is more common. We preempt that by describing to our client what they need for their recommendation. It comes down being more proactive in educating recommenders on what is needed. It’s another way to differentiate yourself. Because the volume of applications from India are so high, applicants need to be 100%. You want to use every piece of the application to make a strong case for yourself.
We encourage them to get their recommenders to customize the letters and bring out something the school will value. Your recommender could say you worked very well on cross-cultural teams. You want to make sure that is not missed for certain schools.
In some of the enterprises where a lot of these applicants work, the employers are not necessarily favored MBA recruiters. A lot of people who go to business school from Infosys aren’t going back to Infosys after they graduate. So it’s not always possible to be working with someone from a top MBA program who understands what a school wants from a recommender. That is not necessarily a show stopper but being effusive doesn’t hurt and having a more macro view in terms of how this person would fare when they go to a global program is also something that helps.