Savvy Advice For MBA Applicants In India

Deepak Punwani of The MBA Exchange

It’s no secret that the world’s top business schools have been flooded by applications from Indian candidates in recent years. In the 2012-2013 GMAT testing year, applicants from India took the GMAT 25,268 times, third in the world behind only the U.S. at 90,541 and China at 53,005.

But it may be less known that Indian candidates to the best schools are such an over-represented group that the acceptance rates for them are often half of those for the overall applicant pool at many of the top MBA programs. For Indians in particular, it’s especially difficult because so many of the candidates look alike: They are typically engineers who work in computer software companies and have high grade point averages and GMAT scores.

So we sought the counsel of a leading MBA admissions consultant in India, Deepak Punwani, 39, heads up the India practice for The MBA Exchange, one of the leading consulting players in the world. He graduated with his MBA from INSEAD in 2005 and initially went to work at a consulting firm in London before taking a strategy job with Goodyear in Shanghai. After spending several years with Goodyear in a leadership role for its Indian operations, Punwani joined The MBA Exchange in early 2009.

For the past five years, he has advised more than 60 applicants in India on how to get into the world’s top business schools. He developed an interest in helping candidates when he was in China for Goodyear. “I used to get a lot of people who would seek me out and I enjoyed the process of working with them,” says Punwani. “I found myself reviewing someone’s story late into the night. At the same time, my younger brother was applying to business schools and I worked with him closely. He got into INSEAD. I realized it was something I wanted to do. You work as hard adding value to clients as you would in a management consulting firm but the difference is that this does not feel like work. It is something you like doing.”

Punwani, who has also worked closely with the admissions committee of INSEAD on briefing alumni interviewers, estimates that as many as one in four Indian applicants who go to business school outside the country use an admissions consultant. Poets&Quants spoke to him by Skype from his office in Mumbai.

Given the large numbers of Indian applicants to the best business schools, there’s no question that the hurdle rate of getting into a great MBA program is a lot tougher for them. How is this complicated by the fact that the majority of these applicants are all engineers?

It is clearly an over-represented pool. A lot of them come from similar educational backgrounds and from engineering. If a school has a 20% acceptance rate, it would not be unusual for the acceptance for applicants of Indian origin to be 10%.

But there are a couple of things that can make these candidates stand out:

1) If they have been keeping an eye on goal of an MBA, they should look at trying to get a more commercial or business-facing function within the IT role they have. Candidates who have been able to do that would have proactively developed a more global profile and understood the need for differentiation. Given the restrictions in terms of the industry they are in, they need to try to differentiate their profile proactively. People who voluntarily do more business development and business analysis rather than just being on the technical side are able to show a general management perspective and that helps.

2) Another way is stand out is by having a strong affiliation outside of work, taking on non-work leadership roles. The other thing they do well is they realize that they may come from an over represented pool so they double down and think very hard about their post-MBA goals. Rather than saying, ‘I was working for Infosys and it’s easy for me to go work for Microsoft,’ they think hard about what they really want to do.

Even though it’s difficult, both European and North American business schools appear to be admitting the largest percentage of Indian-born students ever.

The numbers are increasing. I wouldn’t have a sense of the total number but we do know that in any given program, Indian applicants make up between 5% and 12% of the admitted class. It’s a significant number of students from Indian origin. Sometimes, there is a split of half from India and half from outside the country. They might be of Indian origin but have six or seven years outside of India.

What are some examples of things a candidate could do to gain leadership experience outside of work in India?

The first thing we recommend is that it should be related to an interest or passion of theirs. Most adcoms like authenticity and the reasons why you choose one thing over another. The really smart candidate say they come from smaller towns in rural areas and have that drive to make it and get that exposure and want to give back in certain ways. Perhaps they want to mentor younger students like they once were or they lend a helping hand to people who want a more global profile themselves.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.