What Life Is Like At A Top Indian B-School

They say that an MBA makes men out of boys, at least professionally. Having recently graduated from one of the top B-schools in India, I can vouch for the fact that the two years of my MBA were the most formative of my life, filled with learning and valuable life lessons. However, these two years weren’t easy; in fact, they were meant to be anything but. The B-school experience felt like an exam I didn’t prepare for, even as the tape recorder of my life pressed its fast-forward button daily. Chaos was the new order. And when your life is in chaos, you have no option but to fall in love with the madness. As I mellowed down, I learned that it was best to take everything in the B-school phase with an open mind, a willingness to learn, a pinch of salt, and a smile. Below, I share a list of seven things one can expect from the Indian MBA.

1. Self-management: The best managers handle stress calmly, with a straight face. Top Indian B-schools throw truckload after truckload of stress at their students in the form of a barrage of compulsory subjects, optional electives, case studies, attendance rules, group projects, presentations, quizzes (often on short notice), hectic and packed schedules, and oddly-timed classes. In addition to all this, there is a tremendous amount of studying and self-preparation to maintain a good CGPA (cumulative grade point average), which in turn directly affects students’ chances for internships and final placements into the best brands and coveted profiles.

If this weren’t enough, some B-school professors lock entry doors to their classes a minute prior to the official class time. Such rigor at top B-schools is a way of honing the stress-management and time-management skills of the candidates. For if you can’t manage yourself well enough in the first place, how do you expect to manage others? Students must soothe and stitch their own frayed nerves as they take the first steps toward becoming top-notch decision-makers and responsible managers.

2. The Rat Race: A B-school is not meant to teach only academics. It gives perspective on much more. A convenient misnomer, the “rat race” is seen in its most splendid entirety here. Just after they land into the best institutions, students can be seen competing against one another, running around for committee and club interviews, and giving elevator pitches on why they should be chosen into the Placement Committee or the Student Council. Many core and functional cells also operate in B-schools, such as those for marketing, finance, technology, consulting, economics, social responsibility, and even cultural activities, in which students try to gain memberships. It helps them earn invaluable CV pointers as PORs (Positions of Responsibility) and a sense of power and prestige in the school. No wonder some students with PORs become the most popular and well-known faces later in corporate life. And yet there are some students who get into such committees out of sheer interest and passion to excel and contribute to that field.

Again, you become a rat only if you participate in the rat race, and while the term sounds derogatory, it is a necessary training for life that gives perspective on what works and what doesn’t in real life. Such committees form an ideal testing ground for students to experience what’s in store for them in the future. Mentoring first-years as a senior committee member also imparts valuable leadership skills to second-years. Considerable time and activity is spent in the committee work, which sometimes takes its toll on academics — but the real winners are those who can “manage” both effectively.

3. Corporate Projects and Internships: As they say in B-school portals, your resume is the single most important piece of paper you’ll have for the coming two years of MBA. Students serious about their career try to improve their resumes by applying to and working for corporate projects and part-time or virtual internships. This may be done to get a brand name on a resume, or more importantly to show relevant experience in the chosen field of MBA specialization. Such internships are all the more important for “freshers” who have no real-world corporate experience. These are often done in addition to the compulsory eight-week summer internship (winter internship in some B-schools). A lot of students try to squeeze in two or three such internships to list on their resumes, which often involves traveling.

In addition to all that, some top B-schools send their students for mandatory civic engagement internships all over the country. In these, they volunteer to work with NGOs and social organizations without pay to solve management problems the groups might be facing. Such social internships make for well-rounded resumes and socially sensitive managers of tomorrow, something which corporate head-hunters look for. They also make for immensely satisfied volunteers who have helped “make a difference.”

4. Jargon and GAS: MBAs are adept at using the latest buzzwords and jargon that make them sound professional, which comes naturally as a result of being B-schooled. Strategic importance is given to fundamental focal points and out-of-the-box paradigm shifts vis-a-vis best of breed buy-ins, not limited to taking a helicopter view of the dynamic VUCA world per se. (See what I’m getting at?) Not only this, but you can consider your first year at B-school a success if you can answer any question in the world with perfect nonsense for two minutes nonstop, and in turn confuse the asking party to such an extent that they think you probably know your stuff. Such nonsense is called “Generally Accepted S–t,” or GAS, in Indian B-school parlance. Gassing (sometimes called globing) is pretty common in MBA classrooms, mainly because of compulsory class participation (CP) marks awarded on the basis of how much a student contributes to the class.

Guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of new, inexperienced students, CP sometimes turns to desperate class participation (DCP), typically when students who never said anything in class for the first two months of the trimester suddenly realize they need extra marks to make up for their low scores. Regardless, to add DCP is not recommended, and experienced professors will see right through it. GAS or any of its variants only partially works in the real world, much to students’ disappointment. A combination of great-sounding words — albeit with a solid backing of knowledge and research — does work, however, often making for great pitches and presentations. And oh, before I forget — the best answer to any question in an MBA classroom starts with, “It depends,” and has, without fail, an “opportunity cost” component to it!

5. Networking: Another used and oft-abused term at top B-schools, networking is a boon for extroverts and a bane for introverts. Still, one of the main reasons people do an MBA is to increase the number of people in their network — not just who they know, but who they can depend upon. Top B-schools, through the admissions process, ensure that a variety of students from all walks of life enter their hallowed portals, who can contribute and add value to each others’ MBA experience. That being said, engineers rule the roost in India and are admitted in large numbers. Given the pressure that is prevalent here, even the most introverted person cannot survive B-school without a group of people he or she can count on in tough times. Having such a group is advisable during the MBA, as it also invariably provides invaluable lessons in teamwork and communication.

Much of the networking and contact-building happens in informal B-school events — first-week induction, outbound trainings, parties (a lot of them), weekend trips, excursions — and also within the group of people you share your dorm/apartment with. It also happens in B-school corporate competitions, where the right team of people can help you win accolades and awards. Your seniors and super-seniors, after graduating and getting positions at top companies, might just be the key to making that all-important final presentation or career-altering job switch, or to gaining entry to the Big 4 consulting conference, solely because they know you and have seen your work either directly or indirectly during your MBA. Alumni remain loyal to their B-school, simply because it’s their alma mater.

6. Convenience Relationships: Flip to the other side of the coin and you’ll also find “convenience relationships” being formed. These are part and parcel of B-school life. Friendships are formed while preparing for exams past midnight in libraries, when you trade solutions with other college-mates. Faces are replaced by display pictures on smartphones. Sometimes the best answer to a question nagging your mind won’t be from a professor or the Internet, it will be found on the hundredth B-school WhatsApp group. These days, this is the norm. First-years in B-school don’t have time to make enemies, nor may one necessarily find lifelong buddies (consider yourself lucky if you do). Every elective, for example, might require a separate project group; and there are at least 30 odd electives (both years combined) in a good B-school curriculum; so people simply end up knowing a lot of people. They may not, however, have the time to sit down and actually spend quality time with each of them. B-school, then, is about finding a balance between these two extremes.

7. Acing Placements: Placements are the single most important reason why there is insane competition for getting into the top Indian B-schools. Often considered a passport to a lucrative job offer, any MBA program worth its salt has a dedicated placement committee that is either managed by students or by the staff themselves. The best boast of 100% placements, which directly raise the reputation and brand image of the B-school. The most important factor in B-school rankings, placements in the form of companies visiting the campus and the profiles offered to students make or break a B-school. A B-school’s placement report, whether inflated to a certain extent or not, can tell a real story in terms of performance and standing in the market.

All the hard work, soft skills, resume polishing, learning through various electives — literally every aspect of a student’s B-school life sees its culmination in the final placement interview. It is important to understand, however, that placements are not the end of the road. They need to be approached with a calm, cool demeanor. Also, the companies you apply for need to be based on what you’re interested in, rather than what everyone thinks is the best. Often considered the epitome of herd mentality, an MBA here ironically teaches students not to follow the crowd or have a me-too mentality, as the job they land now could define their life later. It is important to balance three P’s in B-school placements: the profile (or kind of work you’d do), the position of the company in the market (or its brand image), and the pay (what you’d earn). Of course, some students enter uncharted territory and opt out of placements, to be an entrepreneur or otherwise.

B-school makes you a jack of all trades as well as a master of business administration. It is a powerful bias-killer, about how you think of the world and how its people function. It is the experience of a lifetime. If you can somehow survive the daily rigmarole of trying to read a case study (on your smartphone screen), making up intelligent-sounding questions in your head (for gaining CP marks), with a half-eaten vadapav (your breakfast) perched precariously in your right hand, running a flight of stairs (from the canteen to the class), trying not to be late (the professor might have just bolted the class doors), all the while thinking about the presentation you have to make (in the other lecture), worrying about whether there will be a surprise quiz (with the midterms coming up in two weeks), when you haven’t studied a thing (ever since the trimester started), when you receive an email notification stating that your dream company will be on campus tomorrow (for conducting final placements), with heavy, puffy eyes (owing to lack of sleep and coffee) — if you can manage that, well then, pat yourself on the back (with your left hand and smartphone, silly, unless you want red vadapav chutney in your hair) for you might just be suitable for the experience called the Indian B-school.

Megh Amin is a marketer with a passion for technology, social volunteering, and the Oxford comma. He completed his MBA in marketing from School of Business Management, NMIMS Mumbai, and his B.E. in electronics and communication from RCOEM Nagpur. A senior management trainee at an engineering and research and development firm in New Delhi, he loves writing, re-reading Harry Potter, and a perfectly made cup of tea.

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