March 28th was a day I will always remember. After having taken the GMAT a half dozen times and feeling the sting of rejection from nine different schools, from INSEAD and London Business School to Columbia Business School and NYU Stern, it was the day I would hear from one of the schools at the very top of my target list: Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Weeks before this date, my doubts increased. I wondered if that hard-fought 720 on the GMAT was enough to put me over. I wondered if I would have to start all over again, waiting yet another year to apply to a new round of MBA programs. I wondered if my consultant was right, that I should have applied to a group of “safety” schools.
I knew that Kellogg would call accepted applicants, and I imagined the moment that I would be on the phone with someone from the admissions office. I was on a work call in India around 8:40 p.m. when I saw an unidentified number with the +1 code come up. My phone let me know the phone number was in Evanston, Illinois.
‘I WILL DO KELLOGG PROUD’
My hands trembled as I told my colleague I’d call him back and picked up the call to hear an admissions officier congratulate me and go over next steps. I couldn’t think much and didn’t ask any questions. The one thing, I remember I kept repeating was, “Thank you so much, I will do Kellogg proud.”
For the next few hours, I refreshed the screen on my laptop every few minutes until I got the official congratulatory email to enter Kellogg’s two-year MBA program starting this fall
That March 28th phone call capped a long and arduous three-year-long journey. From the start, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Afterall, as an Indian male, I am in the most overrepresented applicant pools at the top business schools. And I am an unorthodox MBA candidate, with close to seven years of experience in the sports/media and entertainment sector after graduating from Shri Ram College of Commerce with a degree in business and commerce.
THE GMAT DIDN’T GO ACCORDING TO PLAN
Yet, it had always been my goal to do an MBA, and I embarked on my first steps in early 2015 by signing up for the GMAT. When I scheduled by first try for April of that year, I did so thinking I would have I sufficient time to retake the test, if necessary, and apply in R1. I had friends at business school so reaching the right people to do my research on the different MBA programs wasn’t too difficult. In fact, my networking began way before I first sat for the GMAT.
But the GMAT didn’t go according to plan. Over a five-month period, I ended up taking the test three different times. Though my mock scores were consistently over 700, my actual results on all three tests just weren’t good enough. Everytime I saw my score on the screen, I was crestfallen. There was something about the pressure of the final day that I wasn’t handling well. I knew, however, that since I was scoring well in mocks, I had it in me to up my game on the final day. I dusted myself off and started preparing for my fourth attempt.
Again, disaster! I put too much pressure on myself, and I choked again. I decided to apply to a few select schools in R2 and subsequently got rejected by all of them, without being invited to interview. It was demoralizing. The entire GMAT experience was exhausting, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to give it another try.
FRIENDS SENT ME GMAT QUESTIONS EVERY DAY AS A CHALLENGE
Since a 2016 start was not possible and I had a full year to plan and apply again, I decided to take few months off, clear my head and focus on work. Friends advised me to get some professional help before my next attempt. I joined classes, followed a structured approach in my preparation for the GMAT, while simultaneously managing a hectic schedule at work. I could see myself getting better at both quant and verbal. Friends sent me questions everyday which I took as a challenge. I diligently went through a series of mock exams. My scores were consistently in the 750+ range so I regained my confidence. Even my tutors believed that I would crack a 730+ score with ease. I took the exam a fourth time in April of 2016—a full year after my first test—and alas, received the same dreadful result. Not only was there no improvement in my score, I sufferred a 30-point fall from my 2015 high.
This hit me hard! I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong (even my instructors were puzzled), and I didn’t know if I could bear to sit for the test again. I curled into a shell and was in dire need of a distraction. Luckily, I received an interesting work opportunity to lead a region handling sales for a startup in the wellness space, a role very different to what I had been doing previously. I temporarily shelved my MBA plan and focused on the new challenge. I was enjoying my new assignment and quickly excelled at the sales function. Meeting new people and closing deals, I was able to regain a bit of my lost confidence.
But my failure to hit or exceed that 700 GMAT score was always in the back of my mind, and I knew I’d eventually have to confront it if I wanted an MBA, something I felt was vital for me to grow as a business leader. Work kept me busy, busy enough to put off more prep for the GMAT. The exam had been a huge pain point and when I finally started my prep, I decided to do so quietly, without telling my family, friends or teachers.
CONSULTANTS TOLD ME TO FOCUS ON SCHOOLS OUTSIDE THE TOP 30
I first focused on the basics and went through every topic on the quant side in a detailed manner. I then went through all my mistakes from past practice notes and mock exams. I identified gaps in certain topics and also realized a lot of my mistakes were just due to a lack of concentration. Maybe I just needed to spend an extra 10 seconds per question to doublecheck my answers.
I found this extra time and I knew I could only do this by practicing every potential question type so I wasn’t surprised by any question. I couldn’t waste precious seconds figuring out a way to attempt a particular question. I gained added motivation when MBA consultants told me I had to aim higher than a 720 or I wouldn’t stand a chance at my target schools. All the schools they were recommending were outside the top 30.
Undaunted, I didn’t allow myself to become demoralized, instead believing that my first focus should remain on the GMAT. The last week before the exam, I took off from work, the first time I had taken off before sitting for the test. I didn’t really need days for still more prep but the extra time definitely helped me destress, focus and ensure that only the GMAT was on my mind.
BREAKING THE 700 BARRIER ON THE GMAT EXAM
On test day, I scored a 720, the first time I had broken the 700 barrier. I was thrilled seeing that score on the screen. I may have shed a tear or two, after all it had taken me: two full years (ridiculous I know!), when others conquered the GMAT with just a few months of prep. I didn’t care, I knew I now had a chance to get into one of my dream schools and had to immediately shift my attention on applications.
While the consultants now agreed I stood a better chance, they still weren’t encouraging in the school choices they recommended (yes, these were professionals and yes, they only want to show success and don’t want to take a risk even if they think you have a 70% chance to get in!). I knew I had a compelling story. I wasn’t from a traditional background, and I had achieved success at work. The kind of people I was working with and the nature of these engagements was beyond what is normally asked of professionals at my level and age. I took confidence in this and knew if I communicated my story and growth well, a top school would would definitely want to give me a shot. I researched schools and spoke to at least 10 people in each school I applied to. My first few apps in R1 were London Business School, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and Columbia Business School. Each of my essays went through 15+ edits, and everyone who worked with me on my apps felt good about my chances.
Unfortunately, the rejections started coming in –- on the LBS application which I thought was one of my best with well-articulated goals, demonstrated fit, and quotations from the right alumni, I got a straight reject. Fuqua put me on an interview waitlist, and Columbia rejected me as well. New York University’s Stern School of Business was the next program to reject me. I was really bummed about Stern. I had put in a lot of effort into the Stern application. One current student, in fact, told me that I probably knew more about the school than he did. I had applied to Stern a couple of years back and believed I had a far more compelling story this time around. It wasn’t to be.