What I’ve Learned Helping Nearly 900 MBA Applicants In India

I can scarcely believe that it’s been a decade since I formally started advising MBA applicants. After analyzing the process and results of nearly 900 such admissions campaigns, now feels like the right time to share my learnings in hope of providing future b-school candidates from India with added perspective and more positive outcomes.

Deepak Punwani of The MBA Exchange

Many of my admissions consulting engagements have started with the same question asked by eager applicants: “Can you rate my chances for acceptance at school X?” As much as I’ve wanted to ease their anxiety, the fact is that predicting admission outcomes isn’t a perfect science. Far from it.  Even an advisor who brings maximum expertise, experience, judgement and intuition to the fore cannot provide a 100% accurate answer to this question. However, this doesn’t mean that applying to b-school is opaque or random. Or that putting in the “hard yards” on your application (either by yourself or with support from an admissions consultant) won’t materially improve your chances.

The final result of an admissions campaign also depends on major external factors. How competitive is the current applicant pool? Specifically, how many applicants with a similar profile are applying to that very same school in the same round? Is there an effort by the adcom at this time to increase acceptances from a particular category of applicants?

Given all of the challenges and uncertainties faced by today’s MBA candidates, I wanted to identify trends in external factors that I have seen first-hand over these past 10 years. Since the Indian MBA applicant pool is one of the largest and most competitive, I am focusing on seven trends that impact this segment directly:

1) Democracy has dawned and its light is spreading

As India is the world’s largest democracy, it’s only natural that applicants from this country consider “equal opportunity” to be the norm elsewhere in the world. Not always so. Current MBA candidates may find it difficult to believe but, just 20 years ago, the majority of admits at top ten US business schools were relatively “blue blooded” in terms of their professional experiences and personal history. Last names and company names mattered as did the stature and standing of an applicant’s family. The pursuit of greater diversity by business schools began in earnest at the start of the new millennium and has only accelerated in the past few years. So, it’s no longer unusual to find a female applicant from a traditional Indian family who lived in a village without electricity make it to a top three ranked U.S. business school. Or to see a male applicant who grew up studying in a local language school in western India, and started learning English only in his early 20s, get admitted to a top ranked European school in a city considered to be the home of the Queen’s English. This leveling of the admissions playing field should inspire otherwise reluctant applicants from India to aim high when pursuing their MBA dreams.

2) Yesterday’s diversity is becoming today’s mainstream

The fact that individual achievement and potential have found their rightful place among admissions criteria, transcending personal pedigree and family net worth, as true measures of an applicant’s competitiveness leads to another trend.

In his famous Oscar acceptance speech, iconic actor Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned that the production crew for his film “The Revenant” had to travel to the southernmost tip of South America to find sufficient snow for an authentic backdrop. His point was that snow-laden locales have become increasingly difficult to find due to global climate change. Similarly, the democratization of business school admissions has meant that truly diverse profiles within the Indian applicant pool are now more difficult to locate.

More than half of the Indian candidates who engage the admissions consulting services of The MBA Exchange, when asked if they consider themselves to be a “diversity candidate,” answer in the affirmative. These individuals include those working for investment firms (i.e., venture capital and private equity), foundations or NGOs, renewable energy firms, and government or public-policy think tanks. A decade ago, they would have had a truly differentiated profile among Indian applicants to top-ranked b-schools. Not anymore. Today, such “diversity” isn’t so diverse. Therefore, it’s best to assume there will be many other candidates similar to you in terms of background and qualifications. Thus, the greatest differentiator among Indian applicants today is how they tell their story rather than just their professional resume.

3) The GMAT is a game theory experiment

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the historic average GMAT score for Indian applicants accepted to top 10 schools has been at least 10 points higher than the global average. At some schools, this difference has been as much as 20+ points despite the fact the global average GMAT score itself has climbed significantly. The liberalized GMAT policy that allows candidates to cancel scores, and even to reinstate them later, has become a major contributor to this score inflation, thus negating the historic edge for those Indian applicants who achieved a high score in their first or second attempt. The GMAT has become a “game theory experiment” where repeated test taking worldwide leaves many Indian applicants relatively less competitive. We now have candidates with, say, a 740 score who routinely retake the test intending to achieve a 750+ and then cancel any new score that falls below 740. As an outcome, the average number of GMAT attempts for Indian applicants who engage our services has climbed steadily since 2015 when this new policy came into place.

* In 2017 there was a significant drop in applications at top 10 programs per Poets and Quants. Evidence suggests that increased GMAT attempts contributed to higher average GMAT despite a decline in the number of applicants.

^ Average number of GMAT attempts undertaken by our India-based applicants.

So, how can an MBA applicant from India succeed in this GMAT game? The answer for many may be to revert to the other standardized test, the GRE. Why? The GMAT algorithm tests for both speed and accuracy. One must answer accurately in the Quant section in order to achieve a high percentile. For example, the graph below shows how a Q47 (out of a possible 51) scaled score has slipped in percentile over the years. For applicants who are stuck in this range, it would take a 95% percentile score on the Verbal section to achieve the average overall GMAT score for admits to top 10 schools. So, if this GMAT score seems out of reach, it may be a better idea to take the quant-friendlier GRE.

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