Pulling Back The Curtain On India’s Top Business School

The library on the IIM-Ahmedabad campus — Courtesy photo from IIM

Think Stanford Graduate School of Business is hard to get into? Try the odds at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, which has an acceptance rate that makes Stanford look like community college. More than 200,000 apply every year for acceptance to IIM-A, the oldest and most highly respected B-school in India, but only 450 are accepted, says Director Errol D’Souza, who spoke to Poets&Quants recently in an exclusive interview. The lopsided ratio makes the school’s rate about 0.25%, D’Souza says, reinforcing The Economist‘s famous dictum that IIM-A is “the most difficult school to get into in the world.”

Yet you don’t see IIM-A ranked among the world’s top schools. Despite being placed 31st globally by The Financial Times — and fourth, tops in India, in FT‘s second annual Asia ranking which considers MiM, EMBA, and open and customized exec ed programs — IIM-A is not mentioned in the same breath as the top European schools, or even the top Asian schools like CEIBS, HKUST, or the National University of Singapore Business School, by those in the know about elite graduate business education. There’s one main reason for that: While IIM-A’s MBA-equivalent PGP (post-graduate program in management) is taught in English, few outside India apply to it. Nearly all of those 200,000 applications are homegrown.

“We find it very difficult to admit anybody who is from abroad,” says D’Souza, who is also a professor of economics at the school located in Gujarat state, in the country’s west, about 330 miles north of Mumbai. “We would like to internationalize, we would like to bring in more students from abroad, but we have other programs that accomplish that better than the MBA.” Even so, he adds, things are changing, and big shifts — greater outreach, more partnerships with other schools, and digitization among them — are underway in the way IIM-A works and collaborates with the rest of the world.


Errol D’Souza, director of IIM-Ahmedabad, long regarded as the top business school in India.

Few doubt the value of diversity in MBA programs — to find out why, ask just about any B-school professor or admissions director about the peer learning dynamic that arises when disparate voices collaborate in classrooms and capstone projects. In the United States, achieving diversity means raising up voices of women and under-represented minorities. In India, it can mean something altogether different. For IIM-A, the fight to achieve diversity is a fight against the ancient caste system.

India’s caste system is a complex and rigid division of the country’s Hindus into hierarchical groups. The lower groups, among them the so-called “untouchables,” have for thousands of years been excluded from the most privileged places in society. Legally, this began to change with India’s independence: the country’s constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste, and government and educational institutions established jobs and admissions quotas for castes and tribes. IIM-A, founded in 1961, has this mission ingrained in its DNA, D’Souza says.

Ironically, this is one of the reasons IIM-A has had trouble internationalizing.

“The current peculiarity of the school is that being in India and being a school which was set up under an act of Parliament, we do a particular type of work you in the United States would call reverse discrimination,” D’Souza says. “We do it on lines of caste, which was a big factor in India’s long history of discrimination. What we did is come up with a plan where we have to reserve a certain fraction of our seats for ‘backward’ castes. And in our case it’s about half our seats — it’s as large as that.”

With a cohort of 450, that means more than 200 seats may go to applicants from tribal areas — members of the lower castes — regardless of the “merit” of their applications. “So because of this system of 50% of our seats actually going to the backward castes, we find it very difficult to admit anybody from abroad,” D’Souza says. “We think that someone who may not be as meritorious, but who has been discriminated against historically, will be given a benefit in terms of entry to the program. And there is a benefit for us as well, in diversifying our cohort.

“Our challenge really is to take the diverse group of students and turn them into people who are ready for working in the corporate and business sector.”


P&Q: What do you look for in a student at IIM-Ahmedabad?

ED: In your part of the world and also for ISB (Indian School of Business), for example, mostly it’s students who already have four to five years of work experience. What we do is we actually take fresh graduates, some of them maybe having one to two years’ work experience, but it’s mainly fresh graduates. So we’re looking at people who are very good at interpersonal skills, people who are steeped in their discipline. So, people who have a background in engagement with the world that they’ve chosen to be in academically before they joined us. And so they have a fairly good understanding of their disciplines. And we’re looking for people who are entrepreneurial and willing to put in hard work. Because the program is fairly difficult: another thing which is talked about a lot in India about our program is how students in our program typically sleep only five hours a day. Because we actually push them a lot to slog it out with various types of courses. We can have surprise quizzes late into the week. We have assignments which suddenly get announced in the afternoon and they have to give it in by next morning.

The whole idea is to prepare them for the flexibility that they would actually see in a real business situation. They may have to work in a business where they work across time zones, you have to be available at any time of day, or whatever is required to make the business a success. And so we basically push them through this mainly for them to understand that this is the way the world of work is, and they must adjust to it and find ways of coming up with their own internal resources to cope with it.