It is rare for any MBA applicant to gain simultaneous admission to Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, three of the world’s most prestigious — and exclusive — business schools. (We tend to write about it when it happens.) It’s rarer still for someone from India, a country that is, shall we say, very well-represented in the pool of applicants to the legendary H/S/W trinity.
But to use the phrase of a long-time admissions consultant, it’s absolutely “unheard of” for an Indian applicant who has not come from one of the country’s engineering or business schools — the Indian Institutes of Technology or the Indian Institutes of Management — to be welcomed by a trio of schools whose acceptance rates range from 6.3% to 20.6%, and admission to which any MBA seeker in the world would sacrifice greatly.
Well, say hello to a unicorn: Monil Singhal has pulled off the feat.
Oh, and she was accepted to London Business School, too.
“It’s really hard to say what the schools saw in my application,” says Monil, who will be attending Stanford in the fall. “I don’t think there is a silver bullet. But if I had to pick one thing, I think it would be the passion with which I have pursued major decisions that I believed to be the most meaningful, even if they weren’t always the easiest or considered prestigious.”
WHERE WILL THE MBA TAKE HER?
This is one reason Monil winning admission to the exalted trifecta of top B-schools might not be the most interesting thing about her journey. She is not an engineer — she gave up an IIT path to study economics. She is not a banker — she gave up a plum job abroad to do education grant/policy work in India.
Monil is the daughter of a pair of government doctors, not the scion of a business family. Nor does she want to use her MBA as a springboard to great riches. She wants to continue to work in the social impact arena, whether it’s in education or food issues or some other form of impact investment, and she wants to do it in India.
She is, in other words, a change agent. And one that B-school gatekeepers clearly found irresistible.
“My parents are doctors in the government service and once I decided not to take up medicine, I don’t think they had a lot of ideas about my career,” says Monil, who is currently in London working as a global operations strategy intern for food and beverage unicorn Deliveroo. “They sort of wanted me to do engineering and then economics and they were happy I got a banking job, and then I left it for a nonprofit, so I think somewhere along the way they stopped thinking too much of my choices.”
Though she has worked for Barclay’s and Deutsche Bank, Monil’s heart is in making a difference for the less fortunate. In 2012, just as she was entering at Shri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi, she founded Orenda Trust, which offers interactive workshops on financial literacy, gender awareness, health and hygiene, digital literacy and more in poor communities across India. She still runs that and serves as program manager for the Central Square Foundation, also in New Delhi, a grant accelerator that seeds and supports early-stage nonprofit enterprises in K-12 education.
Some similar pursuit — or some combination of all of them — could be in Monil’s future post-MBA.
“There are two or three different possibilities,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Something like social finance, that is a problem I’m very passionate about. We have a lot of different types of investing funds and different models in the traditional space. We even have opportunities where I could invest some capital into the more traditional market. I think we need more models in specific social enterprises, sort of like the Stanford social impact fund. I’d love to work on new products, if anything’s happening in that space. That’s definitely one area. And education is definitely another. I am also interested in food. I used to write a food blog, and I’ve done a few projects with restaurants or refugee food projects in Delhi.”
STANFORD ‘FAR MORE ALIGNED WITH MY INTERESTS’
“It is almost unheard of for an Indian not from IIT to get into all three schools,” says veteran admissions consultant Rajdeep Chimni of Admissions Gateway, a New Delhi-based consultancy that has helped nearly 1,000 Asian candidates get into top-15 schools. “I haven’t seen one in 10 years of consulting, and we get the most admits to these schools. It’s a great story of following one’s passion versus a set path.”
Chimni advised Monil and was impressed by her calm demeanor from the start. “Fun fact, she was in relaxing in Croatia a day before her HBS interview, flew to India that morning and then interviewed,” he tells Poets&Quants. “Not much of a planner!”
Chimni sees many students who are over-ambitious or “just too keyed up,” he adds. But not Monil. “She was confident, relaxed, didn’t expect the Earth and ended up with the best results in all of India — or the world! Can’t get any better.”
This is especially true when you discover that Monil didn’t just gain admission to H/S/W — she earned offers of more than $100K in school aid to attend each. Palo Alto won the Singhal sweepstakes, she says, because “Stanford is a place where they’ve had an actual fund running for the past five or ten years, not just in impact investing, just an overall social impact fund…
“It’s just the kind of courses, the kind of people, the kind of conversations around the school definitely are far more aligned with my interests.”
ADVICE FOR OTHER APPLICANTS
What set Monil apart so much that she became a must-have applicant to the top schools in the world? She has some thoughts on the matter.
“To be accepted to all of them would, I knew, be unusual,” she says. “I know people from my alma mater who go on to Wharton or Harvard, and Harvard is considered a dream school — those two I knew were difficult but at least I thought that they would be possible. Stanford I think was going to be the most difficult, but it was also where I wanted to go the most, from the start. I just love the school. But in my mind I just felt like it wasn’t going to happen, because I only know of engineers who have gotten in. I just applied because I loved the school.
“As for my tips for prospective applicants, I would say two things: First, research schools well. Speak to current students and alumni and scrape through the internet, to understand both the overall school culture and specific opportunities aligned to your goals. Use this to make your school choice and reflect this in your essays and interviews. There are many more deserving candidates than those who get in, so I feel that schools care about picking people who can find the most value in the opportunities offered.
“Second, over-index on your stories. People get caught up on answering the ‘what’ of the essay questions (‘What are your goals, what matters most, what else you want the school to know?’). I feel it’s significantly less important than the stories around it. Reflect and identify the most important aspects of your story, and build your application around those — the ‘what’ would be an obvious unifying theme around those.”