From Engineer To MIT Sloan: An MBA Overcomes Rejection & Doubt

Varun Kumar in London

Dreams come true. Sometimes they just take longer to realize!

Getting an MBA from an elite business school is a dream for many. It opens up many avenues and exposes them to cutting edge ideas and professors. As graduates, it enables them to tap into a global alumni community for the rest of their careers.

My first encounter with the elite came from a Harvard Business School alum, who was a senior leader named Sanjay Singh in the organization where I worked. As a global leader, he was humble, approachable, and most importantly very innovative in his thinking. Over the years, he became my mentor and guided me through my journey. Observing his leadership style and interacting with him daily led me to pursue an MBA. This dream, which started in 2008, has taken me many years to accomplish. However, I fulfilled my mission when I was accepted into MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2020.


Being an Indian, male engineer like me can be a disadvantage when applying to business schools outside of India. Given our sheer numbers, we need to do something out-of-the-box to stand out during the application process. Ironically, most of us have very competitive GMAT/GRE scores along with good GPAs from our engineering degree. Many of us are also actively involved in community work. While this shows our impact, it does make it difficult to differentiate candidates from each other.

Back in 2009, I decided to apply for a few schools. I wanted to fast track my career and be part of leadership teams, where I could make an impact and be successful in a global organization. Admittedly, I was a bit naïve in how I approached the entire application process. I just went straight to the application page on some of the schools I had heard about and completed the application process. I did not speak to any students or reflect on why the schools were a good choice for me. I sought a reference from my manager and submitted my application.

That turned into my first rejection. I was disappointed, but it served as a good reality check. I decided to review at what I could have done better and realised my below 700 GMAT score was not very competitive. Most of the candidates from similar backgrounds scored in the range of 740 -780.  That was a high bar to achieve, so I decided to join a coaching institute so I could improve my score when I retook the GMAT.


Kumar in Paris, France

While doing this, I also focused on my professional accomplishments by taking on projects that helped me develop and showcase my leadership skills. For example, I worked on developing a digital marketing strategy for the organization and managed a team of five members. At the same time, I further strengthened my core competency, which was Data Analytics. I was also involved in a few charity organizations focussed on underprivileged children’s education; I mentored secondary school students and raising funds for a blind school. I was passionate about making a bigger impact, so I devoted more time there by teaching English and computer skills and mentoring young students on life skills.

Even though I was working in a global organization with colleagues from all over the world, I knew my lack of international exposure was also an obstacle. I had never worked outside of India. Living and working in a different country helps you learn a lot of life skills and shapes an individual’s personality and thinking. While I continued to progress professionally, I decided that I would gain some international experience before I reapplied to business schools.

In 2014, I accepted an opportunity to move to London (UK). It was a strategic move towards creating a stronger application. While in London, I decided to take up GMAT coaching again. While it was a very expensive investment, I decided it was worth the money. Even after taking these classes, my GMAT score did not improve. After a few attempts, my score was not going above 700, I decided to take the GRE test instead. Thankfully, by then, most of the business schools were accepting GRE scores.


In 2017, I felt that I had gained enough international experience. With above-average GRE scores, I decided to reapply to both two-year and one-year MBA programs. I spoke to a few current students and researched top 2-year and I-year MBA programs online. Given my busy work schedule, I was only able to apply in round 3. I got shortlisted for interviews, but ultimately I didn’t get accepted. It was very disappointing and disheartening. I felt I had done everything possible to improve my scores and gained international experience. I was a bit lost as to what else I could have changed. Being rejected after being interviewed made me feel like I was a failure and not fit for an elite business school.

I spent the next few weeks of feeling upset, wondering if I should give up on my dreams and continue working. It was a very low phase of my life and I felt my aspirations and plans were falling apart. Even though I was working in a great organization and growing professionally, I felt not being able to get into a business school was a huge failure. To make matters worse, everyone around me felt I didn’t need an MBA. They felt I was doing reasonably well, and an MBA wouldn’t have made a huge difference at this stage of my life.

I did yoga, meditation, and prayed a lot hoping to keep negative thoughts at bay. Upon self-introspection, I asked myself: Why do I need an MBA and why was it so important? The more I reflected, I realised that I needed to invest in an MBA, not just for the brand, but to equip myself with expertise that I missed during my engineering courses. Equally important, I wanted to access world-class faculty, get involved in innovative projects, and build a strong global network. With this realization, I decided to reapply. This was a dream I had nurtured for a long time and I felt I should not give up on my dreams without giving my best efforts. Thankfully, I had very supportive parents, family, and a mentor who believed in my dreams and supported me in my journey.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.