A telecommunications engineering grad from the German University in Cairo, Egypt, Hatem Ahmed thought he would find fulfillment from applying his analytical skills in an information technology setting. Then he became involved in politics, a pursuit that refined his natural teamwork skills, leading him down a different path than the one he expected.
“In 2011, the Egyptian Revolution happened,” Ahmed tells Poets&Quants. “I volunteered with the Mohamed ElBaradei presidential campaign and, within a few months, became the vice president of the campaign in my district.” The experience shifted his career trajectory. “I became more interested in finding work that would involve collaboration with others rather than sitting at a laptop, coding and designing.”
Ahmed decided his career needed the boost it would get from an MBA from an elite business school. INSEAD, the premier 10-month program based in Fontainebleau, France but with campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, caught his attention. But he had a major hurdle: the Graduate Management Admission Test.
COVID-19, FLEXIBILITY WITH TEST SCORES MAKE IT A UNIQUE YEAR
Does a GMAT score still matter as much as hopeful MBA candidates think it does? At some schools, particularly the elite ones, the answer is unquestionably yes.
But this year — disrupted by a coronavirus pandemic — was different.
One of Europe’s top business schools, INSEAD had the highest GMAT average of any European B-school in 2019 and, with a 706 average for this year’s intake, will probably have among the highest again this year. For INSEAD’s newest class, the majority — 51% — submitted GMAT scores between 710 and 750. Some 37% of the enrolled students had GMATs of 660 to 700. Just 5% got in with a GMAT score between 610 and 650.
But one result of the coronavirus was increased flexibility on standardized test scores — and a result of that was that INSEAD ended up admitting some applicants with GMAT scores as low as 600 and under, even as the school admitted its smallest class in years. “We had to make conditional offers before some took the test and gave it to us,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions and financial aid for degree programs at INSEAD. “Some people were surprised by their results. The GMAT online solution was not as easy as they thought it would be or for what they had prepped for. We saw results that were lower than expected, so we had to ask some people to retake the exam.
“We saw lower scores, so we went down below 600, which is rare for us because we saw that for people it was difficult for them.”
But even in a crazy year made chaotic by Covid-19, getting into a premier program like INSEAD’s with a low GMAT score requires an amazing set of mitigating circumstances or off-setting attributes. And that’s how Hatem Ahmed overcame his low test score: by emphasizing his experience, perseverance, and positive attitude.
The result? Admission to INSEAD’s MBA program in January 2021.
“If you have a strong application showcasing that you are a good fit for the school, then there’s still hope,” he says.
THE POWER OF GOALS
Upon graduation from Cairo’s German University in 2012, Ahmed worked for two years in an IT role that involved a mix of technology and business. He enjoyed the business side much more than the technology side and soon became interested in finding a job where he could grow those skills. That’s when he went to work for ride-sharing giant Uber.
At Uber, Ahmed started as a business analyst on the strategy planning team in Cairo. He later transitioned to the business planning team at Uber headquarters in the Netherlands. He spent six months working with this team in Amsterdam before being laid off in July because of pandemic budget cuts. He had been with the company for four years.
Ever since getting his undergrad degree in 2012, Ahmed kept a book of notes where he wrote his life goals. At the top of his list was his dream of getting an MBA from a top-tier business school.
“My team at Uber was around 11 people, and not a single person was from the same country,” he recalls. “I really love being in a diverse environment, and wanted an MBA program to have a similar culture. That’s how INSEAD became my top pick.”
Despite the reality that he may not be accepted to the program, INSEAD was the only school Ahmed applied to. Not only was the school’s diverse culture appealing — classes commonly have students from more than 80 nationalities, though this year’s smaller class has 64 — but the intensive 10-month curriculum outweighed the two-year length of most other business schools.
“I originally wanted to wait to apply to business schools after two years in Amsterdam,” Ahmed says. “But when I was laid off, I saw it as an opportunity to accelerate my plans. I went into full study mode, and somehow made it work.”
A ROCKY START
INSEAD does not reveal its acceptance rate for either intake of MBAs, but admission consultants believe the sizable increase in applicants likely drove the school’s admit rate down into the low 20% level from roughly 30%.
Luckily, INSEAD was empathetic about prospective students’ situations amid the pandemic. Ahmed was particularly grateful that the school pushed its GMAT deadline back by a month.
“Most people told me you needed at least three to six months to study for the GMAT, but since I was no longer working full-time, I figured I could get a lot accomplished in a month if I treated studying like a job,” he says. “I worked with an admissions team, because I didn’t have any time to waste. They were skeptical at first that I would be accepted, but I wanted to take my chances and see if I could make it happen. They worked really hard with me multiple times each week on how to showcase my best stories, preparing me for the interviews, and more.”
Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong — at least at the beginning.
Ahmed had planned to take the GMAT in Amsterdam, and reserved a test time on August 28. But the nonprofit that administers the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admission Council, postponed it to the end of December. He had to scramble to find another day and location, but nothing was available in the Netherlands. Ahmed found an open appointment in Prague, in the Czech Republic; he booked a flight, packed his bags, and then received a notice that there was an error in scheduling his exam there, too.
Thankfully, he found a last-minute availability in the Netherlands because of a cancellation and was able to take the GMAT the following day.
A DISAPPOINTING RESULT — AND A HAPPY CONCLUSION
However, when Ahmed received his test results, he was discouraged. His score was lower than what was normally accepted at a prestigious school like INSEAD. Plus, he was worried that his Uber layoff would additionally hinder his chances at getting in, even though his job loss had nothing to do with performance.
Ahmed considered redoing the exam, but there was not enough time before the application deadline. He decided to apply anyway, bank on his essays and experience to do the legwork, and take his chances.
“When they sent me my acceptance email, I read it five or six times. I even asked my wife to read it to double check that they weren’t joking or had emailed the wrong person,” he says.
‘I REFUSED TO GIVE UP’
Thrilled about his acceptance to INSEAD, Ahmed reflects on how he found his passion in business once first discovering what he wasn’t passionate about.
“I tried different things on until I really found what I love and enjoyed,” he says. “Most people’s career paths aren’t linear, just like mine.”
In unprecedented times, Ahmed stresses the importance of finding the positive aspects of life, no matter what route you’re taking. His story shows that if you keep faith in yourself and your future, anything is possible.
“Some of what I consider my biggest achievements in my career and life came after periods where I was feeling really down. However, I refused to give up and chose to be naively optimistic and stubborn in finding the silver lining.
“Life is a rollercoaster of ups and downs. The way you behave when you’re down is what determines how high you eventually climb up again — and from my experience, it’s usually higher than where you started if you adopt the right attitude.”
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