Yes, Indian, IT, and male are probably the three most dreaded words in MBA admissions. In that order.
In fact, so huge is the category by itself, that it is the biggest of its kind at most global MBA programs. Sometimes, it even outnumbers the number of local (citizen) candidates. Despite the size, the commonality, and the competitiveness, this category is still sending plenty of students to top MBA programs every year. If you’re in this category, are you already doomed, or is there hope?
That’s not the only category of Indian MBA applicants looking at top business schools though, even if it is the largest by far. We also have doctors, lawyers, administrators, chartered accountants, merchant navy officers, and (a small but growing legion of) fashion designers, media professionals, and even artists applying to business school from the sub-continent. The number of Indian applicants to top MBA programs is rising every year. We should know – we work with hundreds of them every year, and by now, have worked with easily more than a thousand. The MBA is more than a degree for Indian applicants. For many, it is a life accomplishment, and even a life qualification. Most still view it as the transition from a job (usually an engineering one) to a career (of choice).
This is why we are focusing on the top 5 myths that Indian applicants have about the MBA admissions process. Given the sheer numbers, this should help plenty of people get a better grip on MBA admissions, and even the journey beyond.
Myth 5 – Social leadership is valued above other extra-curricular or leadership activities by top business schools: Sure, if you have it, you should talk about it, but that’s not all that B-schools look for from Indian applicants. More than doubts on genuine leadership or personal growth, Indian applicants that we have worked with over the past decade have been taken up with the thought that somehow, social leadership/NGO work/volunteer experience counts as pure blood on the holy altar of top MBA admissions.
While genuine leadership and volunteering experience has its place, it is by no means superior to equivalent achievement in other spheres. Just last year, we had a candidate with a 740+ GMAT worried sick about the fact that he had nothing to show on the social volunteering front. He had been speaking to several of his former (Indian) classmates in B-school, and reasoned that he was behind the curve on their achievements. This belief had a debilitating effect on his self-belief, and he refused to apply to a top-10 school. While we could convince him to showcase his achievements across other considerable spheres (including his passion for theatre), he ultimately punched below his weight for reasons that were superficial, and settled for a top-15 school.
Ultimately, MBA admissions committees look for well-rounded profiles and the potential to contribute outside the classroom. That can come from a multitude of experiences. The notion that social work somehow outranks other activities possibly came about because it was one of the easier things to get into. One would find it hard to suddenly show a passion for music, the arts, or sports. What many people forget is that volunteering experience is not going to carry much value unless a genuine history of involvement is seen. It is probably better to skip joining that NGO a few months before you apply.
Myth 4 – Top US MBA programs do not value three-year degrees or people seeking second MBAs: A few years ago, this was a lot more applicable, but over time, it has been reduced to a non-factor. Traditional bachelor’s degrees in India (except Engineering and Medicine ones) are usually 3-year degrees; the traditional Bachelor’s degree in America is a four-year one. Many Indian folks can sometimes feel anxious in approaching the MBA admissions process for US schools. Some even opt to enroll for the first year of a 2-year Master’s degree, hoping to complete the 16-year education requirement this way.
The truth is that there are very few business schools that do not accept 3-year Bachelor’s degrees today. All top European MBA programs will certainly accept it, given the fact that 3-year degrees are common in Europe itself, and certainly in the UK too. When it comes to American schools, there are a few notable exceptions that still don’t accept them – Stanford, Kelley, McCombs, and Berkeley. UCLA Anderson and Yale SOM earlier hesitated, but will now accept three-year bachelor degrees. Vanderbilt too accepts them now, but prefers a WES accreditation to support the transcript. Apart from that, any Indian applicant should be fine applying to a top 30 MBA program in the USA with a three-year degree.
The second MBA bit is a little more complicated. At the outset, the rationale for seeking one is complex too. Logically, it would make little sense for someone to pursue the same educational program twice. For Indian applicants, though, other considerations may often warrant the need for a second MBA. For example, many Indian applicants want to get deeper insight into strategy or leadership aspects, components that may not have been the mainstay of more functionally-focused Indian programs, as they gain seniority in their career. Changing geographies or simply making more money act as poor explanation for the need for a second MBA, though they may also act as real needs behind the pursuit of one. When applying for a second MBA, it is important to keep a few things in mind. A second MBA from a top global brand (even an H/S/W) is likely to yield limited advantages in India compared to top Indian schools, so those seeking a second MBA just for that reason should be cautious. Also, if one has significant work experience already, the second MBA may not really be a viable avenue to change industries substantially.
That said, top MBA programs are quite readily accepting of second MBA applicants now, with the notable exceptions of Tuck, Fuqua, and Berkeley. Schools such as Columbia, which had been a bit reluctant of accepting second MBA applicants earlier, do now consider them. Others such as Kellogg and Cornell may prefer that second MBA applicants instead opt for the full-time one-year offerings at these schools. Darden is that one exception which will accept second MBA applicants provided that their first MBA is AACSB accredited.
Myth 3 – GPA conversion and reporting is an elaborate and complex process for Indian applicants: Indian universities follow all kinds of grade reporting systems. A vast majority of universities still report absolute percentages. Some (like the elite IITs) follow the 10-point CGPA system. A smaller number have their own CGPA scales, that can range from four-point scales to five-point ones, and even something in between (one prominent university even grades people on a 4.5 point scale).
With so many different grading systems around, the Indian top MBA applicant is often confused. Should the GPA be simply linearly scaled? Should one ask the university itself for an official conversion? Would only a WES evaluation (that is also not accepted as official by many MBA programs) be the right alternative?
While getting a WES evaluation done and supporting one’s documents can be a useful addendum for many applications, most schools will simply allow you to upload your transcripts and report your grades as they are. This is the preferred option over trying to convert your grading system to a 4 point scale by approximation, scaling, or unauthorized conversion.
Myth 2 – International experience, international exposure, and the difference: Let’s cut to the chase. Does every top international MBA program require international experience? No. Does every program value it? Yes. Some programs, such as INSEAD, IMD, Tuck, and Kellogg, may value it more than other schools. Most Indian applicants are apprehensive about this point, because either they don’t have international experience per se, or their experience is simply limited to some client visits in the USA or Europe.
The good news is that not having international experience may not be a big disadvantage at all. Just over the last year, we have had 6 clients make it to INSEAD with zero international experience. If we go back over the last 5 years, there would be more than 50 such candidates to schools that strongly prefer international experience.
How does international experience stack up for Indians applying to top MBA programs? You are usually best placed if you have spent a few months or over a year abroad, preferably outside Asia and the Middle East, as these geographies can sometimes be considered ‘Indianized’ (as a top European MBA admissions official told us).
Is there hope if you have no international experience at all? Of course. International exposure and awareness can be demonstrated through several other avenues as well. Working in a global team is the weakest of them (think about it – everyone works in a global team today – and the pandemic has further accelerated that). Earlier this year, Ishita Bhatia (identity protected), a Google employee, was able to secure admission to INSEAD despite having no professional international experience at all. She was able to demonstrate how her growing up experiences, internships, and projects had given her exposure to people from many nationalities, and how this had shaped her global viewpoints. She was also able to show high cultural intelligence, and the ability to adapt to new situations, which helped her show INSEAD that she would be a great fit with the class.
Similarly, Aman Agarwal (identity protected), an IIT graduate with no professional international experience at all, was successfully able to demonstrate to Kellogg how his participation in a few international conferences, his student exchange program during his IIT days, and the pro bono work he was doing for an international NGO gave him strong global awareness and understanding.
Myth 1 – Average GMAT scores are a good approximation for competitiveness of Indian MBA applicants at top MBA programs: While average GMAT scores at many top schools have actually declined at top MBA programs this year, the GMAT remains an important criteria for all top schools. Waivers were available at most top MBA programs in 2020, and some running to early 2021, but this is expected to speedily decrease as the pandemic sweeps down, given the arrival of mass vaccinations.
Many Indian candidates unfortunately still choose business schools according to average GMAT scores reported by them. The Darden MBA now has an average GMAT of 703, so a GMAT of 710 should be competitive, right? Wrong.
This is the average GMAT score reported for the entire class, and not for the geography or category you are applying from. A good rule of thumb for Indian applicants is to add 20 points to the average, and maybe a bit more, if one is from a competitive category such as the Indian IT male category.
Wait a minute! Aren’t GMAT scores only ‘a part of the picture’, and can’t you make up for those mere 20-30 extra GMAT points through diversity, professional accomplishment, and strong academics? In some cases, you very much can, but judging by averages, a top school probably has plenty of candidates like you (remember, the Indian applicant pool is laaarge), without the handicap of an average/low GMAT score. If you’re applying to a sub-15 school, this factor may be more important. This year, we had Neha Kamath (identity protected), who made it to a top 20 program without a GMAT score, with a $70k+ scholarship. What worked for her? Diversity in her profile, her personal branding (she spent a lot of time working on the right stories), and crystal clear goals that were a great fit with her target programs.
While the Indian MBA applicant pool is large and competitive, you can absolutely do very well in it and become a top MBA admit. Your job is to differentiate yourself in your own pool, not in the general MBA applicant pool. Be positive, confident, and strong, and go for it!