It’s the most rarefied air in the MBA universe: admission to Harvard Business School, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford Graduate School of Business.
We don’t know how many applicants achieve the H/S/W triple crown each year, because the schools don’t communicate with each other about admissions overlap, and they don’t report individual names of admits, leaving any publicity to the admits themselves. But the fact is that it can’t be very many. Wharton’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2022 was a miserly 23%. Harvard’s was even lower: 9.2%, down from recent intakes. And despite opening its doors just a bit wider, Stanford last year continued its streak of being the hardest B-school in the world to get into, with an estimated admit rate of just 8.9%.
Ipshita Agarwal doesn’t have to imagine how hard it is to gain admission to even one of these programs, let alone all three. She managed the feat, joining the highly select club last year before deciding to defer for a year because of coronavirus. This fall Ipshita, a former investment analyst who currently works for a San Francisco-based credit reporting startup, will join Stanford’s Class of 2023.
APPLYING TO ALL THREE IN ROUND 1
How did she do it? And why did she choose Stanford over the other two world-class programs? Ipshita talked with Poets&Quants from her home in New Delhi, India, as she prepared to return to the U.S. to begin her MBA journey in August.
“I took my GMAT a little later than I’m sure most applicants do,” she says. “I spent about a month on all my applications put together — a month to 40 days. And then I would say almost 80% of that time was spent on Stanford. And then I just reworked a lot of my Stanford application material for Harvard, to be very honest, because Stanford is super-overarching. They literally ask you for everything in the world. And then Harvard and Wharton were like parallel with that, so I was able to reuse and repurpose a lot of the material that I used for Stanford.
“I applied to all three in round one in the 2019-2020 cycle, so I applied in 2019. But with Stanford, I was busy till the last day. I was trying to edit my essays. I was really unsure if it would cut it, because I read a lots of different types of essays. And there was no real formula with Stanford.”
PUTTING HER BEST FOOT FORWARD FOR STANFORD
Stanford was her dream school, and where she always intended to go if accepted. “I knew that I would not want to go to any other school,” she says.
So why did she apply to the other two schools?
“Stanford was always my dream school, but that’s the school I was least confident about, because they take really few students from India every year,” she says. She knows several colleagues from Shri Ram College of Commerce, where she earned her undergraduate degree in commerce in 2015, fail to gain admission. “So I was super not-confident about Stanford, but that’s also the application that I spent the most time on, because I knew if I got in I would definitely want to go there. With Harvard and Wharton, I was still more confident than less, because I’ve seen people from my undergrad go there.
“In Stanford, there was almost nobody who had gone from my undergrad, except for one who just went in my previous batch. So I think with Harvard and Wharton I was more concerned with putting my best foot forward, whereas with Stanford, I was like, ‘Even my best foot forward may not cut it, and I don’t really know what they’re looking for, but I hope this is what they’re looking for.'”
What was the key to unlocking Stanford? Talking to current and former students, Ipshita says.
“What really helped with Stanford was actually asking current or ex-Stanford students to review my essays, because they really understand what Stanford’s looking for, and the fine balance between authenticity and also being able to craft a story that’s compelling,” she says. Having a consultant helped too — to a point. “Less to help you craft your story, and more to just keep the ball rolling, and keep the world spinning, and make sure that you’re not putting off everything till the last minute.”
DESTINED FOR HIGHER EDUCATION
Born into a middle-class Indian family, Ipshita knew from a very young age that she would pursue higher education, in India as well as the United States. But there was not enough money for her and her brother to study in the U.S. until after they’d finished their undergrad degrees. She got her bachelor’s degree in India, then went to work: directing a nonprofit, working in ed-tech, working for foundations, and also working for an investment bank. “I left my banking job because I was really thinking about how to create a meaningful impact in line with my values and using my education and skill set,” she says. “And took a pretty considerable pay cut to pursue impact investing afterwards because that felt like the right way to create large-scale meaningful impact, leveraging the education, opportunities and skills that I had.”
For business schools, hers was an irresistible profile. Rajdeep Chimni, founder of Admissions Gateway, says Ipshita, with whom he worked on interview skills for the HBS interview, has “an exceptional academic record; she stood first at one of the top colleges in the country and also has a great GMAT score. Moreover, people working at NGOs or in development consulting or impact investing have done great work that has impacted people/communities. Such experiences make for personal and compelling stories, and everyone wants to support people who are humane and motivated to do good.”
An MBA was always part of the plan, Ipshita says. But it wasn’t until she left the world of investment banking, where she spent two years as an analyst for Deutsche Bank, that the desire for an MBA crystallized.
“I come from a very typical Indian middle-class family, where doing an MBA or doing some form of graduate education is the way we go upwards,” Ipshita says. “Mobility is achieved through education. So it’s almost set in stone for me, if you know what I mean. And it was always my parents’ dream for their kids to go to the U.S., and to go to good schools in the U.S., for their graduate education.
“If we had more money, we would have probably gone to the U.S. for undergrad. But we didn’t. My brother and I decided to do our undergrad in India and then save up and apply to graduate school in the U.S. So it’s been a long time coming. But it’s really weird that I wanted to go when I quit my investment banking job, because that’s when I really thought about what I want to do in life — and that’s when I really started thinking about business school more seriously, as opposed to it being an abstract concept, sometime in the future.”
See the next page for a Q&A with Ipshita Agarwal, edited for length and clarity.