How I Got In: A Harvard, Stanford & Wharton Admit Tells All

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Poets&Quants: When did you start thinking about an MBA?

Ipshita Agarwal: The honest answer to that question is that I started, I think, immediately after I graduated undergrad. And it’s not typically something that I to think a lot about. 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. 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.

What are you doing now for work, and what do you hope to do post-MBA?

I work with this startup called Nova Credit. It was actually started by three Stanford MBA graduates in 2016. It’s a fintech startup which helps immigrants access financial products in the U.S. So, I’m still in India, but I’m working with them. And I’ve been working with them since January of this year. And in fact, last year, I was trying to start my own startup. I was working in the content discovery and education space. I did that for about a year, but then it didn’t work out and I decided to join Nova Credit earlier this year.

What was your level of confidence applying to probably the three best schools in the United States and among the three best schools in the world? Were you confident?

Yes and no. Stanford was always my dream school, but that’s the school I was least confident about, because they take really few kids from India every year. I’ve seen several people from my undergrad not make it. 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.”

Yeah. Well, tell me about the Stanford application. You said you spent the most time on that. How much time did you spend on it?

Almost. So, I took my GMAT a little later than I’m sure most applicants do. 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.

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.

Yeah, so which did you hear from first? Which school got back to you first?

It was Harvard. I think Harvard was 10th of December at night, and then immediately, like 12 hours later, I got the call from Stanford as well.

Tell me about the call from Stanford. That must have been a dream come true.

Yeah, exactly. I was actually at work, and I was like, “I haven’t gotten the Stanford call till now, so I’m basically probably not getting it.” And then everybody around me was so happy for Harvard. It was very difficult for me to say that “Oh I’m still waiting for this call.” Because everyone was like, “Oh my God, you got into Harvard Business School!”

In my head, I was still like, “Oh my God, Stanford’s not calling me. I probably have not made it.” And I was making my peace with that. And then I literally got their call two minutes before I was entering this meeting. And the moment I saw a U.S. number, I was like, “Oh my God, I think I’ve made it.”

And I don’t remember that call at all, I just remember the fact that it’s a U.S. number calling and I probably made it. I don’t remember what words they actually said on the call. And then I got an email afterwards saying that this call was legal. You’ve made it.

And at what point did Wharton get back to you?

I think Wharton was maybe three, four days afterwards. Wharton was pretty soon afterwards.

Well, you basically knew you wanted Stanford. And when you heard from Stanford, your decision was already made, right? 

It’s funny, because when I was applying, that was true. But when I actually got in and when the schools started connecting me with alums and when I started really thinking about it — thinking more rationally about what I wanted to do — I was really confused. So I did spend maybe a month thinking about what I wanted to do, and which school I wanted to go. And there were times I woke up and I felt that I wanted to go to Harvard, because it’s just this Asian dream where if you go to Harvard, you’ve basically made it in life. Over here, everybody in my family and my friends are going, “Obviously, you’ll go to Harvard. There is no way you’ll pick another school, when you have Harvard.”

And I think there are a lot of nuances that I was thinking about in terms of the sizes of the alum community, and the kind of person I was. So I did pick and choose for a bit. But in the end, I just ended up going with Stanford, because I knew that that’s the decision I would be happiest with. But it ended up not being a super rational decision. Because very rationally, I think I made this Excel sheet, which is basically pointing me in all directions to pick Harvard, very rationally.

But then I just decided that I wanted to take a slight risk for myself, and push myself out of the comfort zone, and I decided to do Stanford.

You’re interested in launching your own startup at some point, perhaps, and so Stanford makes the most sense in that way?

Yeah, exactly. That was not my plan when I applied to business school, to be very honest. My plan has changed since I applied. At that time, I was interested in startups, but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do investing or I wanted to start my own thing. Because I’ve been doing investing for a few years, and I really like it. So from an investment point of view, I was still considering Harvard. But then I just knew Stanford will help me really figure out what I want to do. Yeah — it would really help me find my purpose.

And then coronavirus happened. And that changed everything, right? So where were you when things started to shut down, and how did that affect you? And how did Stanford help with deferment?

I was actually pretty affected. I quit my job in February, because I had had these grand travel plans for five months before Covid. So for example, I was planning to go to Europe and South America as a solo trip. And I had everything booked out for March and April.

And I’m literally one day before my flight to Germany, and I decided to cancel it. Just on a whim, because I was like, maybe this is going to blow up. And then I was really upset for a week, because I was like, ‘Now what do I do with my life?’ And then the cases blow up all over Europe. So I was like, ‘This is not that bad a decision.’ But it did completely disrupt my plans, because I had not planned on doing an internship. I just literally planned to chill, because I had been working nonstop for five years without taking a break.

I did take a break for about a month or so. I did travel a little bit in India before the Covid situation got bad here.

How did Stanford take it when you went to them and said you wanted to defer for a year?

I did not want to defer, and I was ready, very mentally and emotionally ready, to move on. To be very honest, I didn’t really want to defer, but given the Covid situation, visas were super uncertain all the way up till almost the end of June. And they weren’t really working out in India.

That’s when we made a team of a few international students, who went to Stanford and said, “Look, you give us some option. For example, you have to allow us to enter campus late and you have to waive our housing fee. And you have to waive our insurance fee.” And we kept all these demands in front of them. Apparently, at some point Stanford just realized that the best thing right now is to offer a deferral option to international students. We didn’t really ask for that option explicitly, but that’s what we decided to go with.

I’m working my way toward asking you to give advice to other applicants in your position. So, was it essential to work with a consultant?

I worked with Rajdeep (Chimni) only for my Harvard interview, because I was super unprepared and I didn’t have time. So I reached out to him to help me with my Harvard interview prep. But I did work with another consultant in the U.S. for my actual application.

I think 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. So I think that really helped me. But to answer the specific question around whether consultants are helpful or important. Having a consultant is good — 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.

For example, with things like the application form and the short-form essays, I was super not-focused on it. But my consultant kept pushing me and saying, “There’s this application form that you also need to think about.” It just helped with that, and also with ensuring that you’re not asking busy people for reviews on the first draft of your essay. So I think it helps you get to 75%, 80%. And then, beyond 80%, I think it’s mostly you, and maybe friends or ex-students you can find.

What other advice might you give someone in your position — maybe another Indian applicant looking at going to one of these elite schools?

I do have some things, because I have been asked this question a lot by other applicants. I think probably the biggest advice is to really be authentic and think about the whys. Because in my applications, I focused a lot on the whys and not as much on the what. I felt like the what is already communicated through the resume and the short-answer questions. And you get lots of structured opportunities to talk about the what. So I think the essays and everything that is not as structured should really be able to talk about who you are as a person, and what really matters to you. And why does that matter to you. And why you’re positioned to solve a problem that matters to you, right? Is it because of your previous experience, is it because of your work experiences, and what has really shaped you?

That is what I felt most comfortable writing about, and most comfortable submitting. And I think there’s so many people, especially from India, who’ve done so well academically and professionally, that there is no shortage of people who have what it takes. So I think schools like Stanford are really looking for someone who has a purpose and who’s able to show that they’ve done some work towards that purpose.

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