I’ve written this blog with the Indian Applicants in mind. As a former admissions assistant director for Harvard and the co-founder of EXPARTUS, an admissions consulting company that helps hundreds of students every year get into their top-choice MBA programs, I have some good news and some bad news.
The good news: You’re likely an extremely talented, highly-qualified applicant who would do well in a top-ranked US MBA program.
The bad news: So is most of your competition.
Over the years, I’ve seen applications from hundreds, maybe thousands of prospective students from India. And for the most part, they were great, experienced, accomplished candidates. Unfortunately, they all started to run together pretty quickly.
One of the biggest challenges admissions people have is differentiating candidates from regions where the narrative is so very much the same. “I went to IIT, I’m an academic topper, I work in engineering or IT, I have a 740 GMAT, I want to get an MBA at an American university to move beyond my current role.” Don’t get me wrong – those are all great things. But if you read a hundred, five hundred applications that all say the same thing, it’s very hard to tell them apart.
Learning to set yourself apart
Doing the research is a fundamental step when you’re planning to apply to business school. What that looks like in practice is a series of incremental and inter-related steps, each of which involve a lot of honest introspection if you want them to be effective:
– Determining which schools you want to target
– Determining why you are targeting those schools
– Understanding your competition for business school admission
– Understanding your personal brand story
– Determining what sets you apart from your competition
The general steps are exactly the same for students from India as they are for every other student, but the specifics will vary. Getting into a top American university may not come naturally. It’s a very different system than the one that exists in India.
Students from India often approach the application process as a checklist. “I’ve got a GMAT score above 700, check. My undergraduate GPA was near the top of my class, check. I have X years of work experience, check.” If you want to get into highly selective MBA Programs, you HAVE to break out of the “checklist” mentality.
Don’t over-focus on the numbers. They’re still important – you can and should emphasize strong grades and test scores on your application – but being an attractive candidate to business schools goes far beyond what you do in the classroom. Even if you go to IIT, and graduate with an 8 or 9 out of 10 – that’s amazing and a great accomplishment, but the reality is that you’ll be competing against a lot of other students with the same profile.
If you’re applying to a top business school like Harvard or Stanford, you’ll be up against thousands of candidates with excellent scores. What makes you unique? It won’t be the numbers that set you apart, it will be the story.
It might feel counter-intuitive to approach a highly-ranked business school and talk about your upbringing, or to use valuable resume space to discuss your passion for mountaineering or north Indian classical music. What are your values, your passions? That’s how you get a winning application. Be genuine, own your story, and tell it in a way that is compelling.
This is especially true when your passions have lead you to significant achievements or leadership opportunities, or when they illustrate your ability to pursue your interests despite challenging circumstances. At top-ranked MBA programs, what happens outside the classroom – the activities you pursue and the networks you build – is nearly as important as what happens inside the classroom. Admissions committees look for applicants who will mesh well with their classmates, and who will contribute to a thriving community of students who are pursuing change in the world.
Understanding what admissions requirements really mean
When you’re getting ready to apply to business school, it’s important to do your research to find out exactly what the admissions committee is looking for from applicants. Let’s look at HBS again as an example. On their “Who are we looking for?” page, the school lists three qualities it looks for in a successful applicant: a habit of leadership, an analytical attitude and aptitude, and engaged community citizenship.
Let me say again: this is not about checking some boxes. Note that the school isn’t just looking for “leadership” – they specify that they want applicants who display a “habit” of leadership. I see a lot of students who want to treat leadership as something they can offer a quick proof of: “I did XYZ, I was the class president or dorm leader, that shows leadership.” It’s not that simple.
What Harvard is really looking for is initiative. They want to know that leadership is in your DNA, that going your own way and making your own choices isn’t just something you’ve started doing in the last couple of years so you could improve your resume. The standard types of workplace and schoolroom leadership are great and you should include those examples, but if you really want to illustrate your habit of leadership, you need to look back in your life, and look beyond the traditional examples.
Harvard says themselves that leadership “may be expressed in many forms”. How have you stepped up, taken leadership in your own life, your own education? “I was being pressured to go in one direction, and I went another. I went against the grain. I was my own person.” Those are the kinds of stories that are powerful, fascinating to admissions committees.
Like choosing a degree that is not traditional – maybe everyone in your family is an engineer, but you knew from an early age that it wasn’t right for you, and you chose something different for yourself. Or you stepped up at work, despite your junior level, and took on a significant project. You saw something that didn’t work, that could be done better, and you stepped up and solved the problem even though you didn’t have the “authority”. That’s what will set you apart from your competition. They’ll be focusing on the technical details of their resume, and you’ll be showing the adcom how you took ownership of your life and career.
Begin at the end
Here’s an exercise that could help you. Flash forward 30 years. You’re in your late fifties, maybe early sixties. In an ideal world, what does your life look like? Are you at the peak of your career, winding down toward retirement, or long retired? What kind of work have you been doing? How has your career progressed? Where are you living? Are you excited about the career you have had? Do you have a spouse, children, grandchildren? What are you most proud of?
The goal of this exercise is to get at what really matters to you – your core values. I love doing this exercise. I love hearing people talk about their family, the career they dream of building, the change they hope to have made in the world.
What I never, ever hear people say is, “Thirty years from now, I will be most proud of having gone to Harvard.” It’s an incredible school, and it can open a lot of doors for you and your career, but it is still only a means to an end. And what really matters is the end. So instead of deciding that you have to go to Harvard – or Stanford, or Tuck, or MIT Sloan, or Wharton, or any particular school – figure out what you want to do, and find the school that will give you the best tools to accomplish your goals.
Academic skill and work experience and a good GMAT score are all important parts of the puzzle for Indian students who want to get into a top-ranked MBA program. But in the end, it won’t be your GMAT score that will make or break your admission chances. It will be you – your story, your work, your goals.
If you’d like to learn more about getting into business school, EXPARTUS is here to help. Ask us any questions you have about the process at email@example.com.