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Clear Admit Interview: Graham Richmond on MBA Admissions
Written by Sameer Kamat
MBA Crystal Ball reached out to Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, to get his views on a few burning questions that are frequently on the minds of Indian candidates. Graham has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Business Week and..ahem…MBA Crystal Ball (I know, I know, we need to be more subtle with our hints). After completing his MBA from Wharton, he joined Wharton’s MBA Admissions Committee. So pay close attention to his advice, my friends. It might just get you into the school you’ve always dreamed of.
Is this the right time for an MBA?
MBA Crystal Ball (MCB)
Graham, thanks for agreeing to our interview request. We’ve got a ton of questions waiting for you. But before we plunge into the operational topics, it might be helpful to address a (semi-philosophical) question that’s bothering many international applicants – ‘A soft post-recession economy, MBA job hunting challenges, work visa dependencies, the risk of getting neck-deep into debt…is it all really worth it?’
Isn’t it a big risk for professionals to leave their jobs to pursue an international MBA degree?
It’s always a risk to quit one’s job and embark on further education. There’s the cost of the degree itself (often north of $150K if you factor in tuition, living expenses, etc), the lost income due to exiting the workforce and the daunting prospect of having to find a well-paid job post-MBA and pay off loans. These factors can be downright intimidating for candidates contemplating the degree. Having said that, it’s important to remember that the leading global MBA programs have a pretty impressive track record – even in down economies – when it comes to placing their graduates into positions that offer generous salaries, upward mobility and wonderful leadership opportunities.
I should also stress that it can be hard to pin a dollar amount on the rewards of higher education. Candidates who make the cut at the very best MBA programs will make friendships with fellow classmates from across the globe and be part of an often life-changing 1-2 year experience. They will also be privy to a network of established alumni that provides for lifelong connections and continuing education. In short, while there is certainly risk involved, time has shown that investing in business school can pay enormous dividends – especially if one takes a long-term view on the investment.
Applicant Pools from India
There are so many applicants from a single dominating applicant pool, we now have a well-accepted acronym for it on the Indian (and several international) discussion forums – IIMs (Indian-IT-Male, as opposed to a reference to the Indian Institutes of Management). Most of these applicants from the IT industry have technical backgrounds and run the risk of sounding exactly the same when they submit their MBA applications.
From your experience, what are the biggest challenges that face this group? What can IIM candidates do to differentiate themselves from the crowd?
It’s true that Indian males with an IT/engineering background dominate the MBA applicant pool. This makes it incredibly hard to stand out. In addition to being numerous, these candidates are often labelled by admissions officers as being too tech-oriented and perhaps lacking in the softer skills required of business leaders. At the same time, the beauty of the MBA admissions process is that it is both quantitative (GMAT, undergraduate marks, etc) and qualitative (personal background, leadership experiences, outside activities). As such, every applicant is given the chance to shine in the admissions process by virtue of essays, application data forms, recommendation letters and interviews.
At Clear Admit, we’ve found that IIM applicants need to work especially hard to avoid technical jargon and showcase the fact that they have the ability to share their stories in a language that admissions officers can understand. We’ve also found that these candidates need to think very carefully about the career plan they present to the adcom, ensuring that they can highlight relevant experience when it comes to their pursuit of their goals. To offer a concrete example, it might be hard for a Microsoft or Infosys engineer to draft compelling essays about career goals in the world of investment banking or private equity if they’ve have limited exposure to those fields in the course of their career. Conversely, a candidate working in product development or process improvement at Dr. Reddy’s or GlaxoSmithKline might be able to make a compelling case for a move to healthcare strategy consulting with a leading US firm post-MBA.
What about candidates with unconventional backgrounds (read non-IT industries)? Can they get away with a relatively lower GMAT score, or a relatively weaker profile (in terms of accomplishments at work)? Should their approach be any different from what you’ve just described?
Non-traditional applicants have both advantages and disadvantages in the admissions process. From the plus side, they rarely need to do much to stand out in the applicant pool, as the nature of their work or personal experiences will help them stand out from the crowd and make it obvious as to how they might lend a unique voice to classroom discussions. On the negative side, these candidates often need to work hard to show that they can ‘fit in’. For example, a liberal arts graduate working in marketing might need to demonstrate that he or she can handle the quantitatively rigorous nature of the MBA curriculum. As such, while these applicants may be offered a bit of an advantage due to their ability to stand out, the adcom will be closely studying their GMAT and past academic performance to ensure that these non-traditionals can survive and thrive in the business school classroom.
How does the Application Process work?
What’s the typical way Adcoms evaluate applications? Do they really slot candidates into various ‘buckets’ (nationality first, industry next, function/role etc) before digging into the details. Or is it not as rigid as people generally assume?
The admissions process varies from school to school. Having said that, the majority of programs do not organize applications by nationality, industry or function – they follow more of a ‘first-in, first-out’ process, with applications being distributed at random to the members of the admissions team who conduct reads. While there are a small handful of programs that read files by region/nationality, this is actually quite rare. Again, in most cases, applications are essentially read in a somewhat random order.
Of course, just because applications are mostly read at random doesn’t mean that you aren’t competing within a specific segment of the applicant pool. Admissions readers have a very good idea of what to expect from the various groups within the applicant pool even if they aren’t sitting down and only reading files from a specific group.
As to the path of the application through the admissions process, this varies from school to school, but a typical path might look something like this:
 Application is submitted by applicant
 Received application is checked by the adcom to ensure it is complete (this is an administrative task)
 Application is distributed to an admissions reader for a ‘first read’
 Application returns to the office with a report from the first reader
 Application is distributed to an admissions reader for a ‘second read’
 Application returns to the office with a report from the second reader
 For schools who conduct interviews by invitation, a decision is made concerning whether or not to interview
 If an interview is granted, the file sits until the interview report can be added
 Post-interview, a third read of the file is conducted
 Application returns to the office with a report from the third reader
 The admissions committee meets to discuss the applications and make final decisions based on the readers’ notes in each file. Note: Not all files will be discussed at committee, since many will be ‘clear denies’ following the three reads and some will be ‘clear admits’ and may not require debate.
 The admissions director signs off/reviews all final decisions
 Candidate is notified.
Relevance of GMAT in MBA applications
How important is the GMAT score for Indian candidates? Can it be a differentiator or it is just a profile enhancer?
Generally speaking, the GMAT is an important metric for all applicants. Top MBA programs now regularly post average scores of 720+ for the incoming class. As such, scoring below 700 could make things hard no matter what portion of the applicant pool you are coming from…and perhaps even harder if you come from an over-represented group in the pool (since you will have more competition).
Most Indian applicants feel a GMAT score below the 700 levels will completely kill their chances of getting into a top school. What’s your take on it?
It’s pretty rare for the GMAT result to be a key attribute in one’s candidacy (e.g. for a high score to put you over the top in the admissions process). At the same time, it can be said that a poor GMAT result can do substantial harm to your candidacy and potentially keep you out of a top program.
Give the sheer volume of applications from India, that portion of the applicant pool has become hyper-competitive, leading to a bit of an arms race when it comes to many dimensions of an applicant’s performance (GMAT, undergraduate performance, work experience, etc). In short, greater competition within the Indian MBA applicant population leads to increasingly high numbers for admitted students in this group.
The typical Indian GMAT score tends to be high on the quantitative side and comparatively low on verbal. It’s also not very common to find perfect AWA scores. Does that impact how Adcoms view these scores?
As to the stereotypes regarding test results, it is true that on the margin the Indian portion of the pool tends to perform better on the quantitative section and less well on the verbal section. Of course, the adcom prefers to see a balanced result on the exam (ideally candidates might pass the 75th or 80th percentile in each section), and you can bet that they take notice when an Indian IT male does exceedingly well on the GMAT verbal (since this could be viewed as a positive sign in terms of the candiates communications skills). The AWA is relatively less important – especially for candidates who have studied in English – but it never hurts to perform well here and stand out from the crowd.
MBA Jobs & Careers
How do business schools view applicants who talk about changing careers?
While candidates looking to change careers are quite common in the applicant pool, it’s important for those applicants to do their best to connect their future plans with relevant past experiences. This isn’t to say that you can’t present a fairly radical departure from the past when it comes to your future goals, but it is important to highlight relevant skills you have picked up/experiences you’ve had that provide a road map to those plans. These examples can come from your professional career, outside interests, community work, etc. All candidates should seek to present goals that are both clear and feasible in the eyes of the admissions team.
For international applicants, are there any jobs that are more difficult to target? Marketing, consulting, banking?
When it comes to international candidates, I would not say that there are specific industries that are harder to target – since it mostly comes down to geography. That is to say that the Indian IT candidate looking to shift into finance or consulting may want to think broadly about the markets in which they would be willing to work (USA, UK, India) rather than presenting a rigid plan of only working in domestic market of their target school, where it may be hard for a non-citizen to obtain work.
Have you come across many candidates who manage to get jobs in other countries, for example a US-bschool MBA grad moving to Asia? How do they manage the job-search?
As far as candidates working outside of the country in which they pursue their MBA this happens fairly regularly. The most obvious case is a candidate returning to their ‘home’ market (their country of citizenship). Of course, the strength of a school’s network may come in to play when one targets a job outside of the school’s domestic market, so it can be useful for applicants to seek out local alumni clubs in their target job market before making a decision on where to apply. For example, an Indian applicant seeking an MBA in the US and a post-MBA job in London would do well to touch base with the London-based alumni clubs of their target schools and learn more about the extent of the network in that market. Candidates should also conduct their due diligence in terms of placement statistics, seeking out evidence that a school has a track record of placing candidates in foreign markets. Finally, some of this can be facilitated by pursuing study abroad opportunities, such that a Wharton student might want to spend a semester at INSEAD’s Singapore campus if their target employment market happens to be SE Asia.
How important is networking in the entire job hunting process?
As far as the role of networking is concerned in the job hunt, this really depends on the type of job one is targeting. For example, if you are pursuing a common career (e.g. strategy consulting or investment banking) you may be able to rely heavily on the resources of your school’s career services office and the on-campus recruiting process, whereas if you are looking to join a start-up in California, you will clearly be better served by tapping into the school’s network and seeking out student treks to the Silicon Valley, etc (using your networking skills to make a connection in that market).
That was very insightful, Graham. Any closing thoughts and tips for our readers?
I think it might be useful for applicants to think about how they might go about seeking advice in the admissions process – since it can be a mistake to go it alone. Given the amount of money one spends on business school and the incredible amount of time that goes into preparing applications, it would be foolish to operate in a vacuum and fail to seek an objective point of view with regards to one’s admissions strategy. While that may mean signing up for admissions consulting services with an organization like Clear Admit, I would also recommend seeking out free resources online (like our blog – http://blog.clearadmit.com – and the various discussion forums that applicants tend to frequent such as Beat The GMAT). Clear Admit also publishes low-cost e-books that help candidates navigate the admissions process offering school-specific information as well as guidance on recommendation letters, resume drafting and more. In the end, your best bet is to seek guidance from an objective and knowledgeable source – ideally someone who has prior experience in MBA admissions.
Best of luck to anyone applying this year!
Thank you, Graham, for your time and your inputs.
It’s been a pleasure!
About the company: Clear Admit has been a leading player in the MBA admissions consulting arena for nearly 10 years. Their team of MBA admission consultants have helped thousands of applicants, including many from India, get into the top MBA programs.
Ok, bhai log and behenjis, gyaan session over and there’s a whole lot of useful, practical advice in there. So for best results, you might want to bookmark this page (add it to your favorites list, post a link on your blog, pin a printout on your bed) and refer to it frequently before you start working on your apps.