While the battle of the giants in the MBA world – Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) – has raged on for a long time, very few Indians have been in the envious position to have got admits from both.
That number shrinks further if you consider Indians who’ve got a 100% free ride (i.e. full scholarship) from either of them.
IIT Madras graduate and former McKinsey consultant, Ankur Gigras, falls in that super-elite pool. Though his down-to-earth and simplistic style of narration reflects none of the arrogance or eliteness you might expect from someone with such credentials.
It was midnight and I was clicking refresh on my browser screen again and again to see if Harvard Business School (HBS) results were out. Finally, I got to see the results. It was an admit!
The next day morning around 2PM IST, I received a call from Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean for admissions at GSB, Stanford that I have been admitted. When I asked about the MBA scholarship, he replied, “yes, you have that too. It covers your tuition and living. Do you have any questions/concerns you want to talk about?” By that time, I was speechless. I just thanked Derrick and put the phone down. It was really one of the best days of my life!
By background, I am from a small city and have done my Chemical Engineering at IIT Madras. From IIT, I was lucky enough to be placed at McKinsey & Co. and then left that after 2 years of analyst program to join Abbott Labs in Mumbai to work on implementing their growth strategy. I wanted to do an MBA because I wanted to complete the arsenal of my business knowledge.
I wanted to take courses that build my fundamentals of finance, marketing and consolidate whatever I had learnt over 3 years to allow me to pursue my passion in the future. I discussed my aspirations with my mentors and my bosses and decided to apply to business schools after 3 years of experience. Based on my discussions I decided to take chances in Round 1 and Round 2. Round 1, I decided to apply to HBS and Stan and keep Wharton for Round 2, in case something seriously bad happens in Round 1.
The next step was cracking the GMAT. I prepped for a couple of months, read through the standard GMAT guides and took a lot of practice exams.
Finally, when I gave the exam, my score was above the average score for both HBS and GSB. I think the key to scoring well in GMAT is to practice and to keep a cool head during the exam.
Given that the exam is tiringly long, it’s good to practice as much as possible using the online test prep software.
The next step was to write good and complete essays for the application. From where I saw the application process, I wanted to make my application as personal, consistent and real as possible. I wanted to bring life to those essays and make the admission office want to talk to me once they read my story, and most importantly, it had to be “my story”.
As a result, I brainstormed a few ideas of how to structure my essays with a few very good friends from McKinsey and figured out what I wanted to write about. I then wrote the first draft and sent my applications to two of my friend at Kellogg and HBS.
My friend at Kellogg responded within a day with just two words – “call me”. I called him asap and his feedback was very simple. While the essays were “OK”, it would be better if I rewrote them and restructure most of my points! I agreed and took the next couple of weeks to rewrite the entire essay set for HBS and Stan.
After two iterations and one complete idea change (My friends convinced me that my idea was stupid!) the essays were good to go! I also made my recommenders go through my essays so that they can realize how I am positioning myself and provide recommendations in sync with what I had written (remember consistency is exceptionally important!).
Thankfully, I got interview calls from both Harvard and Stanford Business Schools and I prepared by going through tons of questions on websites, talking to people who had gone through this process before and by reciting my answers in front of people who knew me so that I know what to say and what to avoid!
The interviews were an interesting experience. While one of my interviews was very warm and polite, the other one was a stress test! (Don’t ask me which one was which!)
Thankfully, my preparation kicked in and I did not blurt anything random either in the stress test or during the warm and polite discussion session.
If I were to synthesize my learning from the point of view of Indian applicants, here would be my takeaways
[Click on any of the social media buttons to read application tips for Harvard MBA / Standford]
• Strategize how to apply
Keep some of your first choice schools in Round 1, while keep a few for Round 2. You never know what can go wrong in these processes!
• Practice for GMAT
Sitting for 3+ hours in an AC room in front of a computer screen is much more difficult than you think!
• Look for MBA scholarships
Most schools would have the names of scholarships on their web pages. I found one and hence my 2 years of Stanford education were free while many of my friends simply did not get it because they had no idea that it existed.
• Personalize your essays
It sounds simple, but the admission committee officer sitting in a room reading your essays should feel a connection to you. The essay is your only way to reach out to them and tell them that you are interesting enough to warrant a call.
• Keep things consistent
Bad things can happen if your recommenders write your strengths and you have indicated them as your weaknesses in your essays! Make sure every single one of your recommender knows what your essay thesis is.
• Be prepared for anything in an interview: Most likely, you will get a surprise question during an interview. Don’t picture an ideal interview in your mind, just go with the flow and answer them!
It’s easy for someone reading this story to get carried away by the simplicity of the story and undermine how difficult it can get to crack the code. However, while formulating your admissions strategy, keep in mind that the acceptance rates at Harvard (hovering around 12-13%) and Stanford MBA (under 7% selectivity) are the toughest in the world.
If you are planning to apply to these (& other) top MBA programs and need some high level guidance, post your queries in the comments below. If you are really serious and looking for MBA application guidance from Ankur, drop us an email with your profile details on: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com.
Read these related posts: