How I got into Stanford MBA and Columbia from India despite little experience and an average GMAT

Ask any international MBA consultant how to get into Stanford University from India for the most selective MBA degree in the world, and you’ll probably hear some similar sound bytes. The acceptance rate Score a 770 on the GMAT, work for 4- 5 years (in a top tier consulting, investment banking or private equity role). And yeah, try not to be from India. If there’s not much you can do to fix that last point, flaunting your IIT degree can help.

Mahak Garg didn’t have any of those credentials. All the Indian consultants she approached for advice basically told her (in different ways) that she didn’t stand a chance to get through her dream colleges.

 


How I got into Stanford & Columbia from India

by Mahak Garg

Selecting the right B-Schools got me into top schools, despite little work experience and an average GMAT score.

 
Stanford MBA student from IndiaThere are thousands of articles out there written by some of the most seasoned MBA consultants and professionals. Why then should you spend your time and energy reading an article written by this 24-year old NO “crack the MBA expert”. Fair question.

Simple answer – Because I was in your same shoes until December 2016. Until I finally made it to one of the most selective business schools in the world – Stanford GSB. I can relate to your self-doubts, fear, anxiety, questions etc like no one else can. Moreover, I can guarantee that the feeling of accomplishment after securing an admit to your dream college is well worth all the sleepless nights.

I understand the importance of a good post with quality information to help you get on the right track and provide you with the much-needed confidence and energy boost. That is exactly what has motivated me to pen down my own experience and journey. Thank you MCB for inviting me for this guest post!

After graduating 1st class with distinction from NSIT in 2014, I worked at Nomura for 18 months to gain experience of working in a structured environment and to learn from different managerial styles. Since January 2016, I moved back to Delhi to start my own niche – Colence International Pvt. Ltd.- within my family business.

Any feedback on our newly launched website – www.colence.com – will be highly appreciated. Any leads in the footwear manufacturing industry; well that’s a coffee on me (Very important to market your business on good platforms!).

I did not have the prestigious IIT tag or a spectacular GMAT score (I scored 730 in my second attempt).

Speaking with admissions consultants only furthered my self-doubts. Some said “You are not a top 5 college material, though we can assure that you will get in top 20 colleges”; “Why don’t you apply for Masters instead of an MBA”; “Why don’t you wait for another year before applying” etc.

That’s when, with Almighty’s blessings and guidance, I took the decision of embarking on this journey all by myself. I could do so because I had an “America-Return” brother to bank on for proofreading my essays and for giving me solid (several times heart-breaking) feedback.

For me the most challenging part of the entire process was being able to get my head around how and where to start from. There is a pile of tasks to be completed and the deadlines are almost always around the corner. Damn! Essays, resume, recommendations, transcripts and lots of crafting and recrafting.

But much before all of this comes SCHOOL SELECTION.

School selection is a daunting challenge for most if not all applicants. MBA is a big investment of both time and money. You want to be extremely sure of where you wish to graduate from. Your MBA experience will stay with you for your lifetime.

Through my post, I will try to share some ‘gyan’ that helped me crack two good B schools – Stanford GSB and Columbia business School – out of the 4 schools that I applied to (Stanford, Harvard, CBS and Booth).

Yes, you have made up your mind to do an MBA. Yes, you know which country to target. But there are hundreds of schools to choose from within that country. How to proceed from there?

Below is a list of questions that may help to narrow down on your choices.
 

Questions to ask while selecting the right B-school

 

1. Program Duration: 2 years MBA vs a 1 year MBA vs a distant MBA

Some questions that can be helpful in making this choice –

  • How experienced are you currently? What is it that you wish to achieve through this MBA? Are you already quite experienced and just need a brush up to fasten your promotion cycles? Or are you a young individual with just 2-3 years of experience and are looking for something more than a brush up?

    I had only 2.2 years of experience at the time of filling my applications. My firm is still very young. I knew I needed a rich international experience to develop key skills to structurally scale my business and to build a global network.

  • What’s the opportunity cost of being away from work/family for 1 year versus for two years?

    Had it not been for my brother who will handle the business while I am away, I would probably have opted for distant MBA (not by choice though).

 

2. School Location

Some people are specific only about countries while others are specific about even the city (some relative, some friend etc). Narrow down the location until you reach the point where you are indifferent about it. I am assuming choosing your preferred country should not be a major challenge.

Now selecting the location within the country should involve answering the below question-

  • Which part of the country do you want to be in – East, west, north, south?
  • Is the campus in a busy metro city or in a suburban setup? Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, Columbia’s presence in NY offers access to most Global 500 companies. Finding internships and jobs becomes a less daunting task as you are in the business hub of the world. Suburban campuses often mean a strong, close-knit community.
  • Post MBA industry. For example, you may wish to stay closer to Mumbai if you are aiming to take a job in Mumbai.
  • Weather and temperature of the city of choice. Some cities have extreme temperatures (NY, Chicago have extremely cold winters), while others have a milder and more pleasant environmental conditions (California) all through the years. For most students, this may not be a big factor. But be especially careful if you have any medical condition or a strong preference for a particular weather.

 

3. Fit with the college

Evaluating ‘fit’ with the business school without a doubt is one of the biggest factors to ponder upon:

  • What is the culture of the college? What is it that the college really specialises in?
  • What industries do most graduates of X college choose after MBA.
  • What is the average age of the incoming students?
  • Does the college have a strong alumni network? Small class size or big ones?
  • What is the ratio of international to national students? What’s the class composition and diversity?

 
Here is how I narrowed down to the 4 colleges that I applied to in the Round 1 deadline (Thank you God for showing mercy and getting me admitted in R1).
 

  • Stanford – Entrepreneurial Hub. Period.
  • Columbia – At Columbia I applied for the January Term. It was suitable for students who did not feel the need to intern in summers as they would either return to a previous role or they were sufficiently experienced. This again fitted well with my aim to finish my MBA at the earliest and return to my business. In fact, the pool of students who were selected for the January term were mostly young entrepreneurs with similar aspirations.
  • Harvard – Childhood dream, brand recognition. This wasn’t the most rational way of choosing but well humans are emotional beings and not rational beings. Probably the reason for not making it to Harvard was that I did not fit there.
  • Chicago Booth – I thought that my finance background would give me a bit of an edge. Familiarity with the city (My brother was in Chicago for 6 years). Ranking.

 

4. Budget

 

5. Ranking

College rankings are based on a number of factors and are rewarded after careful examination. I won’t be convinced if a person tells me that college rankings don’t matter etc. The colleges have been given a high rank for a particular reason.
 

6. Essay Questions/Procedure

This one might sound ridiculous to many of you but I did use this to some extend while making my choice for the college applications. I tried to apply to colleges which had somewhat similar essay questions/procedure.

For example, Kellogg had a very unique procedure where you needed to make some videos etc (I don’t remember clearly but they did have some rather unique demands). I knew that even if I try to work on those videos in the tight timeline I would never be able to make it through the college. Hence, I kept Kellogg for R2.

I wanted to be able to polish and reuse the material that I had in my hand. It wasn’t like I could simply copy paste the same essay (God that would have been so much simpler), but at least I had something to build upon. In fact, this was one of the reasons that I could fill in the applications for all 4 colleges despite very close deadlines.
 
Out of all the points, the 3rd one requires utmost time and attention. Understanding the culture of a college is not a one-time task. You start getting a sense only after doing a lot of school specific research (through college websites, MBA consultants, news, MBA seminars etc), speaking with/meeting alumni, attending career fairs etc. All this should help you narrow down to 12-15 schools that fit your specific needs.

Next, delve deeper into the research to get a sense of the culture, opportunities, specific professors and specialization courses of interest etc. 

Finally, make a choice regarding which colleges to target in R1 vs in R2, doing a careful risk benefit analysis (R3 for non-Americans is neither rational nor feasible due to form I20, student visa requirements, etc). Move in a structured manner at all times. Trust your judgement and intuition.

Consistent efforts, self-belief and dedication will go a long way in your career and future life. The reward, in terms of securing a coveted admit letter, at the end of this exhausting journey, is well worth all the time and efforts.

Read my next post: Stanford GSB and Columbia MBA interview questions with answer tips
 


If you’d like Mahak to come back with more posts covering other aspects of her application process, let her know what you thought of this article in the comments below. You can also connect with her on Linkedin.
Related articles:
Indian student gets into Stanford MBA with full scholarship
Wharton MBA admit in Round 2 for Indian student with low GMAT score
What Stanford GSB looks for in MBA applicants
Harvard MBA vs Stanford GSB vs Wharton MBA: Which one is right for you?


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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

8 Comments

  1. Agniv Dass says:

    Hi Mahak,

    I just wanted to ask if you got any financial aid from any of the b-schools that you got admitted to.
    It would be really great if you could include a section primarily for the financial info.

    Thanks.

    And congratulations to you too. :)

  2. Mahak Garg says:

    Hi Agniv,

    Thank you for your kind wishes. Unfortunately, Columbia does not offer any merit based scholarship for their January intake. Also, I did not apply for the famous Reliance scholarship at Stanford.

    Both Columbia and Stanford offered need based scholarships. I did not apply for the same at Columbia. However, I did apply and was granted need based scholarship at Stanford (Can’t reveal the exact numbers as per college guidelines). Stanford has been very fair and generous in their need based scholarship (offered to almost 65% of the class). They evaluate the needs of each student on standalone basis (irrespective of your parent’s income etc). Hope that helps.

    Mahak

  3. Harsh says:

    Hi,

    I dropped out of engineering after 3 years to pursue Journalism and communication following which I founded a startup(revenue INR 30 lakhs in first year). Due to unforeseen circumstances I had to shut it down. I was then recruited at Goldman Sachs as analyst and have been there for 2 years now. I was considering applying for HBS / Stanford / Wharton or any ivy league university. Do you think I have a shot at it? I want to create wealth at grassroot level. Which programmes would be advisable for such kind of plans?
    Thanks for your help.

  4. RIMLEE PATGIRI says:

    hello ma’am, I am a civil engineering student and i’m intending to pursue an MBA from Harvard or Stanford after graduation. Could you please suggest me with the requirements and preparations along with suitable sources from where I can study to crack it?

  5. Mahak Garg says:

    Dear Harsh and Rimlee,

    Thanks for your questions. I don’t think I am the right person to tell you whether you have a shot or not. My entire article revolves around understanding your unique situation and making your decisions. Even if you are extremely unique, someone may form an opinion that you are not unique or that you do not stand any chance and give you a negative feedback. It’s about discovering your unique story after a lot of introspection and then presenting it to the admissions team in a clear concise and crisp manner. Hope that helps.

    Mahak

  6. Pavan says:

    Hi Mahak,
    Congrats!!! This is very impressive and inspiring. Thank you for writing this article.
    Please give some tips on how to prepare for the Stanford application process. I mean how to write essays, what recommenders should write, what to put in the resume, how to prepare for interview. meaning everything to do after the MBA program selection that you have explained so well.
    Even before that, how to know if I really am Harvard and Stanford material. Everyone thinks they are, right? :-)
    I don’t want to waste my time applying to the wrong colleges, if I can find out one way or another.

  7. Mahak Garg says:

    Hi Pavan,

    Thank you for your kind words and wishes.

    Hope the post that I wrote on Gmatclub may be of help to answer a few of your questions.

    https://gmatclub.com/forum/admitted-to-stanford-gsb-and-cbs-with-730-without-a-consultant-232683.html

    I will try to come back with another post on other areas that you have requested.

    Thanks,
    Mahak

  8. Shravanthika Lakshmi Sundaravel says:

    Hi Mahak,

    Hearty congrats !! That is an immaculately written inspiring article. I lived through the article because it seemed like you have just spoken out all that I am going through right now. Sleepless nights with self doubt. But your article is really really inspiring. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience !!

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