Why this Ivy League MS grad from India skipped the elite MBA programs to join JHU Carey

Ivy League MS grad from India skips the elite MBA programs
When you gaze into the crystal ball and see an Ivy League MS graduate from India planning for an MBA, you’d naturally assume that he’s set his eyes on the Ivy League universities.

But Rahul Krishnan, who completed his masters degree in Robotics from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), did exactly the opposite – forgoing brand value for scholarships. And he has solid reasons for it, as he explains his concluding article.

Why I chose Johns Hopkins Carey Business School over the other elite MBA programs

by Rahul Krishnan

Why I did not apply to Ivy League MBA programsHey guys, I am the same Master’s Graduate (MS in Robotics) from the University of Pennsylvania and I wanted to share my experience from my next education step- “THE MBA” ( Because, you know, blah blah blah, I have done the MBA  #TVF :D).

As I mentioned at the end of my previous article, I started my career with the Indian Institute of Science and after my internship at IISc, I had worked in three different multinationals within 3 years. In these 3 years, I was introduced to an amazing 3 part movie trilogy rivaling even the great LOTR series – “Corporate Politics”, “Corporate Politics Returns” and finally “Corporate Politics for Life, Bruh \m/”.

The only consolation was that the theater’s soft drinks were replaced with pots of  “chai” (tea) and coffee, the popcorn was replaced with free lunch and snacks ( At least better than the ridiculous amounts we spend at the movies). Corporate politics aside, my role has primarily been product design analysis for Mechanical, Electrical and Hydraulic products. I have been working for about 6 years now and what I have realized is that in the technical domain in India, most multinationals are primarily cost centers which are very strongly service based.

Nothing more than a glorified call center, the nature of the technical work varies from extremely challenging to “Dude, a 10th grade kid can do this”. The biggest issue in my experience at these cost centers is that they constantly need to keep their “resources “ engaged, even if that means asking them to count the number of dustbins in the office (Believe it or not, one of my friends actually did this :/). For people with big and powerful ambitions, it can get really frustrating at times. The key is to keep yourself challenged at all times, once that stops you’re always going to be looking for what people call “a change”.

About four years into my career, I started feeling the need to be challenged more than I was.I started looking at all my options both in India and abroad.  With a strong passion for technology, I was always looking for options to stay challenged in that industry.

However, with the Indian business model (cost center and cheap labor), it was quite unrealistic to expect anything better than my existing role. I started speaking with people from different technical domains as well as people across different industries to try and gauge where and what I should look for next. 

What I realized was something very simple, as my friend put it beautifully– “Dekh, SABBB pareshan hain” (in context- No one is completely satisfied with his/her job).  That’s when I realized, as I mentioned in my previous article,there is no absolute solution, only an optimal one.

It was now important to prioritize my goals in life.

I needed to find something that would keep me as little unhappy as possible for the next 20-30 years.

While it could be different things for different people, for me it was two things – Money and Growth (in that order). Since money was my first priority, it was natural for me to look towards the west,where the currency strength by itself can earn you a lot more than in India. Another strong reason was that I had never worked outside India and I was very curious (and still am) to see what it is like.

So it was time to pick, what could give me money and growth ? Technical jobs can only get you so far and my experience working in the technical domain wasn’t too great. I wanted to move out of core tech, at least for a while. I did some research and spoke to a few people I knew in the upper strata of the corporate world and realized one common thing – a business degree. So voila – the two pieces to my puzzle were found.

Travel to the west +  Business degree = MONEY + GROWTH + BY-PRODUCTS ( Guess what that is –  More Corporate Politics, Meh!!)

My MBA Application Process

Now that my priorities were sorted, it was time to plan for a few things that I had failed at during my previous stint. With the employment policies becoming a lot more stringent around the world, I had to do my research on the universities around the world where, post MBA, I had maximum chance of employment with minimum risk. 

So, now came the most important thing in a B-School application process- “Optimizing the expenditure”.  Some people call it “Investment”, but then you wouldn’t really know if it’s an investment until after your admissions decisions, would you? 

The entire application process to secure an admit to a B-school costs a lot a of money, so it’s very important to spend on your strengths during the application process. So then – What are the essentials of the “investment”?-

  • GMAT
  • Strong Essays
  • Networking with and attending the B-school events of your choice
  • Cost of submitting a B-school application

Each of the above four costs a lot of money, so it becomes doubly important which ones you would be comfortable spending more on and which ones you could get away with by spending the least.

Some people prefer to pull their weaknesses upwards, whereas I have always been a believer of backing your strength and maximizing it’s potential. So for me the order of expenditure and priority was something like this –

  • Networking with and attending the B-school events of your choice
  • Strong Essays
  • Cost of submitting a B-school application
  • GMAT

In order of my strengths, the above list was it. I was good at networking and relatively average at exams.

Most of the B-School events are free of cost, but the problem is they happen in select few cities, primarily Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. B-school aspirants who do not live in these cities or live in Bangalore (the traffic is terrible :/ ), need to assign some budget to travel as well.

I made it a point to attend as many events as possible and network with the B-school ad-coms of my choice as many times as possible during the application stage. Building a rapport takes some investment in itself in terms of time, but for me this was the most important part of my application process. 

Towards the end of the networking stage, I built a very good rapport with some of the Ad-coms and I think this in turn contributed towards a successful application process. Next step – “GMAT Preparation”.

It was now time for my GMAT prep. Since I knew exams weren’t my strongest suite, I did not spend any money on coaching and prepared for it myself. There are tons of resources on the Internet for GMAT and I used those to maximize my study prep time. Since I was working, I could spend just an hour a day on the weekdays and about 4 hours on weekends for GMAT prep. Totally, I prepared for about 11 weeks, and after a grueling 4 hours at the exam (and 2 attempts), déjà vu from my GRE – I didn’t score too well (got a 660 score).

Although it was not a great score by the Indian applicant standards, I was confident that my networking skills would carry me through and wasn’t too concerned with my GMAT score. Happy with the score, I moved on to the next stage of the application- Business school shortlisting.

Since I had spent a fairly large amount of money on education for Masters degree, my main aim was to apply to schools where I had a mix of great curriculum as well as the maximum chance of getting a scholarship. While the idea of applying to the elite brands was very appealing, I was more keen on making sure I balance brand name, curriculum strength, class diversity and tuition costs. 

Another reason for aiming a high scholarship (I was very particular about 50% or more ) was the stringent employment policies in the west.  If I had to take a loan, I would have to give myself a chance of paying it back with an Indian salary too (not that the top companies in India are waiting for me to apply to them :D, but still a higher probability of employment in my opinion).

With these two primary reasons, none of the elite brands featured in my list and I applied to a total of 8 medium ranked B-Schools in the US and Canada. Canadian B-schools featured on my list due to their relaxed employment policies for non-nationals. While the decision to drop the elite brand names was a hard decision, I didn’t have to think twice because my priority (scholarship) was clear. I was also backing my University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) brand name to carry me through in case the situation should arise.

I applied to Darden (the only elite brand in my list, just though I’d take a chance :D), Georgia Tech, Mendoza, McDonough, University of British Columbia, Mcgill University, Schulich at York and finally Carey at Johns Hopkins University.

Next up – “B-School Essays”. The B-school essays are a great way to showcase your professional, academic and extracurricular achievements and it’s vital that one spends time on doing proper research on the universities one is interested in. I enrolled with an admissions consultant for this purpose and even though I was confident of my writing skills, it needed an experienced individual in this space to guide me in terms of what to showcase and how to showcase my experiences.

The 4-5 months of working with my admissions consultant was a fantastic experience as I got to learn so much more about the application process, what B-schools really look for, what my strengths and weaknesses were and finally that I myself had so many stories to showcase.  My admissions consultant truly represented the famous quote “There is no substitute for experience”.  My admissions consultant strengthened my essays and I’m pretty confident that this helped me gain a lot of points during the application process over other applicants.

It was now time to prepare and submit my applications. As I had mentioned earlier, the applications cost a lot of money so I was looking for different ways to get an application fee waiver. Once again, it was the turn of my favorite activity – “Bschool Networking”.

I contacted various current students and alumni of the respective B-schools I was planning to apply to. This was also a way of understanding a student-school fit, the likes of which I had experienced during my MS application process. While talking to the students and alumni, I learned a lot about how these schools would suit the career goals I was chasing.

Unfortunately, although the school websites have all the information available to help you decide if you want to apply to them or no (trust me there’s so much information that you’d get enamored easily, it’s a classic case of brilliant marketing ), much of the information across all these school websites are practically the same. Every school has a great curriculum, a great set of professional and social clubs, good placement rates, great social life and a good class diversity.  It’s very difficult to compare them by purely reading the websites of these B-schools.

The current students and alumni are the people who gave me a true understanding of the school. One would argue that each of them come from a particular school, so they themselves won’t be able to compare their school to another. That being said, the more you talk to different students and alums of different schools the more you tend to get a general idea of what each school’s strengths and weaknesses are and then it gets easier for you to make a decision.

One thing that was particularly insightful during my conversations with students and alums was the international student perspective. Since the school websites give a more aggregated opinion of the students, the individualistic and more specific opinions get diluted. Applying to foreign B-schools for us in India and a lot of other medium to low strength economies is a big decision financially, and it’s these conversations, with the students and alums, that give you a true perspective of the worth of the B-school.

I built a good rapport with quite a few students and through their referrals to their respective schools, I managed to get an application fee waiver at 4 of the 8 schools I had applied to.  The cost savings were significant, since each school application costs about 15,000 Indian Rupees, so the total cost of B-school applications can go into lakhs of Rupees. 50% saving is a massive amount which I could utilize for other important (Beeerr!!!!!\m/) activities.

The waiting period after submitting the applications is the hardest. What do you do? Prepare for an interview from School-X or School-Y? Do something to take your mind off the MBA application process for a while? “To each his own” is what I would say.

I decided to take some time off and go on a vacation for a week.  I came back with a refreshed mind which helped me prepare for the interview with an uncluttered and clear mind. After applying to 8 universities, I got 3 interview calls from Schulich, Mcgill and Johns Hopkins. Spaced out of by a week for each, I got enough time to gather my mind and prepare for them.

MBA interview preparation isn’t too stressful though, one needs to do a bit of research on the school (most of which I had done during the shortlisting process) and most importantly be confident when you speak. Remember your goals, your profile everything has already been screened  before the interview. In my experience, during the interview what they are mainly testing is your professional presence and clarity in expressing your thoughts. Self-confidence in the interview is half the battle won.

All my interviews went pretty well and I was pretty confident that I would get into at least one of them with a scholarship. Post my interviews, I had to wait about 3 weeks before the final results.  I had received 2 admits with a scholarship, one of them was at Schulich with 50% and the other at Johns Hopkins with 100%.

Johns Hopkins University with the 100% scholarship was the obvious choice since the brand name and repute of both the universities weren’t too far apart from each other.

The news from Michael (the assistant admissions director at JHU) came slightly before the official announcement. I had emailed him (I met him at an MBA event in Mumbai an kept in touch for questions about the program) asking for the status and he replied with just a line saying:

There is good news, please call me.

At this point I was sure that I had received an admit and was already elated , but the conversation with Michael was just like the cherry on top of a cake. “We are offering you a full scholarship”, he said and I was ecstatic. Yes, I did expect some form of scholarship, but 100%? Just an amazing feeling since I was happy that all that “Investment” (I could call it that now, since I had a full scholarship :D) in terms of time and money had paid off.

Unlike my MS, this time the cost of my MBA education (barring the living cost) was practically zero. I also achieved my primary aim which was giving myself a chance to pay off my loans, even if I return to India.

MBA Crystal Ball reached out to Michael Joseph Cuneo, Assistant Director of Admissions, The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. We asked Michael what the school looks for in applicants and how the admissions team takes scholarship decisions. Here’s what he had to share:

“The most important thing we are looking for is where the candidate has a proven history of, or a strong potential for, the overlap of leadership and initiative (which ideally go together). We “fall in love” with candidates that have built something in the past. That could be something tangible like an entrepreneurial endeavor or something intangible like a new business process in their work place. When applicants have taken an idea through inception to getting buy-in from others and into existence, they show a strong potential for being great students in our program and future star alumni.”

“For our merit scholarships we start off with work experience (both quality and quantity), previous academic performance (GPA), and the GMAT or GRE score. From there we are looking for people that understand the unique aspects of our MBA program and have a passion for how they fit into it. Also, the things we look for in item number one for admissions also help students to stand out in garnering a scholarship. Finally, students who have unique or different backgrounds (in the academic and work sense) from other candidates in their demographic. For Indian students we’d be delighted to see applicants who are a bit different from the stereotypical Engineering background (though we are happy to see them as well).”


Closing Thoughts

It’s been a roller coaster ride since my application to the MS program up until this application process to the MBA program, but the most important thing was for me to learn from the mistakes I had made in my previous experience. The MBA application process demands dedication in two things primarily from every aspiring applicant – Money and Time!!!

So my advice to all those aspiring MBA applicants.

  1. Be absolutely sure that this is what you want for growth in career. MBA is NOT the only thing and it’s NOT for everyone. Once again, an MBA degree DOES NOT GUARANTEE success in the long run, it’s simply an ENABLER.
  2. GMAT score is only A PART of the process and NOT THE ONLY thing. Getting a good GMAT score DOES NOT guarantee a B-school admit
  3. Remember to optimize your funds and spend it wisely depending on your strengths and weaknesses. If you do not plan your budget wisely, you may end up spending a significant amount for very little reward, which will leave you both BROKE and DISAPPOINTED
  4. Start very early. My advice is to give 8-10 months for the whole process (trust me you will need it). The earlier you begin, the more you will be able to justify your applications, which in turn maximizes your chances of getting a good admit and scholarship
  5. Each B-school application is different and requires its own time, be sure NOT to underestimate any B-school application

Read Rahul’s first article here – What’s it like to study in an Ivy League masters program (UPenn) as an international student.

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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

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