Sandeep Sharma likes running long distance, writing long articles (and MBA essays!) and planning for the long term. After completing 5 half-marathons, 2 marathons and a 2-year MBA from XLRI, this human resources professional still had enough energy left to contemplate a second MBA from a top-notch international business school.
Despite his solid GMAT score (750), he failed to get an interview invites from the first 2 schools he applied to. But as he does with his marathon running, he was more than willing to go the extra distance in doing well in every single preparatory phase of the MBA application process. If you have the stamina to keep up with him, dive in to read his story.
I grew up in a family of educationists in a small north Indian town. Given both my parents were teachers, the focus was always towards doing well in academics and inculcating virtues of diligence, perseverance and learning. Working hard in school and college, I managed to win many accolades including national level distinction in grade 10th and making it to the Dean’s list in engineering.
Growing up in a small town however, limited my knowledge and awareness about the world outside. Or, as I like to say, my canvas was fairly small. The first time I accessed internet was in grade 12th. My first visit to a proper library was in my engineering college. Even my first brush with the corporate world happened during engineering during campus presentations by companies.
In so many ways like these, my engineering experience was transformational. Or, as I say, my canvas had started growing. And, since then every step in my life, every decision I have made, has been a conscious effort to grow my canvas bigger and better.An international MBA is also a step in this direction.
Now, as I look back from where I started, it does seem a long way, filled with many ups and downs! – failing to crack IIT, cracking XLRI, international opportunity in Switzerland for summer internship during MBA, it’s all been part of an exciting and fun-filled journey!
After pursuing mechanical engineering from NIT Kurukshetra, I worked at Maruti Suzuki in a production planning role for a couple of years. Post this, I joined XLRI for an MBA in human resource management. During my MBA, I headed the school’s Placement Committee and pursued an international summer internship at Novartis in Switzerland.
Post my MBA, I joined EY’s human capital consulting practice in New Delhi office and advised clients across India and Middle East. During this stint, I had an opportunity to work with clients in Energy, Oil & Gas and Automotive sectors and published thought leadership on Governance of Boards. Subsequently, I joined American Express in a strategic people projects role and recently moved to a regional role overseeing compensation & benefits for key markets in JAPA – India & Japan.
While working in Maruti Suzuki, I was always intrigued about the functioning of the larger organization, how organization strategies were executed through tasks performed by different departments/teams, how certain employees were driving more than expected results (innovation) through their discretionary efforts. All this prompted me to pursue this discipline in form of an intensive course. Hence, I decided to join an MBA program at XLRI that was focused on human resource management. While the 2 year program helped me deep dive into theories of organization design, workforce planning, performance &rewards, leadership and talent management, it also exposed me to basics of other management disciplines including marketing, accounting, strategy, economics, finance, etc.
However, its curriculum lacked certain elements like experiential learning opportunities, a diverse and experienced peer group, and an international outlook. I realised the relative importance of all this especially during my consulting stint where, I was required to deliver on client engagements from the very first day.And, had to service clients across geographies and sectors.
As I grew through the ranks at EY and then at American Express, I was exposed to key organizational strategic decisions. Working with senior business leaders on these inspired me to transition to such roles where I can help companies across sectors decide their strategic choices.
Since, this is a significantly different career track from my current one, an MBA would be imperative to bridge the existing gap. Moreover, having worked for 8+ years, I have gained enough experience to fully realise the potential of an international MBA program as well as make meaningful contributions to the class. Having gained clarity around my future career aspirations, I thought it’s the right time to take a plunge!
Having made up my mind about an international MBA, I decided to write my GMAT in July 2016. I started preparations in May end. With limited time at hand, I wanted to ensure a good preparation strategy was in place. So, I decided to initially brush my concepts using the GMAT Official Guide to begin with. I did deep dive and refer to additional resources for a few concepts where I thought I needed additional help like probability, etc.
With my concepts refreshed, I spent the last 20-25 odd days of my preparation in taking GMAT practice tests, analysing them. I had subscribed to Manhattan’s test series. It’s a series of 6 simulated tests with detailed analysis and feedback. This proved extremely helpful as it helped me identify the gaps and improve my test taking strategies.
On the test day, I just made sure that I was cool, calm and confident and did not lose my nerves, since it’s a long test. And, yes that I was properly fed and well hydrated :-)
I managed a score of 750 (Q50, V40). I was quite happy with this attempt since my results were in line with my expectations and more importantly, I knew GMAT beyond a 710-720 is not really a differentiator if you are targeting European programs.
I was 31 with 7+ years of work exp. When I started application process last year.
After getting a good GMAT score and banking upon my reasonably good profile, work exp and extra-curriculars, I thought of writing applications myself without seeking any professional help. I decided to apply to INSEAD and LBS largely on the basis on their rankings with very basic research into these programs.
Moreover, I wrote my applications all by myself, with some reviews of my essays from a couple of friends. Results were quite shocking to me! I got dinged at both the schools without an interview invite.
But, it helped me realise how tough the competition is for top MBA programs. And, this is when I realised I needed professional help to put together a good convincing story.
I reached out to quite a few admission consultant, some of them even based overseas. However, I did not feel comfort after the initial discussions. In some cases, especially with some foreign consultants, who I must say had quite impressive credentials and records, but there was a disconnect.
I felt foreign consultants were not able to appreciate my cultural context and hence, would not be able to fully realise gravity of my achievements. With some Indian consultants, I felt they were only focused on the conversion rate and hence, their mantra was to apply to lot of schools, and hope that’ll improve chances of getting through at least one.
When I first heard / read about MBA Crystal Ball (MCB), I was quite impressed with their ability to customize and personalise services basis each individual’s need. This wasn’t possible with the other consultants I interacted.
For me, given my background and tenured work experience, this was of seminal importance. I wanted somebody who could provide very personalised advice to me. So, MCB seemed like a perfect match with my needs. Then, subsequent discussions with Manish Gupta (MG) corroborated my belief and I wanted to work with him given his clarity and insights into the entire application process. And, his experience of working with a variety of applicants. And, his ability to understand applicant’s profile and then re-position it in form of a remarkable story.
I signed up for a customised service for my application that included a story-boarding discussion, 2 rounds of reviews of essays and 1 round of review of recommendation letters.
I worked with Manish Gupta for my application to a top ranked European b-school. The storyboarding session was an eye opener for me. We brainstormed for about an hour to cover 7-8 questions.
Initially, I thought an hour was too short for achieving anything meaningful and was really sceptical but, I was pleasantly surprised. Manish understood my story and then came back with amazing ways to re-position my achievements and profile in ways that even I hadn’t imagined. That one hour of discussion with Manish I thought was a real “aha” moment for me which turned around my fortunes with regards to my application.
Manish was equally diligent and thorough in his reviews and his ability to sharpen essays, even well written ones is commendable. My initial essays which were 2X / 3X the word limit were finally brought within the word limit without losing their essence in 2 rounds of reviews. He also helped me add important pieces of information that I was missing in my drafts that would leave lasting impression on the Adcom members. This got corroborated when the adcom member quoted one of those nuggets of information during my interview.
To summarise, I would recommend MBA Crystal Ball to any applicant who is looking for an impactful, insightful and results oriented advice. Needless to say, the applicant himself has to put in a lot of effort but, MCB will help you accentuate your output and embellish your application significantly.
My application strategy was very simple. Given my personal situation – married with a young kid, with 8+ years of experience, I was just focusing on top ranked 1 year programs (strictly 10-12 month programs). Hence, my options were limited to IMD, INSEAD, Judge Cambridge and IE business school, pretty much in that order.
Fortunately, their application deadlines also followed pretty much my order of preference. Hence, I thought I will apply to these schools in my order of preference and basis results of my most preferred schools, will apply to the next school in my order of preference. This would help me optimize my effort and investments as well J
For IMD, I put in significant time and effort in school research. Beginning with attending an information webinar, reading about the school on GMAT Club, Poets & Quants, going through school’s website and IMD blogs and interacting with 5-6 school alumni across 2014 and 2016 batches, I had gathered enough information on the school to make an informed choice.
Fortunately, my initial impression about the school was much reinforced which helped me assert that IMD was the right choice for me personally. Especially, I liked its focus on building technical competencies and ample experiential learning opportunities through start up projects, Immersive exercises, Company Engagement projects, International Consulting projects, Navigating the Future conference, etc.
Additionally, its focus on personal development, international outlook, small and mature peer group aiding peer learning, strong executive network, were some of the other points which attracted me to the school.
IMD adcom got back to me within a week. I received a call from the Head of adcom on 17th August at 2:54 PM IST, while my assessment day was held on 8th August. It was one of the most ecstatic moments of my life.
My heart-beat rose as soon as I saw a call from “+41” extension.
And, it seemed like a culmination of a long drawn dream which had consumed lot of my personal time, effort and mindshare over the last 5-6 months. I was extremely happy and the party continued for a few days!!! Moreover, out of our assessment day group of 7, 5 of us had got through, which, amplified the joy many times.
IMD follows a separate process for financial aid and scholarships.
My post MBA goal is to join a strategy consulting firm and advise C-suite executives in articulating their strategy across sectors. Given my background in human resources, there is much skill gap which IMD’s intensive curriculum would help me bridge. Moreover, the small and mature cohort group with peers from different functions & industries would help me strengthen my business acumen.
IMD’s experiential learning opportunities would help me hone my problem solving skills and help me apply my technical acumen. This is of paramount importance as consulting is a ruthless profession that does not allow time to settle. You are expected to deliver from the first day!
Last but not the least, IMD’s focus on personal development and pedagogy of team based assignments will align me towards consulting environment, where each project is team based. Plus, its executive network, many of whom are heading consulting firms, will be a good leverage when I explore placement opportunities.
First and foremost, I think its important to research thoroughly about the program, its values and its proposition. Once you understand the program well and are able to identify what the school values, it becomes easier to show some alignment with your profile/ achievements.
Moreover, a sound investment in the program research also highlights your seriousness about the school, which is appreciated by the adcom. Talking about my personal profile, I tried to highlight uniqueness about my work exp and my overall profile and how I will leverage that to contribute to my cohort.
I came from a non-traditional background and hence, my contributions could be unique in the class. I also highlighted my interactions with program alumni, some of them non-Indian, which I think impressed the adcom.
Most important point, which often is overlooked, one must have 100% clarity on why MBA and how will the select school help in achieving one’s post MBA goal! Adcom members are experienced folks who can see through applicants and how authentic they are when answering these questions.
But, its important to release that getting an admission in only 1 part of the journey. An international MBA should be looked as a larger transformation journey which just begins with ad admission. Focus now shifts to preparing myself well for the program, leveraging the program well, activate my personal network to help me land my post MBA goal, etc.
Applicants looking for European schools should fully realize that European job market is very different from an Asian or an American market and that it has its own nuances. For e.g language plays an important role in seeking employment in Europe, hence, it’s advisable that you know one of the European languages before you start the program.
Similarly, some of the European schools have limited reach outside of Europe, and hence, if you are focused on certain geographies in Asia/Oceania/Middle east, you may want to identify / activate your personal network for the same.