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Why I rejected a Wharton MBA admit with scholarship offer

Ravi Shah (name changed) has some perspectives for those are looking at ways to be head and shoulders above the rest, in the business world. It includes seemingly crazy-sounding decisions like rejecting a $40,000 scholarship offer from Wharton MBA. For Indian students that’s a lot of money to turn down.

Why I rejected the Wharton MBA with scholarship offer

by Ravi Shah

It probably started with the Stanford prompt, “What matters most to you and why?” If business school is intended to be a process of self-discovery, there can be no better question to ask the applicants.

Twenty-two essays later, spread across 7 top-tier schools, I’m now all set to begin my course at INSEAD in January, 2015.

The marathon application journey came with its share of highs and lows, with rejections from Harvard Business School (HBS), Stanford and acceptances from Wharton MBA, Kellogg and INSEAD. For Chicago Booth and London Business School, I was waitlisted after interviews and decided to withdraw my application.

I perhaps belong to the intersection of traditional and non-traditional background. Though I fell in the overly competitive Indian male category, I had a non-IT background.

Similarly, though I had the ‘traditional’ management consulting background through my McKinsey experience, I uprooted my life in India to spend one year in Ethiopia working for an ‘acceleration unit’ aimed at transforming Ethiopian agriculture.

I believe this balance of strong brand names and choosing off-track paths helped to differentiate my profile.

Getting the GMAT out of the way

In hindsight, it was also useful that I had a good GMAT score. Back in good, old 2010, the numbers 760 had popped up on the GMAT test screen and I knew that it was probably the last time I needed to worry about the formula for calculating the area of a hemisphere.

This is an important advice for people who have recently started their professional lives and intend to get an MBA degree sometime in life.

Get the GMAT out of the way early!

You don’t need to quit your job or put your life on hold. A couple of hours a day for 2-3 months – that’s it.

This is the GMAT, not UPSC. It’s a set of questions meant to test your decisiveness, pattern recognition skills and ability to handle stress – qualities necessary for a good manager.

Use the Elevator Pitch method

I had a clear essay strategy – highlight the factors that differentiated me from the rest of the applicants. The ‘Elevator pitch’ is a commonly used term in the world of management consulting [Related post: Best management consulting books] and it can be applied equally well to the b-school application process.

The phrase can have multiple interpretations but in this context, the most appropriate one is this:

If you’re in an elevator with the Dean of your target b-school, what will you tell him/her in those 30 seconds?

That’s it. 30 seconds. No bullshit. 3 bullet points that will convince the Dean to let you in.

For me, the pitch was
(a) diverse experience of working with clients in 12 countries
(b) willingness to take the ‘off-track’ path as demonstrated by my Ethiopian experience
(c) demonstrated leadership in unique, sustainability focused projects at McKinsey.

Once you have nailed your Elevator Pitch, the rest of your application is simply an expanded version of it. Think long and hard about your pitch.

My interview experiences at Wharton, London Business School and INSEAD

The interviews were an interesting experience. Given that I was in a rather remote location (Ethiopia), I had a virtual interview for Wharton, Kellogg and Chicago Booth. All 3 went decently well and there were no oddball questions in any of them.

Wharton had an interesting approach of a group based discussion – I’m still on the fence whether it’s a better way to select candidates than a ‘regular’ personal interview but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

The interview experience for London Business School and INSEAD were, well, expensive. I had to fly out to Dubai for the LBS interview and to Nairobi (giraffe-petting photo attached!) for the INSEAD interview.

LBS was perhaps the least ‘conversational’ interview and the alum probed a lot into granular details of my projects.

The INSEAD interview was by far the best interview I’ve had. I ‘clicked’ with both my interviewers and they genuinely cared about my fit for INSEAD.

I’m not saying that there were no difficult questions but it surely felt more of a general conversation over coffee than an interview/interrogation. I was sold on INSEAD from that moment on.

This also goes on to show the level of impact that alumni members can have on a candidate’s final decision.

Why I chose INSEAD over Wharton MBA

The choice between Wharton and INSEAD was a tough one. I had already declined Kellogg and had withdrawn my application from Chicago Booth and LBS.

I made the perhaps unexpected decision to choose INSEAD over Wharton, despite a $40,000 scholarship from Wharton.

My reasons for this were
(a) INSEAD has a much more global class and alumni network than Wharton
(b) At the risk of generalizing, INSEAD is a ‘consulting school’ while Wharton is a ‘Finance school’; and I’m a consulting guy
(c) INSEAD offers a one year MBA course, thus allowing a lower expense and the related opportunity cost.

I’d like to emphasize here that INSEAD was a better choice for me. It may not be the case for you. In fact, I’d go on to say that for a randomly selected b-school applicant, Wharton is perhaps the better choice given its strong brand name.

Needless to say, don’t base your decisions solely on b-school rankings. They are too generic to take into account your personal preferences.

That’s it for now – time to enjoy some Ethiopian coffee. All the best for your business school journey. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.

From a 99 percentile in GMAT to the Elevator Pitch approach and from strategy consulting to Ethiopia, Ravi’s story has valuable lessons for applicants serious about getting into the big league. Moreover, his decision to choose INSEAD over Wharton MBA with scholarship shows that ‘fit’ is so much more important than something as intangible as brand value.

Now for some philosophical (and forced) wisdom from the animal kingdom. Sticking your neck out could mean many things. For a turtle, it’s a risk. For a giraffe, it’s a reward. Your outlook, planning and introspection could make all the difference.

[Edit: After the originally published photograph of Ravi with a giraffe was taken out (on the author’s request), the last paragraph may seem out of context. But the message in there is still relevant.]

Also read:
How to get into Wharton

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

9 thoughts on “Why I rejected a Wharton MBA admit with scholarship offer”

  1. Big brands prior to the B-School help a great deal for sure. The point on the best fit was also reasoned well. Really good article.

    Loved the “sticking out the neck” piece in the end.

  2. Well, work with Mckinsey already, and most likely to go back to them, one year is obvious choice. Because in this case MBA barely add something from knowledge perspective. The guy already with McKinsey and most likely to have done good degree.

  3. I think it was a bad decision to go for INSEAD rather than Wharton. Just because Ravi made that pick, it does not validate the choice.

    Also, I would say that brand value of a school is less intangible than the fit it offers.

  4. Chutiya hai! Wharton produces some of the finest consulting and banking professionals in the world. I have an MBA from one of the top 10 business schools in USA, but it’s not a Wharton. When I look at the teaching for kids at Wharton-it’s clearly as good as Stanford or Harvard.
    I have friends from INSEAD who’re now at McKinsey/other big names-they’re are limited only to consulting careers, Wharton preps you for careers in consulting, finance and operations.

  5. What does “fit” mean anyways? If it is something so intangible and ambiguous as culture, that should not be the basis of your decision. But if by “fit” you are talking solely about the pros/cons of what that program offers and how that matches with your professionals goals – fantastic. Business school is an investment, not summer camp, so it should not matter whether or not you bonded with the recruiter during your coffee chat. The only thing that should really matter is ROI. That being said, considering the hefty price tag of a 2 yr full time program, Insead may be a better choice than Wharton from a lifetime earnings ROI point of view, for more people than we”d think.


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