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Differentiation: A big challenge for Indian MBA applicants

Self-help gurus from across the world have made millions convincing readers that they are unique. When some of these Indian readers with pumped-up egos, sit down to fill up an MBA application form, they experience what many Stephen Hawking students never will – a big black hole.

How do you differentiate yourself from other MBA applicants?

The question seems logical as long as it’s on the business school website. It becomes annoying when you try to answer it. This is true for many Indian applicants who score above 700 on the GMAT.

Admission officers struggle with the same problem while evaluating Indian applications (Indian IT Male Engineer: Competing in the toughest applicant pool). While they try to provide general ideas on the official business school blogs on what MBA application reviewers are looking for, these are mostly country-neutral in nature i.e. not aimed specifically at Indian applicants.

Sudershan ‘Suds’ Tirumala (Regional Director, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth), shares his views on the topic.

How You Can Differentiate Your MBA Application

Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsDuring the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with MBA applicants across the length and breadth of India, a few constants have unfailingly stood out for me:

1. It’s obvious applicants want to get admitted to a brand name school. What that brand will do for them, whether it’s the right place for them, whether they will be a good fit in the program – these critical questions mostly come up by accident, if at all they do.

2. Indian applicants tend to think they’ve achieved it all, if they get a good GMAT score – which is far from the truth, by the way.

3. Consulting is, by far, the one career path Indians talk about the most. A vast majority of the applicants I’ve talked to want to be associated with consulting one way or another!
Read Tips for differentiation – For MBA applicants coming from Management Consulting background.

Over the next few – or however many – posts, I’ll try to debunk or reinforce the seemingly infallible logic that’s held in high esteem by the applicant community.

Over time, we’ll even explore the rationale for some of these observations or maybe get into answering other questions posed by the discerning readers of this blog, but first, let’s start with the applicant story.

The typical MBA aspirant from India who is targeting a business school, articulates a line of thought, that almost uniformly sounds somewhat like this.

– I’ve got my degree in engineering from so and so university and I’ve been an integral part of the college “tech fest” as an organizer

– After undergrad, I’ve been working in XYZ industry in such and such capacity and have been very involved with extracurricular activities through the company’s CSR initiatives

– I’ve set my sights on an MBA to advance my career further in the industry I’ve been a part of

– After the MBA, I want to get into consulting in order to be exposed to best practices that are being followed across industries and projects

– After a few years of this kind of experience, I’ll come back to India and apply these best practices to make a difference in the country and to the sector of my interest

– And I want to make it all happen through this MBA program because of its strong alumni network, collaborative community, learning in the classroom as well as experiential learning – the works. You can basically plug and play any MBA program in the world and hope to sound somewhat authentic.

Does the above story sound familiar?

Do you reckon the numbers of admissions officers from MBA programs around the world who maybe hearing a similar story or a close variation of it from Indian applicants over and over again?

How do you expect the admissions officers to react to these monologues that sound more or less identical?

Given this incessant onslaught on the senses of those of us evaluating applications, how do you expect the admissions committee of a given school to separate the wheat from chaff, figuratively speaking?

Make no mistake, it’s as much a challenge for those of us evaluating candidates as it is for the applicants who are articulating these “uniquely” Indian stories and trying to make a convincing case of their candidacy.

What do you do about it?

What can the applicant do, to stand out from the crowd and be seen as the elusive wheat rather than the ubiquitous chaff?

– The key is in being genuine, and that doesn’t mean being genuine for the sake of it

– It’s about meaning what you say and saying what you mean

– It’s about taking the time to do enough introspection

– It’s about thinking through and identifying what it means to be you, and staying true to that self

– It’s about figuring out what makes you tick and what really gets you excited

– It’s about distilling the message about your aims and aspirations to such an extent that you can say it even in your sleep

– It’s about applying when you’re absolutely ready to make as strong a case for yourself in the application and not be in a hurry to apply for the sake of a deadline

– And finally, it’s about following your passion and doing what you love and not loving what you do

It’s as simple or as complicated as that, depending on how one looks at it. Sometimes, this sort of introspection takes time, and it’s not something to be forced upon oneself based on some arbitrary business school deadline.

It so happens that the prospective MBA applicant wakes up to the need to effect a change in their lives somewhat suddenly.

Maybe it’s an unsavory development on the job front.

Maybe it’s a quarter-life crisis of redefining yourself – having gone through the motions of an undergraduate degree that is mostly a result of following what all their peers have been doing and not because of independent thought.

Maybe it’s that urge to scale up the corporate ladder faster. Maybe it’s just to beat the monotony that unfailingly sets in every few years when pursuing a career.

Whatever the reason, the fact that this realization has dawned is a good thing. But try not to succumb to the usual suspect narrative that has been forced down the throats of MBA aspirants.

Remember how you went after an engineering degree or a medical degree because everyone else was doing the same thing?And somehow, not following that path would mean you were the nail that dared to rear its head above the rest and so would face the hammer?

Well, what’s the point of thinking about an MBA if you sound exactly the same as everyone else? How are you different from the crowd? Why are you the most deserving candidate for an admission compared to the rest of the applicants from India?

Give this some serious thought. And then give yourself the time you deserve to really think through your priorities and your objectives. Forums are great to network with fellow applicants but when it comes to getting more information about a school, rely on your outreach to the Admissions Committee of the school you’re interested in. That’s as official as it can get, in terms of information regarding that school.

Finally, be your own person. Chart your own way. Follow your heart. And then see what a difference it makes to you personally, professionally, and intellectually. That’s the way to rise above the crowd.

MBA Crystal Ball admission consultants work with tons of candidates competing in the over-represented applicant pools. Drop us an email if you’d like us to help you stand out from the crowd, in the super-competitive admissions process. info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

Also read: How differentiating myself got me MBA admits in USA (full scholarship) and India

Read the interviews with the Admission Committee officers of many other top bschools.

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Sudershan Tirumala
About Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

22 thoughts on “Differentiation: A big challenge for Indian MBA applicants”

  1. Very insightful. But, what I noticed in most of these articles though is that the focus tends to be on what not to write/how a template application sounds like, rather than how a “me too” profile can be put forward in an interesting manner. I know every individual is unique, but an example written from an admin official’s POV will definitely help us understand how to write one ourselves. Thank you for your article sir.

    • Hi Meghana,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s true that most articles talk about what not to write. That’s because what not to write is a smaller universe to tackle than what to write, which can be potentially limitless.

      To your question on how a “me too” profile can be put forward in an interesting manner, the rule is that there are no rules.

      While staying true to yourself – your career goals and your love for a particular school – make your essay engaging. Tell the admissions committee how you have worked hard to get to know about that school, why you are the best candidate they should be considering.

      In short, demonstrate something that few Indian applicants really think about – fit. Once you start thinking seriously about fit, believe me, the essays will flow naturally, and even a “me too” answer will stand out. Let’s make that the next blog topic. Stay tuned.

      I want to take this opportunity to talk to all the readers of this blog: if there are burning questions you want pose on this platform, I’ll take a stab at addressing them (let me state upfront that I may not have answers to all your questions, but will try my best to give you an honest opinion).

      Onward and upward!


  2. Hi Sameer,

    Thank you for bringing Sudershan on board to share his views here on MCB.It’s a great initiative.

    Hi Suds,

    Thank you Sir for sharing your perspective with the readers of MCB.Really appreciate that.I just wanted your opinion on how Schools would look at failures.I did engineering & went on to work for 3 years in a start up.Did well there but decided to quit my job to pursue Civil Services/IAS(purely a personal decision). 4 years & 3 attempts later,out of which 2 attempts included reaching the Personal Interview stage (less than 1% of applicants reach this stage),i didn’t get selected.

    I recently got back to my job.Now,my question to you is, in future if i intend to pursue MBA from good schools,how would they look at my failure? Would they reject my application outright given the long career break?Would my chances of securing an admission into good schools diminish considerably ? It would be great if you can shed some light on this aspect(failures/career breaks ) & how to present ones case to Schools in such a scenario.

    • Akash,

      Thanks for the note. You raise a very important point that deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll answer it in a more detailed manner soon.

      Quickly though, people take career breaks for any number of reasons. The fact that there is a career break isn’t the most important issue. What’s important is how have you utilized the break? There are people who experience burn-out and take a break to travel for a year. Is that a waste of time? Absolutely not. They have simply used the break to rejuvenate and think deeply about themselves and reflect on the larger purpose of life.

      There are so many people who work in startups. It’s also true that for every one start up that’s successful, there are a hundred others that are languishing or have altogether failed. Does being associated with a failed startup or one that’s going sideways a show-stopper for the employees who want to move on to other things? Absolutely not. Failures are the most important teachers.

      The question then comes down to how you are articulating your experiences in the essays. Are you projecting them as a failure or are you writing about them as learning experiences? How have they changed you as a person? All of those aspects are valid parts of your experience. Think of what you have gained from it all, and how that’s made you a better individual than you were before. Hope that gives you some food for thought.

      I’ll write on this very important topic soon enough. In the meantime, keep those questions coming!


      • Suds,

        Thank you so much Sir for sharing your insights.It surely helps.I look forward to your upcoming blog post on the same topic.I am sure the readers will gain from that.

  3. Hi sir,

    I have completed my engineering a couple of years ago from a pretty reputed college in India. But due to the interest I had developed in finance during my last year in college I decided to do something about it. Hence, instead of taking up the typical IT jobs being offered on campus, I took up a job as a trader on the US equity markets. It was a tough job the attrition rate was too high and i really loved the adrenalin rush but soon realized that finance was extremely vast and I needed to learn more of it.

    So after an year of trading I quit to appear for my CFA level 1 and 2 in quick succession, in the hope that I would get a shot at proper investment banking. Now after a tiring job search I have been able to land a job in the strategy and m&a team of a corporate hospital (with great help from my alumni network, I must add). I intend to write my CFA level 3 exams this June.

    Everything I have done so far will I think help me a lot during my MBA admissions and especially after. I’ll be trying for the 2018 or 2019 intakes.

    Now the bit of the application I am not sure how to tackle, the poor engineering grades (2.8/4 according to the U.S. grading system) basically because I wasn’t very serious about grades back then. My extracurricular in college was quite strong, I captained my swimming and water polo teams and also handled an office in the student body.

    Will a decent gmat score of around 720-730 help me get past this and into a great b-school (top 15).

    I have been the nail which has tried to stick its head out Sudarshan sir, do u think my goals are attainable or am I being too dreamy. Will I be a good fit? What more can I do to improve my chances?

  4. Nits,

    Thanks for sharing your background and appreciate your question. The following is just my take on it.

    GMAT alone doesn’t make or break an application neither does academic performance alone. Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle. Each aspect of the MBA application – the essays, the work experience, the academic performance, extracurricular activities, recommendations, GMAT, etc. – is a piece of the puzzle.

    When the Admissions Committee is evaluating your application, they’re trying to see if there’s a good enough picture of Nits that’s taking shape. If the picture forms pretty well, chances are you’ll hear from the school for an interview. If a coherent picture is not getting formed, then there’s an issue with the application.

    Think of your application as a whole and not in terms of bits and pieces. So what if your academic record is not so strong? Make your GMAT strong to show that you’re analytical skills are fine. With the CFA certification, you’re already demonstrating you’re good at quantitative stuff.

    Consider a school not by its ranking (which is another topic that might need its own blog post), but by what it offers and whether it’s a place that speaks to you and satisfies your requirement of what you want to get out of the MBA – both in terms of the experience while you’re in business school and when you’re ready to pursue your career.

    In the meantime, do as good a job as you can in your current healthcare M&A role. And then see how things evolve. Don’t look so much in the rear view mirror that you ignore what’s coming in front of you.

    Hope that helps.


  5. Hello Sudarshan,

    Few facts such as wanting to climb up the corporate ladder and getting into consulting for it’s name are a high percentage.However do you think the whole picture that a student stages in order to achieve an admit in a b school is the result of a preset format that most of the b schools are searching for.
    I truly agree on the introspection part and would like to ask as an Indian applicant if the Inner calling calls for consulting which would require a career change,how should one place his case ?

  6. Ambar,

    Thanks for your comment. There will be plenty of opportunities in upcoming blog posts to discuss this and other questions that will surely be posed by readers such as yourself. You ask another important question regarding career switchers and how they should put forward their case in front of an admissions committee.

    To clarify quickly though, schools are not looking for a preset format answers to any of the questions. They want to get to you know you as an individual, your aspirations, and why you think that school is the best school for you to accomplish those aspirations. The challenge is that a majority of Indian applicants give similar answers. The world is wide open, so why pigeon hole oneself into believing that there’s only one career option out there that can deliver Nirvana? That’s like saying there’s nothing better than engineering or medicine to pursue after 12th standard – and that’s the mindset I’m trying to challenge.

    So there’s no preset format that business schools are expecting. As for career switchers, that’s topic for another day. Stay tuned.


  7. Hi Suds,

    Thanks for taking time to help out such a massive demographic that’s been out there on their own. My case is a bit unique as in, I did not follow my peers and was lucky enough to get into what I thought I liked at that point, gaming and computer science. I wanted to get a different perspective than my peers so I decided to move out of India with whatever limited finances I could bundle up. To support my studies in Canada I worked night jobs in Indian restaurants and now I am a software developer for a leading bank here, currently interviewing with Delloite for an IT consulting role. I have been following Tuck since one of the people I admire told me about it and I’ve never looked back. A little bit of background before my direct question for you: I did not pursue a conventional undergraduate degree right away due to the associated costs and length, and went for an advance diploma(3 years) and I am starting a 2 year program which is intended for working professionals to get their undergrad if they have an associates degree or advanced diploma in the related major. My question, now, is that I want to apply to Tuck (and only to Tuck) but I don’t have a conventional academic background. I do have a 5 year work experience at an age of 25 but I wanted to know if I am wasting my time as I am not a glorified scholar (above par barely counts). A good gmat score would obviously be there as part of my application but how would I put my unique situation on an admissions essay.

  8. Zishan,

    Thanks for the comment and your question. I’m not sure what is the exact diploma you have, but if it’s anything like India’s BCA, B.Sc. etc., Tuck does accept application from individuals with 15 years of education (12 + 3-years degree) Vs. the traditional 12+4-year degree (such as engineering). As you continue your research of Tuck and prepare to apply, happy to answer questions along the way. Good luck with the application process!


  9. Hi Suds,

    I am an Indian pursuing Masters in Compter Science at the University of Pennsylvania with a 3.9 GPA (expected) . My undergrad GPA 3.54 from Birla Institute of Technology, where I graduated in First class with Distinction. Before starting my Masters I had a 3 year Software Engineering experience at at a US based product company, where I filed 2 USPTO patents, won the annual hackathon and got promoted once. I also have good GRE score- 338/340, 4.0 AWA. In Masters I took classes on Statistics and aced them (A), though I have poor math score in undergrad.

    Regarding my Masters- I felt like I needed more depth in CS fundamentals, and also it opens up the opportunity to work at top Tech companies as a Software Engineer. After my graduation, I am fairly confident to land in the US offices of Google/ Microsoft/ Amazon/ Facebook.
    Now that I am confident of my technical skills, I want to get an MBA to gain a broader overview of businesses and also network with the right people so that I can propel my career to a PM/ strategy role at Tech companies (so I am looking more at Sloan, Kellogg’s MMM or Haas). From my 3 years of pre-Masters experience, I have observed that strong CS fundamentals coupled with business/marketing chops make a very succesful Product Manager.

    Now I have a couple of queries, would love to have your feedback, if you have some time-

    1. Will my Masters in CS pose a threat for BSchool admits? Given that I wish to return to Tech after MBA. Do my goals seems feasible? Will my story stick?

    2. Do I need to take the GMAT or would my GRE (170Q/168V/4.0AWA) suffice too? Is it competitive enough to make it to top programs?

    3. Now the biggest dilemma- age factor. I heard that high workex can curb my chances at top B-schools, but frankly speaking, I need to work for atleast 2 years to pay back my student loans. So that means at the earliest I can apply at 29 (would be 30 when I start the program), with 5 years of Software Engg experience. Does that sound bad to you?

    4. I have minimal leadership experience (was a TA at Penn, teams I led won hackathons). Once I join job after MS, I plan to get involved with an NGO or the CSR initiatives of my company. Any other pointers on what I could do?

    5. Does my profile “stand out” from the crowd ? Any other activities do you suggest to strengthen my case. I still have 3 years in my hand before applying.

    Thank you so much,

    • Souptik,

      Thanks for the note and for the comment. While I’d love to understand why Tuck doesn’t make it to your list, I’ll go ahead and answer your questions to the extent I can.

      First, there’s no issue with your plans of going for business school having got technical work experience. People do that all the time. The idea is to communicate your thoughts clearly through your essays/interview and convince the Admissions Committee of the school in question that you’re the best candidate.

      Schools don’t expect people to be leading teams before they come to business school – they’d like to find out how you work in teams, whether you’re able to interact well with peers, etc. – mostly, they want to know you’re not a one-dimensional personality (only technical skills or only academics… you know what I’m saying). As long as you’re able to demonstrate you’re able to work well in teams, that should be good enough.

      Earlier, schools used to emphasize GMAT, but most schools now accept GRE as well, so you’re in good shape. Don’t have to worry about giving GMAT unless you’re itching to get that also going and not leave any stone unturned.

      Your goals seem logical and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to continue in an industry that you’ve been associated with for some time. MS in CS will not be a negative. If anything, since you’ve excelled in graduate studies and your GRE is fantastic, you’ve demonstrated your quantitative abilities pretty well.

      Age is not so much an issue. You apply when you think it’s right for you and when you think you’re able to put up the best application possible. Not sure why you think more experience is a bad thing. If it’s any help, the average work experience for students coming to Tuck is 5 years.

      I just want to caution you not to get into “check box” mode – doing things for doing sake – NGO/CSR/leadership, adding them to your resume – it just gives me a feel that you’re going through the motions and not exactly sure what you want to accomplish through the MBA. Do what you believe in. Take time to figure out what that is.

      Your profile stands out as much as anyone else’s. The point is how much effort you’ve taken to understand which school fits you best, and what sort of research you’ve done to identify what is it that makes you, you. And once you’ve picked the school that fits your criteria, go all out. For more on fit, look up my post precisely on that topic and try to gain more insights into the school that speaks most to you. Don’t just go by rankings or hearsay.

      Hope that helps. All the best and don’t hesitate to reach out in case you have any other questions.


      • Hi Suds,

        Thank you so much for your positive words, it means so much to me. The advice you wrote (both in this article as well as the one on Culture fit for BSchools) are spot on for any MBA aspirant out there- thank you so much for helping us out. I am looking forward to see more from you on this blog.

        Regarding why I kept out Tuck from the discussion- I have just started researching out BSchools and was yet to research on Tuck. I apologize, I have always been a slow researcher. But over the weekend I read a lot on Tuck and I would place it anyday on the top of my list, just for the case study method of teaching. I had taken a class on Machine learning which taught using the case study method, and the fact that I still remember every minute discussion from that class is a proof of the effectiveness of this method, and I am a big fan of it (as a matter of fact now I am also looking at Darden for the same reason). Another factor that stands out at Tuck is the culture of collaboration among peers (read on Quora that Tuck is among the friedliest and most collaborative Bschools). As a part of the Tech industry, we firmly beleive in the adage that “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”, infact it is this culture of collaboration and mingling with smart people that I love this industry so much.

        That being said, from a very superficial analysis I found that the major thrust of Tuck is in Consulting and General Management (which is expected, given the culture of problem solving ingrained by using the cae study approach). Can you comment on the Tech recruiting scene at Tuck? Though I totally understand that many Tuck alumni do jump from consulting to Tech in many cases, and as a matter of fact I am open to good Consulting gig too, to start with.


        • Souptik,

          All good questions. First and foremost, Tuck has a healthy mix of case study and lecture in many courses. The professor can decide to teach the concept first and then reinforce it with a relevant case or have the case first for students to discuss and then bring out the concepts through the discussion.

          Not sure where you heard or read about Tuck being strong only in consulting or general management. The MBA you get after graduating from Tuck is in general management – meaning you won’t get an MBA in finance or strategy or some other area. You graduate as a general manager who is able to pursue whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. The electives that you take in the second year and the real-world projects you do with your classmates, whether those companies are based in the US or overseas – all of these experiences will propel you towards your career goals, whatever those may be.

          For the record, the Career Development Office (CDO) at Tuck has recruiting relationships with 900 companies from the every conceivable industry, and there are 280 students in every class. That should give you an idea of how companies typically compete to get Tuckies in their fold.

          Consulting is one of the things Indian students take up because they’re typically enamored with “brand” on their resume whether or not consulting is the right career for them. That’s their call. Having said that, Indian students who know they don’t want to pursue consulting have, for years, been successful in careers in investment banking, technology, manufacturing, general management, corporate strategy, corporate finance, startups, entrepreneurship, and so on and so forth. For whatever it’s worth, Amazon is a big recruiter at Tuck, and Google, Apple, Microsoft and a number of other technology firms regularly recruit at Tuck. For those who have specific interests in going and working in a specific company that doesn’t necessarily come to Tuck, the CDO has enough connections to be able to set you up with an opportunity to speak to people in that company because there’s always a Tuck alum who’s involved in that space or in that company.

          Tuckies care for Tuckies, so no matter when someone has graduated, Tuck alums go out of their way to make things happen for them. That’s why you hear so much about why the Tuck network is the strongest in the world across all business schools.

          Having said all that, if tech is your thing, do yourself a favor and don’t speak of getting into consulting!! Continue your research and happy to answer any other questions.


  10. Great article Suds. You are absolutely right in saying that the candidate has to stand out and provide a compelling profile to admissions team at Tuck or any other Ivey league school

    • Hammad,

      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, a candidate has to put the best foot forward – every step of the way – during the application process. Good luck with your application!


  11. Suds, your post gave me goosebumps! and that happens every time I experience an inspiring read! thank you for writing this and sharing! After reading what you wrote here, I ended up recording a few sentences about myself for a college application I would eventually write. Thanks again for all the positivity!

    • Monisha,

      Thanks for your note – glad to hear you found inspiration from the post. Ride it and make things happen for your MBA and beyond! And don’t hesitate to reach out along the way if needed.



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