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Problems an average student can face in an elite MBA classroom

Problems of average student in an elite MBA program

Long after you’re done posing and flexing your muscles before your family and friends for cracking into a top MBA college, the truth may dawn upon you – albeit a bit too late. You realise that you’ve unwittingly got gatecrashed into a party that was never meant for you.

Nothing is going right. You are not able to make any meaningful contributions to the class. Your classmates are always a step ahead, even during the club and professional discussions.

You seem to be going into a shell with each passing day, just waiting for the trial to get over and somehow fast forward to graduation day when your American (?) dream will finally come true; or will it? This is the syndrome we explore in-depth in this post.

The typical ‘get in somehow’ approach

An average MBA candidate can be starry eyed and be pulled to doing an MBA in the first place after having observed the glamour associated with big schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Stanford. Most would scramble to get the top names on their resume without even bothering to check if they ‘fit’ in.

How could an average candidate get into an elite university, you may wonder. It’s quite tough, we agree. But considering the flaws in the application process and it’s reliance on a narrow set of parameters (test scores, essays, recos), makes it prone to errors.

There are many consultants who try to game the system by creating a larger-than-life image of candidates to show how their clients are well qualified to fit into the elite program culture. And some succeed.

But this approach isn’t in the interest of the applicants. The fit (or rather the lack of) determines whether you will face some of the aforementioned dilemmas and frustrations.

Let’s explore this a bit more as to what can go wrong:

Problems you may encounter as an average student in an elite MBA program



Several institutes use relative grading. What this means is that even if you score high on an absolute basis, if the entire class if full of bright nerdy kinds, your grade would end up being average.

The general academic rigor can be pretty demanding in the top schools given that they attract candidates who are comfortable with such a setting and may even thrive in it. Another aspect that can be adversely impacted is class participation.

Most good bschools attach a generous weightage to how much you participate in class discussions. Now in a class full of professionals on steroids, you may feel too meek to voice your opinion or may not be aggressive enough to seek the moment when it comes your way.

You may also feel out of place during group assignments – another hallmark of MBA schools. The feeling of being a baggage is not great for most of us and that is exactly what you may feel like if you’ve not bothered to assess your fit.


As a corollary to the above, the same set of classmates will come to hound you come placement time. This is the reason why your American (or Indian, European, Australian etc) dream may not come to pass.

When a recruiter has someone who is sharper – as evinced through a variety of factors and not just grades alone, you can’t really blame her for not signing you up.

The fact that you would be endured the two (or one) years of MBA is unlikely to have done much good to your self-confidence, thereby creating a bit of a vicious cycle which can significantly mar your chances of landing that dream job.

So its not just a trial by fire at the end of which, there is respite necessarily – things may worsen once you finish. The RoI of your investment (MBA programs are costly – read this on how much an MBA costs) may go for a toss. Even if you manage to make it work financially, you may have to make compromises in terms of the job/role/geography/designation you take up.


A bschool is not just about getting a job or gulping down all those enigmatic, exotic financial engineering concepts (or whatever else catches your fancy). It offers a much deeper and all round experience.

But on this front, there are no set expectations. There are no grades for having say the most number of friends or being the member of most number of student run clubs. All of this is voluntary and yours for the taking. You create your own bschool experience outside the classroom (also in the classroom, but within some constraints).

Let’s take the hypothetical case of a candidate who wants to get into strategy consulting. This would typically involve being part of the school’s consulting club and also extensively networking with people/alums from the industry among other things.

At the club, apart from attending events, there are a lot of stuff that happen – resume building workshops, case interview preparations etc. Students tend to form smaller group for these.

Now if you are perceived by your peers to be an ‘ugly’ duckling, chances of you making into one of these groups diminish. Even if a group takes you in graciously, you may not be able to get along freely or may feel you are working with a handicap.

Worse still, you may think that with such a competition, you stand no chance and give up even before trying! This can be really catastrophic and a situation that needs to be urgently avoided.

Shall we play safe then?

Reading up all this, you may feel it is best to be safe than sorry. While the adage has stood the test of times, it does not apply here fully.

Imagine that you play safe and end up in a program where the average student is way below what you can accomplish. While that may mean you excel say at academics but it will not provide you the most ideal peer learning atmosphere – a critical aspect in an MBA program.

Just classroom, books and case studies are never enough for you to fully assimilate some of the more esoteric business concepts. This is why most schools put a lot of emphasis on words such as team work and camaraderie.

If your peer group is average, then the quality of your interactions will be average too. While you may want to aim for the moon, your group may be content in taking just a trans-Atlantic flight – not an ideal scenario for your dreams.

So there you have it. Selecting the right school and assessing the ‘fit’ is a tightrope walk that you need to find the right balance at.

Of course, none of this would apply if you are a genuinely good candidate for the program you got into. We are not trying to discourage you from aiming high. In fact, quite the contrary. But don’t use dubious means to show Adcoms what you think they want to hear.

Even if you succeed in trying to fool them into seeing you as someone who you aren’t, ultimately the joke would be on you.

When it comes to fit, you may want to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth (read Adcom) here – Evaluating ‘Fit’ with an MBA program.

How to actually find the right schools is a much more evolved process on which we’ve tried to shed some light in the past here – How to choose the right business school. Be aware of the perils and let those guide you in doing proper homework before jumping into a place where you may be the odd one out.

Also read:
Lessons from my bad Masters experience: MS in USA
Cultural problems faced by Indian students in USA
Chinese students facing problems in American universities

You may also like this article on Things to do once you are in the MBA Program
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Manish Gupta
About Manish Gupta
Chief Consulting Officer at MBA Crystal Ball, ex-McKinsey, IIT & ISB topper. MG can help you get into the top B-schools. Read more about this top MBA admissions consultant. Connect with MG on Linkedin, Facebook or Email: mcb [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

10 thoughts on “Problems an average student can face in an elite MBA classroom”

  1. I think this is a very useful topic. Lots of people I know often wonder about it , but it’s become sort of taboo to talk about it. But it bothers everyone. The ever so famous imposter syndrome. Now, do we fight it out and thrive or get crushed is what needs to be seen. I know it’s hard to know for sure, but do you have any anecdotes that you can share about some students that you know? Keeping them anonymous ofcourse.

  2. Thanks for pitching in, Manasa. You are right. This is a topic that most MBA students (or programs) aren’t willing to talk about openly, but it’s a real problem.

    We get emails and even calls for help from several such MBA students in India and abroad who managed to punch above their weight and get into top schools where their capabilities are clearly no match for what the bschools expect (by their own submission).

    Some have issues adapting to the intense academics, others are unable to cope up with the non-academic parts (extra curriculars, job hunting, networking). Being in a class filled with super-achievers isn’t easy. Every day seems like a competition, and once you’ve fallen into a rut, it becomes easy to find a good support system.

    There have been a few cases where students have considered dropping out of the programs as well.

    Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to help such people. So we thought of writing this article, which we didn’t see any other site covering. It’s easier for students and bschools to talk about rosy things, and the amazing experiences during an MBA (the MBA ego is a complex beast).

    We hope applicants who are yet to get into a bschool, take a step back and ask themselves if the road they are taking is right for them. It ain’t a science, but a really honest look at yourself should usually suffice.

  3. Hi MG,

    I am pharma professional working as International Business Development Manager. I have total 6 years of experience in Pharma in the areas of domestic product management and international business. I have completed MBA in marketing in 2010 from B.K.School of Business Management, Ahmedabad.

    My goal is to do a program which can enhance my prospects of working in the field of strategy and business development with Top Pharma MNCs in US.

    Kindly advice.



    • Mohnish,

      In general, pharma is not a big recruiter of international MBA candidates – so make sure you research more and assess whether MBA is even the right next step before you put in a lot of time/money into it.

      If you do decide to go ahead, prefer regular MBA programs instead of specialized healthcare ones in general.

  4. Hi MG,

    It is great to see someone answering so many questions patiently. I am a 29 yr old female with 6 yrs of supply chain experience in manufacturing and e commerce industries. I did my b tech in industrial engineering and PGDM in operations ( IIM ).

    Past experiences :

    US Automotive firm: Supply chain performance, six sigma & lean (soon after engg)

    Indian Automotive firm : Program Manager

    Leading E commerce firm : Handling end to end supply chain design

    Logistics Start up : Heading strategy

    Rank holder under grand , G-Sec at IIM , International certifications etc

    I absolutely love operations and it was my prime focus during PGDM.
    However as I started progressing in my career to leadership roles I realised the importance of marketing and finance to develop a holistic approach to problem solving. I also feel that an early MBA and work experience entirely based out of India leaves one handicapped to handle global roles.

    As GMAT has only 20% weight age do you think my profile stands a chance at any of these colleges? ( Insead, HEC, MIT, IMD )


  5. Hi MG
    Need an advise from expert and after reading the above thought you can guide me correctly. I am 35 Years Old and in Merchant Navy and have experience of around 14years , i am going to sail as Captain this time and thinking to quit sea.I have Bsc Nautical science equivalency certificate from India and UK.I am planning to take a year off from work and prepare for GMAT thoroughly and then apply to B schools for MBA basis my score.Please advise if the age factor will come as hindrance into application?Rgds


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