Riah Sathe had set her eyes on a product management career and felt that a top international graduate management program would help her get there faster. The average age for the programs on her target list ranged from 28 to 31 years. And she was 22.
Being well aware of why the top graduate management programs abroad require work experience, she decided to go ahead despite the odds being stacked against her.
Riah’s biggest challenge was to convince the admissions committee that she was ready to share the academic space with fellow students who were considerably older and more experienced than her.
After working in a product development role at Oracle, I realized I wanted to move into product management, a field at the intersection of engineering, design and business. I dreamed of making it to Silicon Valley and I began considering graduate management programs in the US.
As a 22-year-old software engineer in Pune, breaking into the Top-25 US MBA programs seemed impossible. The average admitted student at all these schools was 28 and had 5-7 years of work experience!
Most people advised me to wait a few years before applying so that I would be the “right age”. Although I was younger, I had worked in a diverse range of work environments. I had done a research internship in the Indian public sector and interned in market analyst and design roles while I was a student. At Oracle, I was fortunate to receive fantastic opportunities to grow in my first year out of college. I felt ready to apply and I was very clear on my professional goals.
In a very ambitious attempt, I applied in the Round 1 admissions cycle, with a GRE score of 326.
I first reached out to MBA Crystal Ball for a profile evaluation while I was researching programs. Sameer Kamat gave me extremely honest and to-the-point feedback which helped me stay grounded with realistic expectations.
Though I did not use any application consulting services, I regularly followed the MBA Crystal Ball blog. I read Sameer’s book ‘Beyond the MBA Hype’.
Everyone always talks about the pros of an MBA but I think it is more important to understand the risks and evaluate whether you are ready to take them, so I highly recommend reading this book. I knew exactly what I wanted out of the program and that is what helped me in my applications and in selecting schools.
I did not limit myself to full-time MBA programs and chose to apply to specialized management programs that would help me achieve my goals. Since I was younger, I felt that reputation of the school was important for me to land a good post-MBA job since I would be competing with more experienced peers for those positions. I did not apply to MBA programs outside the top 25 and specialized master’s programs beyond the top 10.
While selecting programs, I took into consideration several factors including course structure, location, concentration on product management, hiring in the tech industry in the Silicon Valley region and strength of alumni network.
I think what helped me stand out in such a competitive applicant pool was that I never did anything with the intent of creating an ‘ideal application’. I think too many people make the mistake of focusing more on extracurricular activities or social work in an attempt to impress admissions. The MBA program should be more of a means to get to your goals rather than an end in itself. All my past experience was very relevant to my future goals and I tried to demonstrate that I was focused.
I received interview invitations for two MBA programs: USC Marshall and Washington University in St. Louis. Out of the specialized master’s programs I applied to, I received interview invitations with Columbia University, Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon.
I had a mix of in-person, Skype and video interviews. A couple of my interviewers mentioned that I was the youngest person invited to interview and a lot of the questions I was asked centered around whether I was ready for the program. I was asked behavioral questions that typically more experienced candidates would be able to answer. It was not just the MBA programs with older students; the average admitted student in the Master of Engineering Management program at Northwestern was 31 years of age!
I successfully converted 4 out of 5 interview calls, landing on the waitlist of both MBA programs. I knew I was waitlisted primarily because of my age, and I provided both schools an update on my career progression to try to demonstrate that I was ready.
After a long wait for decisions, it came down to deciding among three programs: the MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis, the MEM Program at Northwestern University with a 5k scholarship and the MS in Software Management Program at Carnegie Mellon. [related article: Master of Engineering Management (MEM vs MBA
I was in a dilemma choosing between three great programs. I originally applied to Washington University because it offered a concentration in product management and to Northwestern because it allowed me to take the perfect blend of classes with electives at Kellogg School of Management. However, after a lot of contemplation, I chose Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
The MS Program in Software Management at CMU (MS SM) had everything I was looking for. The course structure was perfectly aligned with my goal of product management. Carnegie Mellon University is ranked #1 in the United States for Computer Science and its reputation in the Tech industry is unparalleled. This program is located in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. I couldn’t be happier!
The most important thing I learnt about US admissions is that there is no cookie-cutter approach. Indian applicants should particularly keep this in mind because our educational system is very different from this. Simply getting a certain test score or having a certain number of years of work experience does not automatically qualify you and even if you fall outside the typical range, don’t give up because age really is just a number.