The number of MBA applicants hiring consultants has seen a sharp rise in the last few years, as the competition has only seen an upward trend. It’s also become very confusing for applicants who research the market, review the best MBA consultants and their pricing and ultimately hire one.
A few, like Santosh Kher (name changed), decide to spread the risk by working with multiple teams. With a 3-year bachelors degree (B.Com, 15 years of education), CFA/FRM certification and equity research / business development experience, his profile was different – compared to the Indian IT male engineers who make up the bulk of the applicant pool. And so were the challenges.
After working with the other admissions consulting teams in Round 1, Santosh finally came to us…in Round 2 (read why chances in Round 2 are lesser than in Round 1). His work with MBA Crystal Ball helped him get a $72,000 scholarship from Emory, the school he’s ultimately joining.
Read Santosh’s ‘agonisingly long‘ (to use his words) account of his MBA application journey along with reviews of ApplicantLab, MBA Crystal Ball and other consultants he worked with.
Born and brought up in Delhi, I am an out-an-out “Delhi Boy” who grew up watching and loving Bollywood movies. Sports and fitness has been integral to my life and I hope it remains like that. Someone who looks to draw inspiration from everyone around, I see this article as an opportunity to share my experiences to possible inspire and help a few out there.
As an undergrad student, I was fairly active in extra-curriculars which included debating and social-entrepreneurship. After completing my undergrad in commerce, I joined one of India’s largest firm providing ratings, research, and risk and policy advisory services as an equity research analyst and relocated to Mumbai. I consider this to be a life-changing experience for me as I had never been around such motivated, professional and focussed individuals before. I pursued CFA & FRM programs simultaneously – The curriculum of the CFA program helped me directly (and immensely) in my job which involved Industry & Company Analysis, Financial Modelling, Forecasting and Valuation.
After spending about 2.5 years in this role, I transitioned into business development (BD) for the same set of services and beyond. While my stint as an equity-research analyst helped me hone my analytical skills, BD provided me an opportunity to nurture my skills in building and managing client relationships by leveraging my analytical ability. Helping me grow professionally as well as personally, BD gave my profile a holistic touch.
While I got to learn a lot about finance and analysis from the CFA and FRM curriculums, I always wanted to be in an atmosphere where I could learn the application of the same. My job did extend this privilege to me, but I longed for an environment where I could learn from top faculties who happen to be ex-bankers, ex-consultants, investors and so on. Also, I am a strong believer of peer-to-peer learning. Learning about industries right from the people who have experienced those first-hand can seldom have a better alternate. Hence MBA.
I was quite unsure of my chances given the highly-competitive over-represented Indian males which culminated into making my GMAT score of 720 look average. Also, while I knew that I wanted to stick to finance as my Post-MBA goal, I was unsure of “What” in finance (IB, Corporate Finance, Financial Advisory, PE). While I don’t want to dig deep here, I would just advise the potential MBA candidates to not fret over things which aren’t in your control. It doesn’t help and it’s something that I regret, in hindsight.
Riding high on clearing CFA and FRM programs, I underestimated the might of GMAT and bombed the exam on my first attempt which was purely based on solving the Official Guide and opting for a group coaching which wasn’t worth it. I neither made a strategy nor followed any plan.
Devastated, I decided to take a “break”. I realised that I need to unlearn a lot of things and approach this exam differently. After referring to the traditional GMAT study material (Manhattan guides and GMAT Official Guide), I figured out the areas I needed to work on.
I would like to mention Chiranjeev Singh (CJ) and Rajiv Sharma here, who helped me address my specific issues. They are great coaches who genuinely want to help.
After slogging a lot, I reached to decent GMAT score from an Indian’s perspective. Still not confident about the score, I took the exam two more times but got a similar score on both attempts. Although it was more than a 100-point improvement (590 to 720) from my first attempt, I wasn’t really ecstatic with my score (read greed). Given that I was late in the game (it was September already), I decided to go ahead with it.
As a broader suggestion, I would urge the GMAT test takers to let go of the pressure. I wrote my GMAT with a broken right hand after an unfortunate accident 5 days before my attempt. In hindsight, it took away the pressure from me as I was already prepared to retake the exam once more. With such flexibility on offer, there is no point taking so much pressure. Easier said than done though, agreed!
I was really lucky to have a very close friend who had applied to B-schools back in 2015. Though he was unsuccessful that time, he learnt a lot from those experiences and shared all those experiences with me generously. In that sense, I was not in a position where I didn’t know anything about the applications to B-schools.
However, as I started writing, I felt I required professional help to evaluate and put my stories together. This thought also stemmed from the fact that I was quite desperate to enroll into an MBA this year itself and not experiment. Hence, I decided to take professional help.
I reached out to the MBA consulting community and (foolishly) asked a lot of them to provide me a list of schools that I could apply to with my profile.
I also had a brief chat with Sameer Kamat and Manish Gupta (MG) and tried to understand. I received a response which did not make me happy – “purely’ from a GMAT perspective, the list might be tad on the aggressive side”. On trying to probe deeper, I was made clear that it would require a deeper analysis of my profile, goals and so on.
I zeroed down on someone who fully met the above two points. Not satisfied with the intelligence that I was receiving from my first consultant, I decided to opt for the ApplicantLab which is a self-help tool on a friend’s recommendation.
This turned out to be a boon for me and I wish I had opted for it much earlier. ApplicantLab’s career-maps and brainstorming modules are exactly what one needs to introspect about themselves, their career goals and arranging their unique stories in one place.
Maria Wich-Vila, ApplicantLab’s founder, has done a terrific job in an attempt to level the MBA admissions playing field. I loved the school-wise and school-specific advice Maria had on offer with a full blown-access to the platform (across schools) at a highly reasonable price point.
The school-specific advice comes in form of videos in which Maria talks very passionately about each essay and the appropriate structure to it.
This comes with a caveat – ApplicantLab would work like a charm for self-starters and self-motivated folks. However, candidates not clear about their target schools or goals might well face challenges to be confident about their progress in the tool. The same happened with me. My goals essay was all over the place!
While I was happy with the ApplicantLab, I felt I still might require individual help and personalised feedback on school selection and essays, to be doubly sure.
Also, you might reach a stage in the ApplicantLab where your notes about yourself might get too much for you to process. For people who are great at processing/arranging a lot of information and who have time on hand might be better off than others.
For these reasons, I enrolled with MBA Crystal Ball for my round 2 applications. More on that later.
I applied to Rotman, Georgetown and Olin using the intelligence from ApplicantLab and essay editing from my first consultant. The criteria for selecting the B-schools was purely the “ease” of getting in. Yes, so much for “admissions consulting”.
I wasn’t very confident of my chances, which also reflected in the result – Reject without interviews from Olin and Rotman. However, I made it Georgetown, which helped in get some belief back in myself.
Interestingly, Georgetown did not have a goals essay unlike the other two schools. This helped me realise that my goals essays were all over the place and my experience with the first consultant wasn’t helping much in that aspect.
Not satisfied with the experience with this consultant and not willing to take any more chances, I opted for another consultant to apply to ISB in round 1 itself. This experience was relatively better and far more professional. I intentionally enrolled for a single school this time as I wanted to make an informed choice this time around.
Having experienced a lot in Round 1, I needed to know where I stand. I wrote back to MG from MBA Crystal Ball expressing my interest in the MAP MAP from MBA Crystal Ball. It was exactly what I needed.
I was mapped with a coach who happened to be a Stanford MBA Grad (a super humble guy named AG, who also got into Harvard) and effortlessly understood my profile.
I cant understate the importance of this process. I realised that there was no basis to my school selection in Round 1. I got to know where I stood. It also helped me regain my lost confidence as the schools which MG referred to as “aggressive” earlier, turned out to be categorised as “practical” for me after the thorough evaluation using MBA MAP.
For those with raised eyebrows, I want to make it clear once again that NO ONE can tell you which schools would be a good fit for you basis a cursory look at you CV and GMAT score.
AG also helped me “read” the categories in which the schools were categorized – Ambitious, Stretch, Practical, Safe and Backup – in the MBA MAP report. Understanding that for me was very important as I wanted to know which schools I have a fair shot at.
On probing if I could consider some of the “ambitious” and “Stretch” schools, AG came up with an impressive perspective – If I was open to give my MBA applications another chance next year, I should DEFINITELY fancy my chances in some of those category schools – else stick to a combination where the chances could be maximized.
This again re-iterates that it’s you and your priorities who’ll be driving your ship, and not your consultant.
Cut to applications, I realised that all this while, I was trying to write something which I thought the adcoms would love to read. My drafts were full of buzzwords which only happen to sound jazzy. I used to dread the “Goals” essay which was a result of I not being clear of my goals. Brainstorming with AG helped me be confident of writing what I wanted to do.
As a comparison, my former consultant (from another consulting company) always pushed me to write something which a particular school was famous for – for example, Consulting for a school which is “known” as a consulting major school.
But while working with MBA Crystal Ball, AG made me understand that’s not how things work. Each candidate is unique and an adcom doesn’t prefer people coming with a particular goal or background.
AG helped me brought a lot of clarity and simplicity in my essays with no compromise on the strength of content. I relished the entire experience of working with him, irrespective of the outcome of my applications.
My interview preparation with AG was one-of-a-kind. It started with AG sharing a list of potential interview questions with me. He consciously avoided few questions in that list to maintain the element of surprise in an interview. Having interviewed twice already successfully, I was brimming with confidence that I could handle this part comfortably.
I always imagined myself as someone who was good at handling situations. However, few of the questions really stumped me to the extent that I just couldn’t come up with a response. That was a wake-up call for me, to be honest.
I put all my energies towards focusing on every aspect of an interview, be it the traditional questions or the off-beat ones. I also understood that there are no “right” answers to a lot of questions. Other neglected factors like the delivery, confidence, smile-on-your-face, and your ability to listen and appreciate play a far more significant role.
While each school puts out information comprehensively, I can’t emphasize the importance of reaching out to the students and alumni of the schools. The insights on their experiences with their peers, faculty, employment opportunities, major events on campus cannot be gleaned through browsing the school’s website or through other content available online.
Also, each one I reached out to was super supportive and was ready to help. I was humbled with each conversation I had with these people.
Start connecting with students/alum now!
Having said that, I’d also encourage people to not get too influenced by strong opinions coming from students & alums. Everyone speaks from their experiences, which differ considerably. Listen and absorb.
I received interview invites from Georgetown, ISB, UNC and Emory. As a general advice, I would recommend reading your application at least thrice before your interview for consistency and other various factors.
My first interview invite came from Georgetown. It was a huge relief and a confidence booster. I interviewed over skype with an adcom member. The interview questions were mostly behavioural hovering around my goals, why Georgetown, leadership experience, what I like to do outside work, and if I had any questions for them.
The interview went smooth. My interaction with students and alums helped me figure out what I wanted to ask the interviewer.
Avoid asking questions the answer to which is easily available on the University’s website. It reveals lack of research. Georgetown sticks to its notifications deadline which happened to be ~2 months after my interview. I received an admit from Georgetown with a $20k scholarship.
After a long wait, I received an invite from ISB – which happened to be my top priority school from the very start. The interview experience was pleasant. I was interviewed by two alums – each of whom came across as really humble. It was again a behavioural interview focussing around goals, quality of prior experience (~40% of time was spent on this and some leadership experiences I had), why MBA and why ISB.
The interview preparation with my ISB consultant helped me a lot to position myself appropriately. It didn’t only help me for ISB’s interview but also for the subsequent interview. After pushing the results deadline by a week, on December 12th, three weeks after my interview, I was delighted to see an email popping into my mailbox with an admit. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night.
The experience with UNC adcom wasn’t great, more because of external factors. I was made to wait for half-an-hour from the scheduled interview time with no updates from the interviewer (It was over skype). After a lot of confusion, an hour of wait and technical issue from their side, the interview finally happened over a voice-call.
Though the interview went smooth, I did not come out feeling confident, unlike my prior two experiences. I was waitlisted.
I received an in-person interview invite from Emory on the same night as my Georgetown admit. I interviewed with an adcom member in Delhi. The questions were in-line with those asked in my earlier interviews.
However, I felt much more confident walking out of this interview – maybe it was because the interview was in-person, or it was just a good day. I was confident of receiving an admit, which happened ultimately.
However, I was amazed out of my wits when I saw a subsequent email informing me of the scholarship I had received. It was 60% of the tuition.
I was happy but also concerned about the decision I had to make.
By now, you must have realised that I am not the best at making decisions. I narrowed down my options to ISB and Emory and started reaching out to more people to gain insights. I did an extensive research which was also lauded by MG. Here’s the summary.
For people struggling with decisions on B-school selection, I would suggest people to ask themselves “Why MBA”, in addition to network with the students and alums of the schools to know more about them. Like my earlier suggestion, exercise your own intellect while processing these conversations.
Keeping in mind my goals, a finance-heavy background, a decent scholarship and the entire opportunity to have a rich and global experience, I finally chose Emory.
I strongly believe that each applicant is unique and has a unique story to share. For me, my communication skills, a smooth and upward trajectory of handling responsibilities at work, some of my personal experiences from my childhood and my academic history helped my differentiate myself in such a highly competitive pool despite an average GMAT.
One thing I would have done differently in hindsight – Starting early, in each aspect – be it GMAT, school research, consultant selection and so on.
Had I done my research on consultants, I would be better placed to apply to schools in the first deadline itself – which is highly recommended.
Nevertheless, no regrets – I am sure I learnt and got better with each experience I had with my consultants.
As on today, I am excited to embark upon a new journey which promises to be challenging but fulfilling. At a personal level, I’d like to advice all international MBA aspirants to think why they need an MBA and beyond employment opportunities while arriving at their decisions (I hope I am not saying this too early and don’t end up changing my own opinion on this).
There are no right or wrong decisions. You make decisions right.