What do you do when you come from an under-represented industry (non-profit), your GMAT score doesn’t make jaws drop and you’re not sure which degree is right for you?
With a tick mark on all of the above, development sector professional, Mridhula Sridharan, knew what she was up against. Rather than getting flustered and discouraged, she went back to the drawing board and created a smart plan to tackle each of these challenges.
In this article, she explains how she tackled the MPP vs MBA dilemma, why she chose to work with consultants (over getting free advice and editing help from her network) and how she managed to get admits from programs that would help her with the unique goals she has in mind. She also shares some tips on how to de-risk your profile.
MPP vs MBA for development sector career
How I got into Oxford University: Saïd Business School
by Mridhula Sridharan
I joined the development sector 4 years back with limited knowledge of the space but with an interest in policy and sustainable impact. After 2 years of helping philanthropists and corporates give more strategically, I was at crossroads and had to decide on my long-term career plans. Staying on with the development space meant that I needed to upskill myself with relevant skills to contribute more effectively.
Now, based on my interests- I was vacillating between a policy degree and a business degree. I reviewed my profile and experience and spent some time understanding the skills needed for the kind of development work I wanted to do in the long term.
After arriving at my skill/knowledge gap – I reviewed MPP and MBA options more closely, I looked at the course-work to see what I would be learning, what are the career opportunities and so on. I then began speaking to friends and colleagues who have done either MPP or MBA degrees to arrive at a more informed choice.
I realized that a policy degree while quant heavy (economics and statistics) is not management heavy and is more suited for people who are sure they want a career in policy.
Doing an MBA in my opinion was a more flexible option as you can always break into a policy job later on.
If one is not clear about future path- I suggest opting for a more flexible program such as an MBA in large universities which gives you options of electives from other departments (more on that below)
With MPP vs MBA degree confusion out of the way, here’s how I went about selecting the right business school.
- Country: This is a constant struggle. USA offers 2 year courses, most European courses are for 1 year. I was open to both 1 and 2 year programs
- Ranking: I want to say this is very important, but different websites rank universities differently. Please note, most ranking is based on salary jump of the graduates and universities such as Oxford wherein a lot of graduates go into the social sector – the jump is not high hence ranks automatically lower.
- Alignment with my future career goals: I spent a lot of time researching the schools, the curriculum- focus on my areas of interest, internships offered, whether my preferred companies have hired from here previously? What about the professors’ backgrounds? What are the alumni doing? These are some of the questions I felt the need to ask about the universities before finalizing
- Short-listing schools: I shortlisted 5 schools for MBA with 2 schools for a policy/MBA hybrid. While shortlisting the right university, an option that also helps is to look at the essay questions – do they have only one question? or multiple, are the questions generic or some interesting mix as well? My opinion is to skip universities with only one essay unless your profile has no weakness (great GMAT/GRE score, great job experience, great undergrad/masters’ score and not a risky job seeker). Although I did apply to stand alone business schools, in hindsight, I feel schools part of large universities have lot of flexibility in terms of electives and cross learning (through academic as well as projects)
- Visiting schools: Time was a major constraint for me as I could not take time off work to visit my top priority schools, though I did meet them at local Indian roadshows, it’s not the same. I have heard from some of my friends about how visiting their priority schools helped them write a more targeted essay.
- Speak to alumni/current students: I cannot overstate the importance of this. I found conversations with alumni is especially important to understand the school, the type of people etc. the alumni also tended to provide good advice on the school and their experiences and its worth connecting with them. Some of the alumni I spoke to shed light on the curriculum’s rigorousness, career team’s work and performance and ROI. I discarded some universities based on alumni feedback especially on the university’s values and the type of students they attract.
Why I hired an admissions consultant instead of relying on free advice
As an under-represented profile, I was worried about how my work experience will match up to others from India as the competition is very severe here and hence felt working with a consultant would be better for me.
The pros of working by myself was of course that it would be cheaper and I could always reach out to my friends and get them to help with the MBA essay editing.
Considering the niche nature of my work, I wanted to ensure I am positioning myself competitively and de-risking my profile.
I began scouting for consultants and most I spoke to disappointed me. Upon hearing my current work profile, they instantly began recommending schools without understanding my future plans, kept insisting that these were the best for people from the development sector. I disagreed with them all.
I had worked with Manish from MBA Crystal Ball couple of years back on the Career MAP (career counselling service) and felt the need to reach out to Sameer and Manish again.
Even before I formally signed up, Manish was kind enough to offer unbiased advice and even recommend universities I did not consider (albeit with clear rational explanation).
Once I signed up for essay edits, I began working with my allotted consultant. My first call was to understand the process better and receive some instructions on how I should go about writing my essays.
Working with my consultant was fairly straight forward and clear – though I struggled initially to represent myself accurately through my essays (first time is always tricky). Because of my work background, the consultant I was working with spent some time streamlining the language to a more broader business appeal.
Essay writing is the most critical part of admission. Before I started writing my essays- I spent time thinking about my short term and long-term plan. I found that It is very important to have clear and achievable goals post MBA- spent time researching on my preferred sector and thinking about the kind of roles I wanted to take up.
Please note, the draft of your short and long-term goals must be succinct, achievable and more importantly believable and reflects on your current path. While writing the essay- an important function is to answer the question asked. Lot of people miss this.
Also note, as you read up the universities- spend time understanding their values, what they look for in their students etc and ensure your essays brings out the same. Have examples of strengths, weakness, success and failure ready to mix and match your essays.
While who you get recommendations from don’t really matter- there is nothing like a founder of your org, CEO recommending you-provided they are able to write truthfully about you- this will only come if you have worked sufficiently with them. Choose people who can speak to your strengths and weakness and also are in favor of you going to study.
De-risk your profile
Most non-profit candidates have non-traditional background and could be potential risky candidate as their jobs might not be high-income or some might not get a job immediately after. It is important to de-risk your profile by ensuring you have career plan-B as well.
To de-risk your profile, ensure GMAT scores are high, your work exp. is stellar your future plans are achievable and make sense. It might be difficult for the school to accept you if you are from the non-profit and are looking to jump to PE after MBA- your career path might not lead you to it (on paper). It’s another thing to seek a PE job once you are in school.
I also made it a point to target round 1 for couple of schools and round 2 for the rest. I could see a marked improvement in my essays submitted for round 2.
After getting called for interview with Oxford, I reached out to MBA Crystal Ball again and availed their interview prep package. I chose to do so because I wanted real time feedback on my performance and also because I have a tendency to ramble and I needed to speak more consciously.
The interview in itself was fairly straightforward and stress free. Questions were largely based on work experience and personal journey and I had a good feeling coming out of the interview.
I had to wait 3 weeks to hear back on final selection – the most arduous 3 weeks of my life. When I got the congratulations email from Oxford I was elated and extremely satisfied as this came after 2 other rejections.
Three days later my acceptance from Fletcher (Tuft’s International Affairs School, boasting of stellar alumni such as Shashi Tharoor) came through as well. Now, this put me in a big quandary. As I mentioned previously, policy is an area of interest and Fletcher’s MIB program allowed me to learn business, law and policy in 2 years. This was a good place to be though.
My year long journey came to an end in March. With admits, I am now on the next leg of my MBA journey and excited for the next 1 year.
MBA application is a serious business, it is good to be prepared for a year of extreme involvement. I made it a point to inform my manager and my organization about my intentions as I was seeking recommendations and my organization is encouraging of people going for higher education.
This meant that I had to ensure I did not slack off during the year and delivered my projects with highest quality. I understand this cannot always be the case, so navigate through your organization accordingly. I also had some of my colleagues help me with this process as well, reaching out to them and seeking feedback on work related scenarios and also on my strength and weakness. A third-party opinion helped.
Take care to not let the application process affect your worklife or personal life. If you are planning to apply in a year’s time, start thinking about your work and make notes about your success and learnings throughout the year.
If you are from the development sector and are thinking about an MBA, go for it. Make sure you are clear about how the MBA will help you attain the skills you want.