Experienced professionals searching for a one-year MBA at Stanford will find the MSx program to be a good fit. Technically, it’s a masters program. But it’s similar to the full-time, one-year MBA programs in Europe in terms of rigour and pace. And it comes with the formidable Stanford University branding.
Archana Srivatsan, who works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and focuses on Strategic Investments in India, has a very unusual profile. Before becoming a social impact investor, she worked as management consultant in the development sector, a travel writer and a risk manager in a Big 4.
I’m a seeker. Call it ikigai, soul-searching, or restlessness. Seeking is in my veins and I trust those instincts. Instincts told me I didn’t feel a connect with my Chartered Accountant stamp, so I sought a wider perspective in Business Consulting. When my motivations in the corporate world reached a plateau, I went in search of my inner purpose as a travel guide and travel-writer.
This journey brought me to the realm of social impact and this is where I have found my true purpose and motivations. So at my age of 35, my resume reads a slightly unorthodox story. But it all makes sense to me and to my friends and mentors.
Given my background and meandering path, I feel an unfinished relationship with education. I was eager to learn more, read more, and be in an academic program that could make me a better person and professional overall, especially in the world of social innovation.
I wanted a full-time immersion experience, not an Executive MBA that I’d have to juggle with work deadlines. I wanted a class of students who understand the real world and have their own unique journeys to share – hence I wanted to be in mid-career cohort. Finally, I wanted a school that took social innovation seriously.
Therefore, I chose the MSx Sloan Fellows Program (offered by Stanford GSB, MIT Sloan, and London Business School). I chose to apply only to Stanford at the first go. I did not want to compete with the typical mid-20s MBA applicants.
My story was not a straightforward one to understand. To make matters worse, I had an unimpressive 640 on the GMAT and I was really nervous about my chances anywhere.
What I most concerned about was ‘what after the program?’
I was not competing for the investment banking/ consulting roles – to find a school that values my unique motivations and supports me in my journey was my biggest concern.
The GMAT has been a long, hard battle for me that started in 2015 and ended in 2018. I’ve read innumerable blog posts on this one. Trust me, I’d wake up frantically at 2 a.m. and search for GMAT Club posts on how to go from 600 to 700 or how to crack the GMAT in 3 months and what not. It just didn’t happen for me.
First attempt: I took the GMAT after 4 months of rigorous self study in 2015, and got a 640 (with a terrible Quant score).
Second attempt – I needed help with Quant. So I coughed up heavy fees and signed away my weekends to a GMAT coaching center in Delhi and then retook the GMAT 2 months later, only to get the same damn 640 (this time better at Quant, but miraculously tanked in Verbal).
I couldn’t show face to friends and colleagues. I felt deeply humiliated. I applied to INSEAD with the 640 anyway, and got rejected. I gave up the MBA dream and focused on my career.
Every 2-3 months, I would look at the GMAT blogs, Magoosh blogs, take a prep test, but couldn’t ever figure out what I was doing wrong. Then in 2018, work took an interesting turn and brought me from India to London – I felt a renewed sense of clarity in my career direction. This is when I discovered the MSx programs.
I did my homework this time – I spoke to all three MSx Sloan Fellows schools, Stanford, MIT, and LBS. They all said that they value work experience a lot, although the GMAT median for accepted students is approx 700-720. The GMAT range for MSx applicants was 580-780, they said, so I was well in range.
In decreasing order of priority, you’d need a good GMAT score for MIT (more particular about GMAT), then Stanford (medium), and lastly LBS (most flexible). Given my 10 years of work ex, a few phone calls with the Admissions teams of each school convinced me that I stood a decent shot of applying even with a 640.
But I didn’t want to apply with a 640. I didn’t want to switch to a GRE. So from April 2018, I spent 4 months getting reintroduced to the GMAT, amidst crazy tight work deadlines and international travel every 2 weeks. I got connected to Sachin of Preptitude Tests. He is the reason I cracked the GMAT.
After 1-2 prep tests, he figured that I needed no introduction on concepts. It was only my nervousness. So instead of teaching me Math, he coached me to pause and analyze clearly. The amazing thing he did was video record every GMAT prep test I took: he analyzed the video to figure out where I was getting stuck, looking confused and nervous.
He reviewed all my answer sheets to figure out how I am physically writing down my analysis. Once he made me slow down, think clearly, and finish my analysis without panicking, I got more confident.
In Aug 2018 I took the GMAT again. 630. Shell-shocked. I had a breakdown. But work couldn’t stop, so I forgot about GMAT and decided I would just apply to schools anyway. I had no energy left. Sachin then advised me to order the official GMAT test review – he analyzed my performance and narrowed it down to nervousness and time management. He recommended that I do Verbal first, rather than Quant, since Verbal was my strong suite.
Finally, he said, “look, you can apply to business school with the 640, you have enough work accolades. If you feel like it still, go take the GMAT some time, but don’t tell anyone, not even me.”
I did exactly that. End of August 2018, with zero new preparation and without informing Sachin or my family / friends, I strolled in to the same GMAT center in London and retook the GMAT out of thin air. I stayed calm throughout. 710. Of course, I cried :-)
The INSEAD rejection really stung me. Of course, my 640 GMAT score in 2015 was not competitive. But I also knew that my essays weren’t as sharp as they could be. I’ve written essays for friends for their B-school applications and promotion requests etc., but I wasn’t sure how to package my own meandering story.
I needed an objective external lens who had experience of seeing many many such stories. Most of all, while juggling work deadlines and GMAT prep, I needed someone external who would be thinking about my application with me, so I wasn’t doing it alone. I needed that push.
I had read MBA Crystal Ball blogs and articles before, and I reached out one day. What impressed me was the prompt response of course, but also Manish’s encouraging response. It was a breath of fresh air when he said “you have a really interesting career arc, take that in no small measure”. I liked the positivity he brought to my story, rather than forcing me to fit in to some specific MBA prototype.
I worked with Manish Gupta. We walked through my life story and goals. I put together the outlines for my Stanford essays and Manish gave them more shape and form. He made me think hard to come to the ‘what matters to you most’ question, and once I got that, he helped to tell my life story better in that context.
I didn’t know what to cover, what to emphasize, and what to cut out. I had a 2 year sabbatical when I changed career paths – I wasn’t sure how to tell that story in a clear, succinct manner and bring out how it really drove me to find my life motivations.
This is where Manish really helped. He pushed me to get deeper into ‘why this choice?’, ‘why this shift’, ‘why this job’ – which really brought out my unique self. Also, he pushed me super hard with timelines. If not for that, I would not have prioritised this on my weekends, and I wouldn’t have had my essays in final form by mid August for the Sept 2018 application!
Stanford was my first choice, for all the reasons I have mentioned above. I spoke to Student Admissions offices in all 3 schools (MIT/ Stanford/ LBS), spoke to 3-4 Sloan Fellows alumni from all schools, and spoke to a couple of professors who I could reach in these schools too.
MIT’s advantage is that you can get awarded the straightforward MBA degree if you wanted, so many folks choose that. MIT also takes in a much more senior student cohort (avg work ex 12 years or so). LBS is more focused on leadership development and is a more recent addition to Sloan Fellows, but also the lowest in cost. Again, a more senior age group of students.
Stanford seemed to have a younger student cohort by comparison (8 years+ work ex), is in the GSB school along with MBA folks, but is the most expensive Sloan Fellows program of the three. Also, at Stanford, note that this program gives you an MSx degree, not MBA.
Given my interest in tech and social innovation, I wanted to experience the Silicon Valley space. I had no friends or family or other connections in the USA East Coast, and hence MIT was not my first choice.
Overall, I’d say you really should just know yourself well. It takes a certain level of self reflection and self-awareness to go through this process of GMAT and applications – its gruelling.
You have to be yourself in these applications: do not apply to a school that may not want you for who you really are. It’s not worth it. I sacrificed holidaying in London summers to study for GMAT and write my applications, so, be prepared to put in the time and effort once you decide to do this.
Most of all, I’d really say, don’t get too disheartened. Yes, this process is tough, but somehow life works out interesting paths. Maybe if B-school isn’t happening for you right now, its for a good reason.
Take the new path in your stride, and know that you can always come back to the MBA/ B-School wish some time later. You always have options, and you always can fight your way back when you’re more fulfilled. I did.
I went to Stanford GSB as a visitor in 2016, and I’m excited to go back now as a student :)
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