A lot of introverted applicants shy away from applying to the top MBA programs. The fear of other extroverted classmates having them for breakfast seems very real.
Then there are applicants from unconventional industries (such as non-profit) who have similar fears – what if they can’t keep pace with the aggressively competitive corporate guys?
Sai Kondisetti ticked both these boxes.
Campus life as a shy and introverted MBA student in USA
by Sai Kondisetti
I am from the state of Andhra Pradesh and I was your typical engineering student with a chip on her shoulder. I volunteered heavily during this time and ended up pursuing opportunities in the non-profit sector and trying different things.
One thing that plagued me as I tried to find employment in management in a more corporate environment was that there was still a heavy reliance on those with a technical background (read: IT) and there was very little opportunity to get in on the ground floor without a ‘typical’ background.
I got my break at a startup all the way in Gurgaon, but I eventually returned to non-profit management as I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could do more there.
I was primarily in a strategic role during this time but felt quite dissatisfied and uneasy in the direction that the industry was heading.
I wanted to be able to have more resources at my disposal to be able to carry out a worthwhile mission and not have to rely on donors all the time.
This soon turned into interest in social enterprise and CSR and then as I started reading more about these and speaking with others in the field.
I soon felt that an MBA would make me more employable and open up more opportunities. I soon found myself researching programs and talking to other graduates. I was pretty convinced it was the way to go and I guess I was right.
MBA application strategy
I got a relatively average score of 680 at the time and I did a retake as that was hardly satisfying. I wasn’t a particularly good test-taker, so I was rewarded with the same score again.
I wasted no more time or money and applied with this very score to a few schools.
I think this was where your book really helped. It made me feel I was more than just my score. I went in with a fair assessment of colleges to apply for.
I read Sameer Kamat‘s Beyond The MBA Hype. While I don’t remember specific takeaways, I do however remember that I closed the book feeling less slighted about not being good enough for Harvard.
It was a good crackdown of the MBA program in general and helped in forming an application strategy that wouldn’t leave me too disappointed.
This was complemented by a few fairs that I attended. My main criteria for selecting schools were course diversity and availability, reputation and the chance of admission and scholarships.
I reckon I applied to around 11 schools in total including a couple of wild cards that waived their application fees (this didn’t take much time once I had the essay structure and template mapped out).
I spent quite a bit of time talking to students, researching schools and took note of how they engaged with the community to create immersive opportunities for the students.
Some help from unexpected quarters
I am pretty sure Sameer could hear the desperation the first time I reached out to him. At the time, he didn’t know that he was a part of a social experiment of mine.
You see, I read that if you ask questions regardless of consequences (embarrassment, shunning, being told off), the worst that can happen is that the other person says no or that they add you to their DND list.
So, I had recently graduated and was firing off questions to anyone that I thought could be of help to me.
I kept my expectations low and Sameer exceeded them.
He patiently answered all of my questions (I sent him a barrage all at once) without plugging in any of his services (which a lot of consultants tend to do).
To be mindful of his time, I would continue to follow his blog closely and ask further questions on his forum.
Although I resented Sameer for going to
Hogwarts Cambridge, there was also acknowledgement that it wasn’t a meritocracy that gets one there but a combination of circumstances that one judge themselves too harshly for.
Sameer genuinely wants to help people and it shows. It is why I still reach out sometimes even though I have formally never used any of his services.
I think I was on the waitlist for around 4 schools and got 5 admits (4 with scholarship). I got turned down by 2, both of which were ‘reach’ schools.
I removed myself from the ones I was waitlisted and was down to the George Washington University and UC Irvine; the former offered 75K USD and the latter was re-negotiated to around 65K USD. Ultimately, I chose GWSB.
The financial aspect certainly did help, but ultimately, I recognized that its location and proximity to international organizations would prove beneficial when the time came to look for employment opportunities.
At the time, I was looking to branch out into more strategic roles in international development. It also had access to a lot of international schools through its study abroad program, which I ended up integrating into my MBA.
When it came to curriculum, their Consulting Abroad Project (CAP) caught my eye. It is a mandatory part of the curriculum and is very immersive as it pairs student teams with a client abroad. All these helped me make my decision.
Experience in the class
I wished I could have had a therapist on speed dial because the thought of integrating into a class full of strangers while being scored for speaking out loud was nothing short of terrifying for a shy introvert like me. I had prepared myself for this by reading about the experience as much as I could.
But I honestly loathed this aspect and for the longest time, chose to forgo this part of my grade. A bit cowardly yes, but it was a genuine problem that I could not shake.
I’d read all the material and prepared myself but could never bring myself to voluntarily voice my thoughts or opinions except for a handful of times.
I realized I’d be more confident and vocal in smaller cohorts but as this wasn’t often the case in most classes, I had to make sure other parts of my grade allotment were done well.
I did get just a bit better over time as cohorts grew smaller. I found that speaking with the professor ahead of time to indicate this introduces relative leniency towards answering in class.
In addition to that, a quick chat with my professors after class about my views also helped them realize that it wasn’t a lack of understanding or preparation that kept me mum. I do realize these are loopholes rather than solutions, but they did end up giving me the boost I needed.
There were some subjects, e.g. Financial Accounting, that refused to take it easy on me. I have always been a sort of lone wolf and had trouble asking for help from my fellow peers lest it displayed weakness.
However, that ended up being one of the best things I did to help myself. One must really understand that the majority is intimidated by the program no matter how confident one seems.
Admitting you need help might open up quid pro quo opportunities that keep on giving. This applies in the case of faculty as well.
‘Fear of missing out’ will be a thing whether its social or professional activities. Have a balance of both. I really didn’t care about perception, but you could risk being branded as anti-social if you are unable to find common ground with your classmates every now and then.
My classmates were from all over the world and from varying backgrounds as is the case in any MBA program. The class was split 50/50 among domestic and international students. The vast majority of international students were from China and India and in a lesser capacity, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and so on.
I have always known the program’s specialty was its location, which is quite strategic and convenient.
We were told during our orientation that if we were not busy after school, then we were not taking advantage of being in one of the most powerful capitals of the world.
I took this to heart and filled up every inch of my free time with the myriad of free events that take place all over DC.
I found it fascinating the sheer amount of access you have to think tanks, subject matter related conferences and networking opportunities that took place around the clock (mostly at little or no extra cost to you).
So, do keep any eye out on Eventbrite and the school bulletin posts in general. There is always something to do or someone to meet that can affect how the program works for you.
Differences between being a student in India vs USA
The contrast between the way lessons are taught (and learnt) in India and the first world have always been known to sit on two extremes. My undergraduate experience in India caused me much frustration and it affected the way I looked at the value of education in the country as a whole.
Classroom sessions differ from India in that there is a lot of value given to making mistakes and asking questions. There is also value in seeking out answers beyond the classroom and this in turn is not the burden of just the students, but in part is facilitated by the infrastructure.
At every point, you are encouraged to complement theory with practice and identify opportunities to do so.
I was already familiar with the US as I visited it several times as a child.
The kind of opportunities that a reputed U.S. program has is enviable.
The opportunity to travel abroad or the infrastructure to do so was absent at my university in India and once I was here, I started planning for it.
The student-teacher relationship is also quite informal and having a well-informed chat with an influential professor might bode well for you. There were programs that were not established that I wanted the program to have. I sought out faculty that could help me outside the program and in a way, this created the domino effect of circumstances that led to my post-MBA graduation.
What I loved and what I didn’t
The most enjoyable part of my MBA was the third semester, which I chose to complete at the Copenhagen School of Business (CBS) in Denmark. I was initially looking for programs that had the element of Design Thinking core to them in the school.
However, I could not find related courses, so I had a chance to revisit my (further) international study plans. CBS had the perfect course for me and I applied.
Visa is always a problem but less so traveling as a student from a US University with strong ties.
I thoroughly made the most of my time in the European continent and enjoyed the course curriculum as well. The course was well paced, well taught and had us working with real clients.
When I wasn’t at school, I was traveling. Classes were frontloaded, so we usually didn’t have any on Friday. That meant I could hop on an overnight bus and be in a different country by morning. Travel within the EU was extremely cheap, and Google Maps was my best friend.
The most frustrating part of the MBA was watching some highly relevant and useful courses being taught in the most mundane way possible.
Whenever I had the opportunity to choose a course, I did so knowing there would be a real-time component to it and I found that some core courses were lacking in that. There was also a sort of silo among the different schools in GWU and the business school.
There is a lot of wasted potential there that I often pointed out.
Feedback is constantly asked for but never acted upon with the same intensity so hopefully that changes.
There is also a heavy focus on consulting careers so one may feel left out if they don’t find expertise in trendier or upcoming areas. Nothing is perfect and at the end of the day, it is what you make of it.
I want to stress that our first world counterparts will rarely understand the entirety of our situation and it was frustrating to explain to some, how you must handle your ticking clock while still being able to attend all team meetings.
It helps if you tackle this early on with your team. Otherwise, expect turbulence if a team meeting is scheduled the same time you have a coffee chat with someone from an H1B employer.
MBA internship and placement experience
While I cowered in crowds, I was able to navigate one-on-one meetings and smaller sessions with ease.
We all tend to overthink networking and make it seem like a transaction. ‘Networking’ is not slimy and networking in DC is particularly great.
Just go up to someone interesting and ask them about their day and then let them know you’d like to learn more about what they do over coffee sometime.
GWU does have a very well-known reputation in the DMV area and it feels good to be acknowledged.
People do end up hiring who they like so always try to meet up with someone in person in some informal capacity. If you can make the person vouch for you, that goes a long way during the recruitment process.
Winston from the show ‘New Girl’ sums it up rather eloquently – “Be there.”
For me, job hunting started before I set foot in the country. I tried to recognize opportunities before they arose and set things up for success.
For example: – I was a part of a women’s mentorship network that spread across the globe. As soon as I knew where I was attending school, I asked to be paired up with someone from the US.
Within two months of arriving in the US and speaking to my mentor regularly, I had an opportunity to intern at her firm. She was an influencer and immediately set things in motion for onboarding.
You should try to take advantage of the connections that your classmates and faculty have first. I know of another international student who was able to score an internship because of his rapport with a faculty member.
She recommended him to her network, and he ended up with an internship at an investment bank. Aside from this, always be on the lookout for networking opportunities and meetups.
My rapport with my mentor meant that she already knew everything she had to about me in a more informal capacity. She told me that she recognized my potential and therefore, I didn’t have to jump through any more hoops.
I worked remotely on a project with her direct report. I was unable to convert this into a full-time job because the company changed their stance on visas.
There is unprecedented uncertainty of attaining a US work permit these days. Canada seems to be the person of interest at the moment and a lot of people (including myself) are engaging the process to be able to shift gears quickly.
Apart from that, working in your country of origin and filing whilst there (if company allows) is another option.
However, there is a third option that seems to be catching momentum, i.e. returning home.
Life after MBA
I work at CAE Inc, a company that build flight simulators and offers training services for commercial and military aviation pilots. I work in the Defence and Security business unit but strictly corporate needs and functions.
I am a strategic development analyst and that is pretty open-ended.
Is it exactly what I wanted to do? – Not really, but it is extremely close to what I want to do and is an ideal workplace.
Plans will change as you go through the MBA journey. You will be glad to know that everyone is clueless about what they want to do at some point through the program and it shouldn’t frighten you.
Also, don’t fret if a potential opportunity doesn’t check off all the boxes. There is value in getting your foot in the door and working your way towards your intended goal.
What’s exciting about it is that I get to work directly with the executive leadership and see how they think. I work on things such as reporting, competitive intelligence and communication strategy. It’s a bit of a mix.
My MBA lessons on strategy are definitely paying off. But everything else is learning on the job. Most of my colleagues always say they are trained from scratch again.
Network as much as you can as you do your job as well.
Life after MBA is pretty much what I expected if not better. What’s unexpected was the complete reversal of a once inclusive workforce.
Working in USA vs working in India: Differences
I came from a very non-traditional sector, which was full of flaws yet was satisfying work. India is notorious for its gender biased work culture with an emphasis on working long instead of productively.
From my experience, I have found this to be true. I don’t speak for everyone but it is significantly harder for someone like me with a non-traditional non-tech background to be able to really find similar opportunities back home.
As a woman, I am a bit biased about the kind of environment that awaits me should I choose to return to India. I speak to my friends back home regularly and I find that things haven’t changed much. If anyone has a different story, I’d be glad to hear it.
Lessons from my MBA experience
- A lesson I have repeatedly learnt and that has been reinforced is to trust your instincts even if it points to something that doesn’t fit in the overall picture
- Network like nobody’s business
- You can be competitive even if you aren’t an Ivy League graduate
Knowing what I know now, I might have done things differently by attending school elsewhere, perhaps Canada or the EU. I have many friends who are working in these areas and find it quite satisfying.
Another thing I would have considered is to target MBA programs that also qualify as STEM programs.
I enjoyed the program because I heavily tailored it to my interests and needs and sometimes even took a course or two that made no sense to my core curriculum.
Just make sure you know there is every chance you won’t get your ROI if you choose to study in the US.
Be sure to map out a backup plan if your main intent is to be employed in the US. Consider other study destinations as well.
From what I know from my travels, they are worth a look. Study trends and try to pursue combined degrees that might be able to set you apart from other MBA graduates.
Things to help you through
- Books like these – Art of War, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Beyond the MBA Hype (of course)
- Blazer Hoodie
- Awake chocolate (they are delicious and are equal to cups of coffee)
– Can introverts succeed in business schools?