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Tackling the MBA hot seat

Tackling the MBA hot seat
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First Published: Mon, Jan 10 2011. 03 39 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Jan 10 2011. 03 39 PM IST
Top business schools across the world follow an admissions process that goes beyond entrance exams and work experience quantum. Today the admission teams look for candidates who have thought through their applications and incorporate their life’s aspirations in these rather than providing rehearsed, socially desirable responses.
I have been mentoring MBA aspirants for over four years and still see a surprising percentage of them under-prepared for the interview process. Even basic questions are not well thought out. While it’s easier to get away with this lack of focus during the application stage, perhaps even at the essay-writing stage, the gaps in preparation become apparent and difficult to brush aside during the interview. Which is why there are four key questions aspirants should ask themselves before facing an interview panel:
Why is an MBA important at this stage of my career?
Most applicants feel the next logical step after spending three-seven years at work is to opt for an MBA. Do they critically assess why that is so? Are there gaps in their profile that pose a hindrance to future growth? Are they looking for a career shift which will be harder without a general management degree? Do they rate being part of the network as something crucial? Whatever the reason, it has to be carefully thought through. The more specific an aspirant is in terms of what he wants from an MBA—skill sets, exposure, knowledge, network—the better it is.
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Ankur Warikoo talk about some intervew strategies
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During the interview stage, this question is usually one of the initial ones. Do not state answers that cannot be quantified—“An MBA will launch my business”, “An MBA will give me a career boost”, “An MBA will teach me leadership and management skills”. Understand that just getting an MBA is not a guarantee for any of these. Thinking that an MBA makes you a leader is equivalent to thinking that holding a bat makes you Sachin Tendulkar. An MBA is a tool, and just that.
Prameet Kamat, alumnus, Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, joined the flagship one-year postgraduate programme (PGP) in management in 2005. After five years in sales, he was itching to move on to a role where growth strategy and leadership programmes would be a part of the profile. That demanded exposure to business functions beyond the chemical industry and sales roles that Kamat had been working in till then. One option was to move within divisions in his existing company, which seemed limiting in terms of industry exposure. Trying to secure a job outside his company was landing him the same type of sales job profiles.
A chance meeting with an ISB alumnus made Kamat think that perhaps an MBA would make sense. He realized that ISB ranked high on all his parameters; and it was a one-year programme, which meant he could get back into the industry faster.
What do i want to do after an MBA?
This is the trickiest question and the one most aspirants get wrong. Everyone wants the best job off campus, typically consulting or banking, but few know about the the role or the industry they want to get into. Their post-MBA plans are driven either by salary figures or brand perceptions.
Be practical and have realistic expectations. Did you major in IT, have 10 years experience and want to join investment banking, or are you an engineering professional who wants to enter marketing? Well, it most likely won’t happen. Often, students who have gained most from an MBA are the ones who go back to the same industry they came from—and usually with exciting roles, great packages and a clear understanding of how their past will continue to help them.
Rajesh Sood, alumnus, Columbia Business School, New York (2001 batch) and an active admissions interviewer, says: “After spending all the time and money that they will, it’s scary that candidates feel the answer to this question will come along the way. It doesn’t! The clarity of response to this question is by far the best proxy to a good applicant.”
Two years ago, Sood interviewed a candidate with more than five years banking experience. “That candidate was a diehard Bollywood fan. Most of our interview was about films and it was amazing how much he loved films. He stated his post-MBA goal was to start a Bollywood-centric fund which would help small-time directors fund their projects by means of equity investment. On paper, this might not be the best response, but then he had the right past, a passion that was contagious and the idea was innovative.”
But Sood says he still wanted to know why business school was important for him. “He told me ‘I don’t have the money to raise this fund. So I need access to a network and what better network than this? I know my finance, I know my investment segment and now I just need to get a powerful bunch of people excited in this idea.’ This was an honest response and it made sense.”
How is this the right school for me?
The fit with the school is possibly the most underrated parameter for MBA aspirants. However, I cannot but overemphasize the need to evaluate it. This information is subjective. It has to be felt, rather than read about. When you speak to alumni of the school, or administration, the feeling you are left with is largely reflective of how the school is. Ideally candidates should initiate this process before the application process starts.
Another aspect to consider is that business schools are now defining their niches. Certain specializations have gained an edge over these years, allowing for like-minded people to be present more than the others. And it is important to be aware of the niche of the school you are applying to. If you are an entrepreneur or a venture capital specialist, it would make more sense to select Stanford as your top school. The same might apply to Stern, New York University, or Columbia Business School for someone with a financial consulting background and Kellogg School of Management for a marketing or consulting professional.
My experience suggests that most applicants select their school first and then begin to answer the rest of the questions, which isn’t optimal. Because then you force yourself to fit the profile of the business school even before you have analysed whether the school is a good fit for you.
As a professional, you may not be willing to spend two years in the classroom . Or spending $200,000 (Rs89 lakh) might not be your idea of value education. It may be good to state this honestly as panels respect such practical judgments. “I was lucky to spend time on all the campuses that I had applied to. And it was evident that there is something called fit. My suggestion to aspirants is that they should spend time interacting with alumni and administration. You will be surprised at how this influences your decision of which school you ultimately take admission in,” says Mayank Singhal, currently completeing his MBA at the Stanford Business School, US.
What is the school looking for in me?
Irrespective of how much they want to deny it, business schools nowadays look for profiles that are “easy” on the eye. It is as if each school is looking for the same kind of people year after year. Thus it becomes essential to position yourself.
The alumni are your best friends. They have been through the process, they know what works and they know how to present facts. Where the alumni are most useful is in customizing your profile to the requirements of the student—they can help you identify how to position yourself, the dos and don’ts for the school, and how to conduct yourself during the interview. These school-specific nuances are usually missed out by aspirants and can make the difference between a good and bad interview.
Shantanu Mathur, alumnus, Tuck School of Business (2010 batch), New Hampshire, explains how he figured out what different business schools wanted. Mathur came from a consulting background and wanted to go back to consulting. Hence he assumed he would not have to prepare differently for various B-schools interviews. “It was only when I got talking to alumni from the top schools on my list, that I realized I would have to tailor my responses. For instance, one of the alumni suggested that I focus more on my analytical skills as a consultant because that is what his school is associated with. Another alumnus instead asked me to focus on soft skills and client relationship.”
Ankur Warikoo is an alumnus, Indian School of Business, from the batch of 2006. He is an Internet entrepreneur and also mentors students applying to B-schools, as a passion. He blogs at www.ankurwarikoo.com
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First Published: Mon, Jan 10 2011. 03 39 PM IST
More Topics: MBA | Business Schools | Ankur Warikoo | Career | ISB |