Home / Politics / News /  For foreign MBA applications, a follow-and-break essay formula

Your admission to a business school in the US or Europe will be largely dependent on your responses to several essay questions in the application form. Unlike admission to elite business schools in India, which depend on test scores, group discussion and a personal interview, institutions in the West want to read your story—and, often, about your life, passions and goals beyond business.

Some of the questions can seem weird or unrelated to a master’s in business administration (MBA) programme. Remember, that’s the point—the essay seeks to understand your intelligencle, analytical ability, emotional quotient, potential and achievements, among other intangibles.

Mint asked Neeraj Sharma, who runs, an editing service for business school application essays in New Delhi, to draw on his years of experience successfully advising Indian applicants and give us a taste of the perfect essay package.

“Essays provide a peek inside the mind and soul of the candidate. Therefore, good essays are critical for admission to a good MBA programme," he said.

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The twin tenets of a good essay, he added, are “vision and good analysis". He shortlisted some of the most popular questions on foreign applications and devised model answers.

People may be surprised when they learn that I…

…have travelled to and worked in 28 countries in a short span of four years. I have come across more diversity in culture than most people knew existed. While I practised to say “thank you" in 15 different languages, I also learnt that a smile is still the friendliest phrase in any language. Although I bend my back and tuck in my arms while talking to a Japanese, and stand tall with head thrown back while talking to an Australian, I have discovered that a slight touch brings them closer to me than any other gesture.

Model answers: Neeraj Sharma, who runs an editing service for business school application essays in New Delhi, says the twin tenets of a good essay are ‘vision and good analysis’. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

In primary school, I was taught that man is a social animal. I believe that the principal reason for societal instinct (example, working in a team) to fail lies in poor communication. For this, knowledge of languages is neither essential nor sufficient. It is the desire to communicate with a fellow human being that truly brings one closer to another, and determines their success or failure as a group.

Ten years from now, an alumnus (from business school) calls you on the phone. Where will the phone ring? What will you be doing, and what wisdom will you be able to impart to him/her?

“Saw your photograph on the cover of India Today. I didn’t know you were here in Delhi as head of ConAgra’s Indian operations. I came here last month, to take over TransWorldNet’s office in the country. But you certainly seem to have arrived. ‘Pioneering the second green revolution,’ they said."

Six years ago, when Ted was at business school, I was his project coordinator at Cargill, US. We were in touch for a year, till I left to head ConAgra’s office in India.

Aggressive economic reforms maintained the annual gross domestic product, or GDP, growth at more than 9% throughout the last decade. This pushed per capita income (on a purchasing power parity, or PPP, basis) of this billion-plus nation from $3,000 (around Rs1.31 lakh now) to $7,000. Education and prosperity impacted food habits. This, coupled with a 25% increase in per capita consumption of meat products (due to steady shift towards non-vegetarianism), caused pressure on supply of grains.

ConAgra had the vision and the resources to tap the massive potential that unfolded. It planned on a long-term basis and methodically made a massive integrated assault across the food chain. More than a billion dollars have already been pumped in, and the results are beginning to show.

Every ConAgra employee shares my vision of changing the sector qualitatively. India had been poorly lagging internationally in the food sector, and we were acting as catalysts for change. Today, ConAgra has a strong presence across the sector. It took timely steps to integrate the food chain for staple commodities vis-a-vis rice and wheat, apart from focusing on poultry, dairy and edible oil subsectors. No wonder it is poised to reap rich dividends.

Ted had started his career with a soft drinks company, then moved to the automobile sector, and now was in the information industry. I suggested he should stick to one industry to achieve professional success and satisfaction. This would help him understand his industry in depth, and give him the chance to not only excel in his job, but perhaps extend the frontiers of the industry itself.

I also emphasized the importance of assimilating and analysing trends to develop foresight. A decade back, neither the domestic corporate sector nor big multinational companies wanted to have anything to do with the agro-industry. However, due to the changing economy and practices, the sector exploded from Rs1 trillion to Rs3.5 trillion in just 10 years, and companies such as ConAgra rode the crest of the wave.

If you were to bury five items, to be dug up in 250 years, that best describe you and your accomplishments, what would those items be and why?

I will choose the following five items:

—Karma Yoga by Swami Vivekananda: This book, written in 1890, is one of the many on Indian spirituality that I read from 2003 to 2006. Karma yoga is the philosophy that influenced me the most, and shaped my outlook towards life. It restructured my values, beliefs, personality, wisdom and even objectives.

—My cricket shoes: These are the shoes I wore when I led my cricket team to 120 glorious victories, and many other exciting matches. They symbolize the energy I exude, my leadership abilities and interpersonal skills. They also represent my grit, determination and hard work, which brought me success in the most adverse of scenarios.

—Correspondence with my adopted sister (Name): My sister’s letters show the guidance and emotional support that she could draw from our association. They will show how I helped her plan her education and career and motivated her to have a rich and rewarding life.

—Correspondence with my wife during our courtship: This was the foundation of the very strong, complementary and satisfying relationship I have with my wife today. Through these letters, our relationship evolved and matured. We developed a deep understanding of, and respect for, each other. Today, we anticipate each other’s needs and are willing to sacrifice anything for the other. This correspondence laid the foundation of the most wonderful relationship any two persons can have with each other.

—My business school reapplication and the subsequent acceptance letter: This will show that failures or setbacks inspire me to work harder, and with greater determination, to achieve my objectives. They will also show that intelligent perseverance does pay.

At this point in your career, what motivates you to consider an MBA programme? How will an MBA help you achieve your professional objectives? Discuss your short-term and long-term goals.

At present, as an information technology (IT) consultant, I study back-end systems of organizations and use enterprise resource planning, or ERP, products to improve their operations. I also undertake systems improvement programmes for organizations. I have been involved in driving change in my company, to capitalize on the ever changing business environment for better value addition.

My objective is to become a management consultant serving IT companies—advising them on how to lead in their respective fields, and how to create new ones, whenever worthwhile. I will be advising them on general management, encompassing all facets of business.

The tumultuous changes in the business environment today are particularly accentuated for IT solution providers. IT organizations not only need to constantly upgrade or change their skill-set, but their entire way of doing business has to keep up with the times to avoid being overwhelmed by them.

Learning curve: Students at the Institute of Financial Management and Research in Chennai. In their essays, aspirants are encouraged to elaborate on how their experiences might enrich the programme and help fellow students. Arjoon Manohar / Mint

With the expertise to leverage IT, and the breadth of vision to view business as the sum of its parts, I will be equipped to master the intricacies of contemporary IT business and even redraw its frontiers.

(Business School) allows me to avail of a double major in information systems and strategic management consulting to suit my specific needs, and offers an integrated approach to critical interdisciplinary business issues that I will frequently face in my career.

Upon graduation, I will join a major consulting company, such as McKinsey, and advise IT companies. In six-eight years, I will launch my own specialist consulting firm, focusing on the needs of the IT sector. I would like to establish my firm as a leading player in identifying emerging business needs—or even creating them—to be catered to by IT companies. My firm will assist IT companies in developing and exploiting new business areas, fine-tuning their competitive strategies to attain and retain leadership positions and taking the industry, already changing lives like no other today, to new heights.

Describe a situation in which you felt compelled to take a stand against the majority. How did the experience strengthen your understanding of leadership?

The year 1997 saw Indian stocks and financial markets in the doldrums. However, acute fund requirement forced XYZ Ltd to bring out a non-convertible debenture issue. I assisted the general manager (GM) of merchant banking in managing the approximately $1.5 million issue.

Despite best efforts, we could not garner more than $1.1 million. Though better than the results of similar companies, it was substantially short of the target. Since everyone in the company had accepted the target, the managing director wanted responsibility for failure to be fixed. Comments were to be given by all the eight members of the managing team.

Relations between the deputy manager of marketing and the general manager (marketing) were strained, partly because of the former’s initiative being construed as a threat by the latter. The deputy manager was responsible for liaison with several brokers who were key to selling the issue to retail investors.

The general manager wanted to blame the deputy manager—telling the managing director the brokers were not properly cultivated to take interest in our issue. My boss readily picked up the cue, as he too needed someone to put the blame on. The two voiced their opinion about the deputy manager among other team members, so that they were conditioned to this line before the meeting with the managing director.

I had intensively interacted with the brokers during the issue, and strongly felt that the deputy manager had worked efficiently, and that the brokers had worked hard for us. In fact, without their support, we would have fared much worse. In our meeting with the managing director, everybody ganged up against the deputy manager, who was taken by surprise. However, I voiced my dissenting opinion forcefully. I ascribed our failure to an unrealistic target in a depressed market. The managing director veered to the same view, probably because this was also stated by some leading newspapers.

This was the first time in my career that I had aired a view in serious conflict with that of my seniors. My relationship with some teammates became somewhat uncomfortable. I almost regretted my act for some weeks though, as time progressed, I started feeling good about myself. Later, when I resigned, my boss paid me a compliment for the stand I had taken, and told me that the managing director was very pleased with my calling a spade a spade.

I resolved to always look beyond short-term expediency, and take positions I really believed in, irrespective of the majority view. Apart from inner satisfaction, it makes good business sense.

If your supervisor could keep just one employee after a corporate downsizing, why would he or she choose you?

The one employee my supervisor chooses should have the confidence and strength to be able to perform all required tasks with utmost efficiency.

Recently, on the recommendation of my supervisor, I received an award in recognition of my superior technical performance and entrepreneurial initiative at an assignment with (company).

As my supervisor herself told me, she appreciated my drive to complete the project well in time, the quality of my work, my initiative to learn new skills, and the excellent service I provided to our client, despite some initial non-cooperation shown by users. The client renewed the contract at a much higher price this year.

Recently, I headed a team to prepare a feasibility report and develop implementation methodology for starting application service provider business for ERP for our client (Name). This was challenging in itself, but accomplishing that within three weeks— termed impossible by our GM (technical), among others— demonstrated leadership, drive, commitment, confidence and team management skills, apart from the usual technical skills.

My team not only brought business worth Rs5 crore, but opened an entirely new market for low-cost ERP solutions that can be implemented in just three months and with three consultants—a new company benchmark.

I regularly review the targets I set for myself, and work with a missionary zeal till the task in hand is completed. I try to constantly innovate to get the best results. I am always honest and sincere.

To sum it up, my supervisor would keep me because she can always depend on me to achieve the desired results, in time.

You have recently been brought in by the CEO of your company to act as the new project lead for a high-profile team charged with bringing a new product to the market. The team has become dysfunctional and risks missing the project deadline. How will you go about turning the situation around? You have one month to make the deadline.

On the very first morning, I will hold a meeting of the team and explain to them the importance and the urgency of our project. I will discuss the problems and issues involved in the project, and motivate them to give their best. I will remind the members that they have been chosen for this team not randomly, but because of their capability to deliver. I will request the team members to freely raise their concerns and give ideas.

I will also use the meeting to learn details about the final product—such as its uses, features and advantages over competitors—and ensure that all others, too, know exactly what final product we are working towards.

In this meeting, I will also advance the internal deadline by two days, to allow margin for unexpected delays and last-minute fine-tuning.

I will request the company administration to assist the team members in their private chores. I would not want my team members to be worrying about taking their cars to the garage, or getting their broken faucets repaired, when I need exclusive rights over their minds and energies.

These matters settled, I would break the objective into tasks. I will meet each member individually, and assign him/her responsibilities. I will also specify time frames they can accept, and can be held to.

If feasible, I will form small work groups responsible for a set of tasks, each with a coordinator who will have the flexibility to assign individual tasks and time frames. Wherever applicable, quality standards will be unambiguously specified.

Once finalized, all these details will be circulated among the entire team. Everyone must know what we are doing, how we are doing it, and who is responsible for what and by when. I will declare that while everyone is individually responsible for his or her respective tasks, there is no escaping joint responsibility to the overall objectives. I will ensure that team members promptly meet requests for information or help from one another.

I will hold 15-minute stand-up meetings at the start of each day to review performance and to ensure that everything is going as planned.

Whoever completes a task in good time will be publicly acknowledged. If someone is having difficulty in timely completion of a task, help from others will be ensured.

If any modification is required to our plan, we will all be there to immediately approve, and take desired measures.

Of course, I will remain accessible to anyone to discuss their problems, any time of the day.

I will ensure timely completion of the project and utilize the spare two days reviewing, revising and perfecting the launch plan, with continuous feedback from all relevant quarters.

When the project is completed, I will throw a good party for all members of the team. I will reward them uniformly, in proportion with the magnitude of the project and its success, and duly recognize outstanding performers.

If feasible, I will allow the team members vacations to compensate their families for the quality weekends and evenings our project robbed them of.

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