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Old 12-14-2008, 01:40 PM
hrmanager hrmanager is offline
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Dec 2008
Posts: 169
Default Study Abroad: File a winning application

If you thought the going was tough, well, it just got tougher!

That was the feeling with which I faced my 'to-do' list in those final months before the application. Ironically, this was the part that I was most looking forward to ever since I had begun my research on B-schools. I approached it now with some trepidation. Despite the 'organised', 'well-planned', 'well-paced', 'informed' person that I thought I was, the protracted task-list looked a lot less manageable than it might have seemed when I had begun the process. I had thrown my hat over the wall. I had no choice now but to jump the wall! Mustering all my wits, I braced myself for the attack.

During various conversations on application for an international MBA programme, I found that most people seemed the most concerned about GMAT scores, almost as if the entire application depended on them. In fact, I knew people who had refused to write the application because they did not believe that their GMAT score would be good enough to get them into the schools of their choice.

In contrast, for me, the GMAT was not the highest priority or even the second highest. Yes, I did want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible but I was not fixated on techniques, the format of the test, the multitude of types of questions, the possible combinations of Quantitative and Verbal scores, and many other nuances, in the way that my fellow applicants were. I believe this calmer disposition towards the Test lay in the fact that I had had significant experience with preparation for the Common Admissions Test (CAT), the entrance examination for our good ol' IIMs.

Until the year before I started my research on international programmes, I had firmly believed that my destiny was one of the leading IIMs. I had taken the CAT in the previous year and had some of the best scores in the mock CATs. This gave me some confidence that I would not be beginning from scratch where the GMAT was concerned.

Yet, it would not do to be complacent or over-confident. I decided that the best way to gauge how much prep I required was to take a mock GMAT. This was easy to do, with a lot of GMAT prep modules available in the market for computer-adaptive tests. The results were as I had expected: good on the Verbal section, reasonable on the Quantitative, with some more familiarity required with the types of problems.

The most encouraging factor, however, was that I finished the test with more than half an hour to spare. In retrospect, I think this was the best part about having had the CAT experience behind me. Most Indian MBA aspirants would vouch for the fact that the CAT is THE most competitive exam for MBA entrance across the globe, not only because of the quality of the questions but also because of the huge time pressure and the negative marking system.

A candidate who has speed on her/his side has a higher chance of scoring over a candidate who is more accurate, or perhaps it is vice versa. Again, most candidates would know that all CAT problems ARE solvable, but the time pressure requires one to make choices about which questions to answer first so that all questions get their time of day. Just imagine then, the relief one experiences when one has almost two minutes to answer a question instead of half a minute!

With all the good things on my side, I launched into some sort of systematic study for the GMAT, whetting my s****s on my 'strong areas, viz Verbal, and working diligently on my 'not-so-strong' areas. I probably spent an hour or two each weekday and a little more on the weekends for about two months.

A couple of weeks before the Test, I took time off from work and spent a lot more time taking mock section tests as well as complete tests. Needless to say, the combination of CAT prep, GMAT prep and being an Indian fluent in English ensured that TOEFL did not require any extra work, apart from a couple of mock tests.

I would not say that my test prep was the best it could have been, but it was certainly at the standard I'd targeted, high enough to make my well-rounded application pass the threshold easily. I use the word 'well-rounded' because I did not want to spend undue effort on the test prep when I knew that other parts of my application held as much importance if not more. Luckily for me, my judgment stood me in good stead. The GMAT and the TOEFL soon became a non-issue.

I had put the process of obtaining Transcripts and Recommendations on track simultaneously with the test prep. After the tests, I followed up to collect these. My recommenders were a mix of University professors who had taught me or had been Supervisors for my project work, and superiors at work who had had a chance to observe my work closely. Due to the sensitivity of the issue of B-school application at my then current workplace, I did not think it wise to approach my superior there. To my pleasant surprise, I realised that I had colleagues who were fellow applicants too. We often shared notes on the best approaches to crack the application process and helped each other out with articulation of recommendations, formats of transcripts, essay drafts and such like.

The essays, to my mind, were the most challenging aspect of the application by far. The complexity was not just in the variety of topics that one had to deal with but also in the number of essays required for each school, and the thoughts that had to be included and excluded from certain essays for certain schools. I decided to standardise this part of the job as far as possible using the HCF principle from mathematics.

First, I listed all the essays for each school. Between the four schools that I planned to apply to in the first round, this number came to 21. Then I clubbed together those essays, which were essentially the same in nature. Starting with the 'why MBA?' question, I systematically went through the thoughts I wanted to articulate for each of these sets of essays. Then, for each individual essay from a set, it was simply about including or excluding specific paragraphs which held an idea, depending on the specific requirement of the essay.

Essentially, it was as if I had deconstructed the essays, bunched together the common parts of each, worked on those common parts, and reconstructed the entire piece with the completed parts. I edited the reconstructed structure to check for flow, consistency, relevance and completeness.

At the end of this process, there remained about five essays that required dedicated work. With renewed vigour, I worked on decimating these too! Once the frantic essay-writing phase was over, it was time for quiet essay-reading, editing and re-reading. My online buddies, the fellow applicants, and several essay-specialist agencies advised candidates to have others read their essays for critical appreciation. The vain author that I am, I believed very few people equal to the task of critiquing my essays! (Imagine how swollen-headed I'd become just at the thought of applying for an international MBA!)

Yet, I made it a point to read as many examples of well-written and badly-written essays as I could to understand what distinguished each and what the common errors of commission and omission were. I believe it was eventually my mother, a keen armchair litterateur, to whom I entrusted the task of proof-reading my essays, not so much for the grammar but for the ideas, flow, conviction and consistency.

The response I received from her was just what I'd expected: stark, bare, honest, true! While she complimented me on the writing style, she pointed out the lack of a sense of the individual that should come out from some of the essays. "Your essay talks about your condition, your environment, the situation you find yourself in, not about you!" On reflection, I knew this to be true. While I'd nailed the 'why MBA', 'why abroad', 'what thereafter', 'why me' kind of questions without a hitch, the questions that actually asked me what I thought, believed in, was passionate about, put me in a sticky situation. Apart from the opportune twist this event gave to my essays, it renewed my faith in the wisdom of the older generation.

I re-invented the story of my most important essay, one of the only two for Oxford, the night before the final date of the applications (yes, I'd been so vain as to wait until the last moment to have another person read my essays), and sat down to re-write the entire 2,000-word essay. It may seem absurd but the next morning when I submitted my online application for Oxford, I felt as if Providence had a significant role to play in my efforts.

My pen had never flowed as smoothly and as richly as it did that night. Although I'd written the essay through the night, at the end of a long working day, without the chance of more than one session of proof-reading, I felt as refreshed the next morning, despite having slept only three hours, as if I had had one of the best rests in a long time. The proof of the pudding, a pleasant surprise, came soon, for in my interview for Oxford, the MBA Programme Director complimented me on how much he enjoyed reading my essays!

Several would-be MBAs have asked me, since I secured the admission, about what to place emphasis on -- the GMAT, the recos, or the essays. My first response to them has been to ask them to rephrase the question to: "For each of these, what should I place the greatest emphasis on?"

Admission to an international MBA is unlike any other entrance process that most Indians will have encountered for Indian educational institutions. Hence, this re-orientation is critical because it is not one or two things that make or break the case, but the entire package. While it is true that a stellar academic performance may compensate for inadequate or low-scale achievements at work, for example, it would still only be enough to get one through to the next stage of the process: to the interview.

The process of admission gives a candidate certain opportunities to explain any anomalies in an application and the onus of taking up these opportunities lies on the candidate. If he/she fails to do so, then he/she may very well be indicating to the AdComs that he/she does not care one way or the other if the admit comes through or not. For a serious candidate, that would obviously not be a desirable result.

To sum up, a few mantras that I believe worked for me were:
  • The GMAT is not the 'be all, end all' of an application.
  • The GMAT is as important as, if not more than, the rest of the application.
  • The format of the Transcripts is less important than what they say.
  • The recommendations will strongly support the rest of your application, if you know what to put into the application.
  • The essays are about your pets, friends, family, boss, your brilliance as an individual, grammar, flow, consistency, where you want to go in life, your deepest passions, how the MBA will help you get there, in the reverse order of importance!
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