07/08/2015 9:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

5 Tips For Indians To Get Accepted Into Top MBA Programs

Since most admissions in Indian colleges are extremely "numbers-based", it can lead to a mindset that your score in a standardized test can make or break your career. This is not true for admissions to international MBA programs. Key takeaway: a great GMAT score is a conversation starter - you have an advantage, but there's a long way to go.

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Indian applicants to international MBA schools - you are in a difficult position and this article is for you. The odds are against you. Each year, the competition to gain a spot at top business schools gets tougher, and if you are an Indian candidate, the acceptance rates become even more daunting. There are just too many of us aiming to get accepted to top MBA programs but the seats are limited. So the question remains - how can you differentiate yourself in this over-represented pool? Follow these 5 tips and you'll already have a head-start against the competition.

1. Your GMAT score is only Step 1

It's not uncommon for some applicants to assume that a high GMAT score is all that matters for getting accepted to top schools. But it's a myth that top MBA schools would open their doors for you simply because you scored a 760 on your GMAT. Yes, your GMAT score is important, but that's only one part of your entire application. Perhaps the most common question from applicants is along the lines of "My GMAT score is 700. Is that sufficient?" That's the wrong question to ask. Every year, there are applicants with a low GMAT score who get accepted into the business school of their choice, while on the other hand, there are applicants with a 760 who are not even invited to interview. Since most admissions in Indian colleges are extremely "numbers-based", it can lead to a mindset that your score in a standardized test can make or break your career. This is not true for admissions to international MBA programs. Key takeaway: a great GMAT score is a conversation starter - you have an advantage, but there's a long way to go.

2. Highlight more of the "Why", less of the "What"

I recently attended a great workshop that helped candidates prepare for job interviews, and one of the key learnings was to communicate the motivation behind each career move or personal decision. I believe this holds true for MBA applications as well. The best essays go beyond mentioning one achievement after another. A resume is sufficient to list all your achievements but business school applications encourage you to go beyond these high level bullet points. It is a non-optional step to push yourself to express your thought process behind all important personal and professional decisions. What led you take up that difficult project? What excites you about your job? Similarly, don't be afraid of expressing emotions, whether it's the thrill of success or the disappointment of a major failure. Most importantly, remember: Why>What

3. Invest time in researching the schools - aka speak to current MBAs and alumni

There are no shortcuts here, and reading the brochure is not enough. Undoubtedly, speaking to current students or recent alums is the best resource to get invaluable insights. One conversation with the right person is better than reading a hundred articles. Speak to MBAs from your background at the very school you wish to apply to.

Before jumping to your essays, pause and reflect. Are you certain that you have chosen the right set of schools? Don't be guided solely by business school rankings. MBA rankings (yes, all of them) are a good starting point but they are too generic and may not fit your personal and professional goals. The depth of your research would not only help you differentiate between the MBA programs but this research would go a long way in crafting your essays. Schools need to be "wooed". Mentioning generic reasons why you are applying to a business school is a recipe for failure. You do not impress any business school by saying that you are applying because they have "world class faculty and great alumni network". You need to articulate the alignment of your professional goals with the strength of the school. What's your pitch for this specific school? Why school X, and why not school Y?

4. Identify what differentiates you from your category pool

Consciously or unconsciously, the person reading your applications will put you into one "category", say Indian IT Male, and this comes with its own set of biases - both good and bad. You may not be able to completely remove this bias but it's your job to ensure that you represent a more holistic picture of yourself. Differentiating yourself in this pool requires you to highlight aspects that go beyond the generic skills displayed by your peers. For example, if you have a background in IT, a project where you were awarded for exceptional coding skills will do little to help you stand out. Instead, you can focus on sharing an experience when you displayed soft skills such as managing client relationships, or leading a team during a critical stage. Similarly, if you work in Finance, your expertise in financial modelling is nothing remarkable among other candidates who are also in Finance. However, if you work in Finance, and are passionate about playing the guitar, you're suddenly a much more interesting candidate.

5. Don't mention volunteer experience just because it "sounds good"

Including some element of social impact has become an accepted practice in the application game since this is what the Admissions Committee "wants to hear". But if every third applicant wants to save the world and/or become the next Mohammad Yunus, there is hardly any scope for differentiation. It is also important to understand what MBA schools are really looking for through your volunteer experience. This is less about your concern for the poor and more about the leadership you have demonstrated in your volunteer experience. For example, donating your old clothes for a charity is nothing remarkable as a demonstration of your leadership skills. However, if you have initiated such a clothes collection drive and scaled it, that's certainly worth mentioning.

I'll encourage you to review these points both before and during the application process. Applying to business schools can be an emotionally exhausting process, and it's critical that you identify the right mentors for this journey.

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