It’s not easy getting your career choices right when you are brought up in this country. Unlike our counterparts from rest of the world, our career goals are intricately linked to the aspirations of our family. For the Indian middle class especially, these aspirations are driven by the perks that come with the job. The desire to rise a level up in the social chain trumps fundamental things like skillsets and interests which could ensure a career that brings out the best from the child.
During the key decisions taken in my life, I wasn’t particularly driven by my parent’s aspirations or the probable remuneration that the path could entail. I was free to take the call based on my interest and potential. But the problem here is – how would I know about all the options with clarity and evaluate them? I had no guiding force, a similar-minded community or a mentor who would provide me with the relevant information that will help me take the right next step.
So my trajectory – from Science in 12th to Engineering in undergrad – sounds as generic as it could be, and it’s because these were the only viable option that I could see.
As I now take the next big decision of my life – doing an MBA – it’s a yet another generic option. In fact, it’s one of the ultimate paths in the wishlist of the parents, right below UPSC or a government/public job. But the difference this time is – the guiding force, the community and the mentorship that I lacked in the previous times – were there at my disposal. What made this possible? The revolution we call the internet.
As I look back at my (almost) 3 years journey of navigating this MBA space, it’s incredible to comprehend that a countless number of individuals, whom I never met IRL, became a part of this journey. As a payback, I will lay down everything that I learnt through this enlightening journey – from the initial confusion about where to begin to the final decision of choosing the college, with the hope that someone who’s at the outset will have some takeaway from it.
Couple of disclaimers before we begin –
- I’ve not “belled” the CAT, as they say. Nor have I performed exceedingly well in the other entrance tests. Just to keep the records straight, here are my results for all exams I have appeared throughout the years. I’ve shown it all – the good, the bad and the ugly.
As you can see, I’m not someone who has consistently scored. So this won’t be a topper’s guide to crack the code. You’ll find a ton of such content elsewhere. This is a personal account of all that has gone behind the preparations for this test, and how I handled these results
- I was working alongside my preparation, so some of the points may address concerns for the work ex guys more.
- I’ll skip on advices that are generic in nature – which you will either hear/read from the wealth of resources already available online or realize yourself as you go along.
With that out of the way, let’s begin with the biggest questions in minds of every aspirant with a work-ex or a job offer, when they decide to appear for MBA-
TO WORK OR NOT TO WORK
It’s a long standing debate, and a crucial decision to make which pretty much shapes your entire preparation structure. When you choose one route, it gives you an edge in one aspect, but also makes you pay for it in some other way.
From my initial research, it was evident that a work ex of around 2 years is said to be an ideal segway into MBA. My first attempt was just to test the waters, to ensure that this is the line that I want to head into. By the second attempt, I had an internal transfer and the training time there ate into my preparation schedule. But the reason I stuck through with the job, is that I could see it adding value to my profile and I knew that once I get settled into the new setup, I would get enough preparation time for the next attempt.
By the time I began for third attempt, we were in the middle of this pandemic. My trips to office (which comes under essential services) continued but it left with much more spare time than I would have got otherwise.
Base your decision of leaving/staying on the job by answering these questions –
- Can I get enough time to prepare alongside?
- Is the job interesting/tolerable enough to chug along for a few months?
- Supposing the worst case scenario of not cracking in this attempt, am I willing to continue with the job?
A job, and with it the steady income, gives you a good safety net that you can always fall back on in case things turn sour. So my general advice is to try to stick to the job as much as you can. In case you decide otherwise, it raises the stakes on your next attempt a lot more than for others. Because one thing that most B schools are wary of is that gap in work-ex.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
Each article, post or video that you’d come across giving tips and strategies to go about with your preparation – including this one that you’re reading right now – may or may not work for you. Your circumstances, cognitive abilities, expectations out of the exams and outlook towards life is very unique to you
In my case, I could never keep a fixed study period owing to my shift-based work schedule. The intensity of studying post night shift would vary drastically from my weekly-offs. Similarly, the time-split between concept learning and mock attempts will also differ for someone giving their first attempt vs for those who’ve appeared before.
Another extremely common tip that I did not adhere to was the focus on reading The Hindu – that supposedly improves your vocabulary. I went ahead with The Indian Express. This was because –
- It has an extremely useful Explained section which beautifully breaks down all the major events which helps you in understanding it well.
- Being an avid follower of current affairs and politics, their brand of investigative journalism pulls me more.
Even for someone struggling with VARC, it’s important that you choose the kind of reads which really interests you – specially in the beginning. As you evolve as a reader, you will eventually find your way through other forms of literature that continuously keeps you engaged.
So while you should listen in to all the suggestions, make your own game plan based on your constraints and preferences.
ANALYZE TO MAXIMIZE
One common advise you will get is the importance of analyzing your mocks. You can reduce your attempts, cut down on few practice hours but never compromise on your dedication towards analyzing what went wrong, and why did you get certain things right in the mocks.
The greater question that I had was – how to analyze them? I did not find any useful insights on that, so I built my own analysis tool using Excel (also, am I the only one who actually likes using Excel? Either it’s because I am crazy or I don’t use it quite often in my work setup. I hope it’s the latter).
I have shared screenshots of the tools I’ve used below, but I would encourage you to make your own. I made this looking at my own requirements.
For QA, my bone of contention, I had an elaborate sheet to track which area was I lagging in, what were the reasons for the mistake or for skipping the question.
In comparison, my tools for VARC was pretty straightforward, since I already had a good grip in it.
These tools also went through various transitions throughout the course. By the end of it, the focus was just on the time taken and the scores it was fetching me.
Below, I’ve shown the transition of my DILR tool. Initially, my focus was on identifying the type of sets I needed more practice on.
But at the end, I just focused on my set selection skills, and the time taken for each set. So for that, the tool looked something like this –
You can start making your own tool after giving a few mocks. Be open to change them whenever you feel it isn’t helping you gain some insights. You can also keep a track of all your mock scores and plot in a line graph to visualize your progress.
EVERY EXAM/ATTEMPT/INTERVIEW IS AN OPPORTUNITY
When you take the decision to go the MBA route, understand one thing – it’s probably the worst financial investment that you do. You don’t enter MBA to magically get 6 figure salary after 2 years. After 5-6 years, your current job or the opportunity that your undergrad provides can put you in the same spot that an MBA would – without the massive capital put in, without the risks involved. MBA is the means to change your professional gears, so your aim should always be to keep all your doors to a good MBA degree open.
Keep this in mind when you find yourself hesitating before hitting the payment button for an exam form or a college application. It’s a different argument on whether the payment is justified (in most cases, it isn’t). But if you are fully committed in pursuing MBA, show that commitment by going all-in with your attempts.
That also means dedicating the requisite time to give the mocks, understand the format and types of questions asked to put your best foot forward. It is very easy to be complacent post CAT and unknowingly loose your chances in some of the best B schools. Squeeze some of the practice between your CAT preps so that you have a better place to start with when you are in the midst of a limited window between multiple non-CAT exams.
And fill those forms well in advance. It not only helps in getting the nearest center and preferable time slot, but it also gives you ample time in spacing out all the exams or interviews you’re about to give.
THE ALL-DECIDING RESULTS (AND WHAT TO MAKE OF IT)
In my experience, MBA exams are the most random screening process I’ve been a part of. To make things more fickle, your shot at about 70% of the top 20 B-Schools leans on your performance on just one exam (CAT). 1-2 questions wrong would mean you lose your chance at your dream college.
This system put me at a great disadvantage in my final attempt. I missed by 3 percentiles in QA, 2 percentiles in overall to get through CAP (Common Admission Process which is the window to most of the newer generation IIMs). And I also had to bid adieu to most of the 70% pie. At the other side of the coin, I’ve been fortunate to barely scrap through the eligibility for SPJIMR and MDI Gurgaon for their profile-based calls.
The best of results can come at the most unexpected places. For XAT 2020 (2019 if you follow the CAT convention and which is also followed in the table shared above), I was on auto-pilot. I had already made the decision of giving another attempt, so I just covered the basic requisites (like looking up the Decision Making section that was unique to this exam). The results came and…..I comfortably crossed the cut off for XLRI. Mind you, this exam is popularly considered as the toughest of the lot!
When I look back at what made me perform well on that day, I could think of 3 things –
- XAT actually played to my strengths. It had a tough VA which was easy for me to handle and I genuinely liked the DM section. So I had 2 of the 3 sections sorted (there’s GK as an added section but that wasn’t considered for the call selection) with a much wider time limit.
- I went in with nothing to lose. I wasn’t even completely aware of its marking scheme. This made me take bigger risks that fetched those extra numbers. This mindset was then impossible to recreate in my last attempt where I flunked badly.
- Luck. Fortune. Destiny. You got to have it on that day.
This instance was again repeated the next year, but this time with NMAT. A casual first attempt just 5 days after CAT turned out to be the game changer, and helped me comfortably fetch my NM convert.
So when the results are such a gamble – it’s all left to how you handle it. For anyone who has put in genuine efforts, they will shine in at least one of these exams – provided they keep their head high and not let the disappointing scores affect them. Those who meet the same fate as me, will have harder time in getting into the top 20, and may have to try one more time. But it’s important that you don’t let your guard down, and continue chugging along in this rocky path.
NAVIGATING THROUGH THE HYPE TRAIN
No one is alien to the fact that this country has a dire shortage of jobs, let alone well-paying one. So it’s natural for every aspirant yearning for these high packages remain fixated on the placement reports. But this fixation cannot drive your journey. The sooner you realize it, the better.
If you go in with that mindset, it’ll be extremely difficult to internalize your motives behind doing an MBA. During the interviews, the panel is not just looking for your rehearsed answers to the obvious questions. They are looking at that drive in your every answer.
The bigger reason to let go of this figure obsession is because most of it is made up! When the majority of your potential customers are looking at those figures, and you don’t have any obligation towards adhering to any reporting principles, you tend to work those numbers in your favour.
There are various other factors you should keep in mind when choosing your college. Of course, pay does matter to an extent as it can provide a rough yardstick to gauge how the industry perceives the B school. Your major focus should be on the kind of career that you’re looking for and decide based on the type of opportunities the college could offer.
When the final calls arrive and you’re one step away from treading the path that you were so looking forward to – that moment becomes the most defining one in your professional life. All of a sudden, your future in that college becomes clear, and you start feeling the pang in digesting this reality.
It’s a point where backing off is still an option. If you are unsure of the college, you can look for a re-attempt. If you feel unconvinced on this whole idea of MBA, you have other paths to explore.
It’s extremely important at this stage to re-evaluate your options. For some, it will be clear as daylight. To many, especially those like me who had to enter the den in a time that was as uncertain as 2020, it’s a tough spot to be in.
My surprise win in XAT had given me 2 offers – one from a new campus from a top brand (XLRI – NCR) , and other from a decent Tier-3 school (IMT G). The option was to either go with the new campus and indulge in the perils and perks of being part of a founding batch. Or look at another shot at belling the CAT, armed with more work-ex and ambiguity of the pandemic.
I went with the latter because two line of thoughts made that decision pretty clear –
- You Only B-school Once. So I’d rather be part of an institution that has enough evidences to prove its stature, than clinging on the perceived value of a new one.
- I knew within that this attempt wasn’t whole-hearted. It won’t be right to accept the fate when you haven’t given your best efforts in achieving it.
This thought process also helped me make the call this year. As I resigned from my company and confirmed my seat in NMIMS, I felt that weight of transition. But my convictions were strong enough to bear them.
GETTING THROUGH THE “WAITING” TIME
As I sat down writing, deliberating on this piece for weeks, there has been a storm of anxiety slowly brewing within me. That is because while I did get confirmed into a very good place where I was ready to set the pedals (NMIMS Mumbai), destiny was hinting at the possibility of shift in gears to an absolute dream college for every MBA aspirant (SPJIMR). I was put into the (rightly termed) waitlist – at a place where, based on previous trends, no one can absolutely predict whether I’d get in.
And so began 90 days of WAIT, which felt like an eternity. Inch by inch, the waitlist kept moving, leveling up my nerves. The foundation classes for NMIMS started, but my attention was still at that portal. And finally, on the first day of full fledged classes, SPJIMR finally knocked on my inbox.
Chances are, you will make it through your best call in the same way. You will run out of patience, but it’ll ask for more. I hope that everyone who finds themselves in this spot ends up getting rewarded. But practically, as you’d know, it isn’t possible. If it so happens that you would have to settle for a lesser college , always remember what you’re really going in for.
There is the joy of studying in an area where you’re actually interested in, the chance to relive your student life yet again, the opportunity to create a lasting bond and the freedom to pursue a variety of roles in the most lucrative domains. All that remains the same, no matter which college you end up in!
That wraps up my two cents (or 2000-odd words, however you want to see it) on all things MBA. There are some topics that I want to talk about – like whether we should be sure of our specialization before-hand, the per-requisites before joining and the profiles you can target – but my stand on these topics would be clear once I’ve lived through my time as a student.
To all those boarding into this journey - sit tight and brace for the roller coaster of a ride you're about to witness!