The Network Capital MBA Primer by Kellogg Alumnus Sambuddha

The MBA Adventure and all you need to know about it

One of the most important aspects of Network Capital’s mission is to provide best possible career guidance and mentoring to everyone in need. In this thought-provoking piece, Network Capital subscriber and Kellogg alumnus Sambuddha Bhattacharya reflects on his business school journey. Drawing upon personal insights, he shares everything you will ever need to know about an MBA.

Sambuddha has also delivered a masterclass on Fundamentals of Hyperscale. You can watch it on Network Capital.

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Top 15 relevant questions and contexts to think through if seeking to apply to a top-tier MBA program 

First things first, pretty darn incredible to see how Network Cap’s gaining traction and creating mindshare, amongst such a high-achieving peer-group. Signs of great milestones to come, fingers crossed! Different folks are at different stages of the journey, and this note is an attempt to douse the curiosity of the young, smart and ambitious lot here who are looking to earn an MBA from some of the best universities across the globe. And as they decide to invest in this experience of a lifetime, here’s presenting the Network Cap primer to sharpen their decision making process.

Having gone through the drill myself and being a beneficiary of sound mentorship, here’s an attempt to give back in my own capacity! For stronger context, this note weaves in personal experiences alongside answering frequently as well as infrequently asked important questions and I’ve broken it to before, during and after the MBA- all stages very important to think through from an applicant’s standpoint.

My context: I graduated with a degree in liberal arts from St. Stephens College in New Delhi when I was 20 and worked for 7 years prior to business school. Long story short (skipping the qualitative elements), I started off in consulting, moved on to setup the corporate strategy team at a leading professional services firm, worked in impact investing with Tibetan refugee startups and in East Africa, and then co-founded and built an Internet venture for professional and recreational skills. I was very sure I wanted a top-tier MBA to further my career goals in building pioneering companies. I earned my MBA from Kellogg School of Management, which amongst a lot of compelling reasons, I chose primarily for the distinct culture where I thought I’d fit best. Besides, it was a dream come true story.

Here’s what I straddled with, before the MBA- and I often come across candidates grappling with some or all such queries.

Stage I: Before the MBA: Arguably considered the most critical part of the admissions process where candidates sweat everything out to put their best foot forward.

  1. Really, why MBA?

I’m not here trying to sell the MBA program- it isn’t for everyone! It’s emotionally draining to get in, a pretty intense experience while at school, leaves one with a truckload of debt, and while it’s a boon in a few careers, it’s also a good-to-have for many career tracks and geographies. Having said all that, there is something magnetic about this degree, which year after year attracts the sharpest and smartest across the globe to desire this experience- and is meaningful in its own context. If you’re reading on I’m fairly certain you’ve established that this is the next step in life for you, and you wish to apply but wonder how to navigate through a pandora’s box, to debunk suboptimal hearsay and seek relevant answers.

  1. How young/old should I be to apply- especially as many top schools are trending younger

It’s almost a no-brainer that you need real life work experience (save the 2+2 version of HBS MBA wherein you apply young but even armed with an admit, you go in after two years of experience)- to be able to add and derive value from the program.

Candidates with 2-3 years of full time professional experience often ask if they’re too young for an MBA. Candidates on the other end of the spectrum, especially those in their early thirties often wonder if they’re too old for an MBA. It’s a bell curve and data screams out that candidates within the 4-6 year experience mark form the largest cohort.

So, what’s the real deal around timing? The real deal is, age is no bar- you’ll get in when schools you’re ready and your application is at its peak. Probability of success is lower on either ends of the spectrum. For you to be able to answer “Why Now”, what really matters is, how well stitched are your career goals, and will you be able to make the most of the program at that time in career/life.  What business schools are looking to assess is, as they construct the classroom- would the candidate be able to hold his own in an extremely accomplished classroom and be able to contribute to their peers’ learning.

  1. “I’ve heard so may factors driving different students in- what does it really take to crack the code? Is there a weighted average formula, or are there qualifiers”

To begin with, or to construct an ideal student, here are all the ideal ingredients: A top-notch undergraduate program + great GPA + powerful extra curricular profile + stellar work experience loaded with promotions and tons of accomplishments and tangible impact + global exposure + compelling and unique story + powerful leadership philosophy (and ideally experience too) + strong GMAT + great recommendation letters + fantastic interview and of course, a well-demonstrated culture fit with the school.

The higher the boxes you check, the stronger the odds of acceptance. Having said that, you check all and you still ain’t guaranteed an interview. Certain factors and data-points accrued are bygone and you can’t control anymore, however can position and present context. Energy spends, nobrainer should be on the current and future. ‘Your story’, asked in different formats by different schools, is arguably the most important piece and requires a commensurate amount of thought formulation and articulation.

  1. Recommendations: The blue-chip letter from 30,000 feet versus the unequivocal sponsorship from ground zero, here’s how you should be thinking.

“Should I go to the CEO of my company or a famous personality that I worked for, or should I seek out my direct supervisor who knows me really well and can write insightful feedback”: Ideally, an insightful recommendation from a renowned business figure helps. But if not in a position of rare privilege, pick insightful recommendations from your reporting manager over the other option. Admission committees want to get to know you better!

“Should my recommender be an MBA, and in particular an alma mater of the school I’m applying to? Well, both factors help but, what matters, echoing above point, is the right quality of recommendation letter. Having said that, recommendations written by MBAs is generally contextually stronger if recommenders can compare the applicant and their skillsets in certain percentiles of MBA programs- and that is powerful.

“Should I write my own recommendations (as often found in in Asian countries) or should I let them write it the way they think right”

Classic pitfall: Please do not write your recommender’s letter yourself and feed it to him or her, even if they ask. Strong recommenders don’t copy paste! Candidates must coach the recommender to write their letters, by providing them context and discussing relevant content and ideate how best to position them.

The way to approach this: Treat recommendation letters as space for others to blow your own trumpet and as an integral not distinct part of your applications.

  1. Here’s my GMAT score. Where can this get me?

The most, tip-of-the-iceberg question one encounters. And arguably, least important, beyond a point. Two myths: One, GMAT doesn’t test academic brilliance, but does test a lot of softer skills such as patience, multi-tasking, prioritization, academic rigor, discipline, ability to hold the nerve and hence is valued by schools. Two, GMAT score isn’t a cutoff score for business school admissions, and the simple rule of thumb is higher the better. Repeat a few times if you have to, but attempt it within reasonable limit, however you define that- till you’re convinced that you’re satisfied with your score.

GMAT score is so much about context. Is your score higher than the average of your business school’s average? Is your score significantly higher than the average if you’re from an overrepresented school? If not, are your work experiences unique enough to stand out from a cookie-cutter profile.

  1. Should I write my own essays, or should someone else to write them for me?

Imagine you’re selected to a podium to deliver a speech. How likely are you to nominate someone else to proxy for you? Irrespective of how scrappy you are or how well put-together you are, you will yourself go and deliver the glory, right? The audience is seeking to understand the authentic you and the story you stand for, and the story you wish to deliver, and nobody but you can articulate and deliver that better than you.  It isn’t about flowery language or content. It is much more powerful than that.

Having said that, it is important to structure your thought process, connect various dots and stitch your story together. Many successful candidates seek the advise of professional organizations or consultants who help you put this together- not in the capacity of content editors, but as sounding boards, and as strategists who help you put your best foot forward. It is strongly recommended that you write your own story, and better get better at it- life at and after an MBA you will have to do this yourself, time and over.

  1. Selecting which business schools to apply to! Should I seek to attend Wharton for a career in finance and Kellogg for a career in marketing and Stanford for a career in entrepreneurship? Is the reverse even an option?

As far as applying to specific schools for specific careers are concerned, I have one story.

Goldman Sachs came to recruit for summer internship at Wharton where 350 students attended it and 10 students got offered the internship, whereas 10 students attended it at Kellogg and 4 students made the offer list. Unilever had the exact reverse ratio.

All schools have amazing tracks for all major programs. Distinct branding is majorly schools’ attempt to differentiate their marginal functional stronghold over the others. Yes of course stronghold functions happen to be strong functions at these respective schools, and although recruiting data may or may-not not co-relate, school selection should be a function of a lot of other factors, over and above school strongholds.

Do you identify with the school’s culture and lifestyle that it’ll present to you? Each school is different yet diverse in its own ways, with different acceptance rates and different class sizes. Eventually it’s portfolio strategy at play. Other factors that should impact your selection: effort optimization (schools with similar essays?), deadlines and admission cycles, highest likelihood of it being able to get you to your desired career goals, spouse friendliness and integration (for candidates with partners), and in the current political climate of course, jobs and industries recruiting with visa bottlenecks for

  1. How important is a school visit?

Strongly recommend it- for, it gives you so much context to a) yourself genuinely understand what you’re getting into and b) you’re able to craft a highly tailored pitch, integrated with school offerings. Everyone loves specific context more than generic context, which is table-stakes and works of course.

The cost of visiting such schools is a drop in the ocean when added to the total MBA cost. Certain schools also offer an interview opportunity if you’re on campus so I’d encourage you to make the most of it!

  1. I’ve gotten rejected once- do I still stand a shot?

‘Getting it right the first time’ is a phenomenon everyone grapples with at all points of time in life. It’s hard to do it but very possible if planned the right way. Having said that, enough candidates make it on second go, a rare persevering lot even on third. The stakes keep going up and you have to write additional essays and demonstrate progress towards your earlier stated career goals. You have to improve the GMAT. You have to do more amazing things, you figure out schools better, and yes of course, you do stand every bit of a shot- so long as you’ve learnt from your past failure. Make sure you’ve demonstrated more character and humility from your previous attempts- because in business school you will fail at a lot of things you attempt.

  1. Eurasia or America?

Totally up to you, no right answer here. You have to understand your context well and then figure out what matters most to you. US is the land of all leading business schools, Europe has couple of amazing ones. Different journals have their rankings, but they only reflect so much.

Visa bottlenecks are real and limiting in certain industry: country contexts. Try and understand them before you think through a fairytale story. Selection bias dominates the answer here, and there are real tradeoffs. Research and speculate well.

Stage II: Constructing your MBA experience in the program: Underrated but a powerful thinking point. It isn’t merely about getting in, it is so much about acing career and life priorities while at school.

What you will do at an MBA and how you will achieve your goals is a very important piece to think about before you apply to an MBA: Well-thought through plans make for more compelling candidatures.

  1. What is life at business school like? Will it really be an incredible experience- that everyone talks about in admissions events, or lofty brochures? Will everyone I meet be truly amazing?

In a nutshell, life in any Business School: Prioritization 101. Before I dive into answering the questions here, I wanted to throw a glimpse of life during an MBA from my personal experiences-

I, much like most business school students, spent my time at school straddling three pillars- Academics, Recruiting, Friendships. Everyone has different bar graphs and you will have your own. Here’s a flavor that’ll help you think through the three pillars.  

  • Academically, you can learn so much about doing business across the world. Conceptually you can get to learn so much. I tried taking the hardest courses- ones which challenged me the most and I drew a lot of value from them, besides trying to meaningfully contribute to classroom discussions. Courses like Negotiations, Marketing Strategy and Leadership are all-time favourites for most MBA students. On top of it, specific elective courses help you tailor your MBA towards your needs. For example, I took a course on Entrepreneurial Finance and Venture Capital while at school and wish I knew valuation, deal structuring, term sheet crafting, different kinds of shares and their impact on exit options and so much more through the lens of so many growth businesses. Besides typical classroom style academics, business school academics are also fairly experiential- I wrote whitepapers, participated in business plan competitions and co-founded two startups, led a study trek to Latin America, and I saw my peers consulting for companies as labs, working with PE/VC funds, and serving on boards of non-profits- earning course credits along the way. All incredible experiences which go a long way!

  • Recruiting wise, you are a kid in a candy store with all big firms coming to recruit! Most sought after industries such as consulting, technology and investing all require a certain kind of preparation and there are opportunities galore. I kept my focus on entreprenership/startups and was able to utilize my time wisely. If you’re a consulting aspirant or a technology enthusiast, you’re literally a kid in a candy store at most schools. Name a career and name a firm, and you’ll have a shot at it. Many students over-emphasize recruiting as an end outcome of the MBA and more often than not, it comes at the cost of other pillars. While there’s a certain luck element and certain guts element, prioritizing what you want really helps channelize energies and optimize efforts. Everyone gets jobs, investing early on in identifying what matters to you, and where lies your competitive advantage, goes a long way!

  • Socially, it’s an unparalleled experience, if you choose to craft it so. I travelled to many countries on school led study cum experiential treks, as well with friends over various breaks. Culturally- you’re exposed to getting a flavor of every country experience you may be excited about. Different people make different levels of effort. I wanted to really get to know American culture in-depth as well as explore the hell out of Latin America, loved every bit of my experiences and some make for lifelong stories. Some schools literally provide you the opportunity to earn >20 passport stamps through the MBA journey.  

There are no right answers, but a few pointers to tailor your experience:

  • Please have a plan. You will iterate it many times over but please research the school well and have a plan. And leave some room for the unexpected awesomeness to happen.

  • Don’t penny-pinch while at school. The additional $$ investment you will make in one trip or one study trek will be worth a couple of weeks’ salary for you.

  • You will find negligible time to keep in regular touch with family/close friends back home and that’s okay. Your calendar will be packed from 7am to 1am. Get used to it and invest in this timewarp!

  • No matter who you are, you will end up missing out on a ton of opportunities. You’ll be FOMO-struck a lot, and at all points you will have umpteen options to choose from. Should you catch lunch finishing your homework, or with your study-group trying to ace an assignment, or attend a company presentation, or a lunch with a Fortune 500 company CEO- you will be at your toes all the time and your decision making abilities are enhanced multifold

  • From an application standpoint, research the program deeply. What are the top couple of electives that make sense to your story and why. What experiences do you want to seek and why? Schools love personalized stories that are well engrained with the program.

  1. The ROI question, how soon can I pay off my debt?

There are many factors that govern this and the choices people make are deeply personal. Often, more economical MBAs have quicker paybacks financially but trade off on prestige, quality of education, quality of life experience and so on. The way I encourage a lot of applicants to think about paying back is in terms of salvage value, a far more relevant terminology when it comes to the top programs, for truly you leverage the value of the degree lifelong.

  1. One year MBA versus the Two year MBA?

Well, most strong MBAs are 2 year programs where you start off solidifying the core and then dive into electives to tailor your MBA experience to your career requirements. There are literally only a couple of top-notch 1 year MBAs in the same league, but they aren’t for everyone, and relatively a dash harder to change careers.  Irrespective of either format, your pitch needs to be tailored, your answers more convincing from an application standpoint.

  1. How to think about Internships? Should I look in the direction of a full-time job and achieve a PPO, or should I try something new and breakthrough, knowing that I have another full-blooded shot at securing a fulltime role when I get back to campus next year?

Really, to each to their own- given individual risk appetites, priorities and the craving to experience something new! There’s merit in both tracks!

Stage III: The After: Thinking through success metrics and what do you want to accomplish on your graduation day?

  1. What besides securing the desired job should I look at, to make the most of an MBA?

My context: I desired an entrepreneurial role in a high-growth environment and signed on with a leading consumer internet venture fund in an operating role. I prioritized role over geography, and encourage each one to figure out their trade-offs, earlier the better. 

As a capstone to this primer, here are three takeaways

One, business School experience isn’t merely about the high GPA that you can achieve amongst a bunch of high achievers- and the academics is certainly rigorous, and consumes a large chunk of your time- the polar opposite of what facebook or instagram accounts of business students may reflect.

Two, it isn’t merely about which job you’ll land and how much that’ll pay you – everyone does really well by the end of it. From a professional standpoint and a long term career in business, you end up having friends across all top firms you can name, encourage you to think short, medium and long term, above and beyond an application-selling perspective. Give recruiting enough credit if not either extreme, but balance is different for different people and you need to find your sweet spot.

Three, the most cherished memories from school involve friends and travels. Some of these friendships are for life- many of you’ll be flying all over the world to be besides these friends at weddings or important life milestones- so please give it its due. Start building your personal brand, start building trust and take genuine interest to be a ‘giver’ besides being a ‘taker’. This is the most unassuming element of this life experience and it really is much beyond ‘network’.”

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