MBA Admissions Consulting: Behind the Scenes Part-4 | Q&A with Ramdas Sunder

Here is the 4th part of our MBA admissions blog series. Previously, I did interviews with Ajay Singh (Harvard alum), Tommy Zheng (Yale alum), and Manish Gupta (ISB alum). In this post, we have Ramdas Sunder. Ramdas is a Harvard Business School alumnus (batch-mate of Ajay Singh). Earlier, he did his MS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He had got admission at IIT-Madras and did his first year of the undergraduate studies; but, later opted for a transfer to the University of Texas at Austin to complete his Bachelor degree.

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Post-MBA, Ramdas has worked  Pitney Bowes, Freescale Semiconductor, and McKinsey. He has been one of the founding members of Stoodnt, and headed the India operations in 2016 & 2017. Currently, Ramdas is on a sabbatical from professional employment. He is also an angel investor, with a portfolio of 13 companies at various stages of growth.

He has got 15+ years of experience in building strategy/innovation teams – specific focus on portfolio transformation, driving growth initiatives, innovation management, M&A and divestitures/spin-offs. In this post, Ramdas shares his own career journey, and various tips on MBA applications for top international business schools.

MBA Admissions Consulting: Behind the Scenes

Q&A with Ramdas Sunder (Angel Investor)

HBS, UIUC, UT Austin Alum | Ex – McKinsey & Pitney Bowes

Ramdas’ Career Journey

Tanmoy: What was your primary motivation or objective for pursuing an MBA?

Ramdas: I had taken a path typical for many middle-class Indians / South Asians, namely getting an Engineering degree and then a job in a high-tech business.  I knew that to rise up the ranks and be the best engineer I could be would require getting more and more depth in a few areas.  And, while the company I was with was very open to providing those opportunities to learn and develop, I could not bring myself to be passionate about some of those subjects.  Naturally, my mind began to seek out alternatives.

I had been a reader of the Wall Street Journal (cover to cover, all sections), since I was 21, and was thoroughly fascinated by the world of business and finance – even though I probably didn’t understand a large portion of what I read.  From there, it was a short hop to thinking about an MBA, getting advice from some seniors who had trod that path, writing the GMAT and so on.

Tanmoy: What are your key takeaways from your MBA degree at Harvard?

Ramdas: There are many paths to leadership and individual excellence.  You can truly choose to be whatever you want to be so long as you are comfortable with the path and the outcomes.

Tanmoy: To what extent did the MBA degree from Harvard help you with your post-MBA career and what were the major factors for choosing HBS?

Ramdas: The MBA program at Harvard was a completely transformational experience. I was somewhat shameless about going to Harvard only for the brand, but I received so much more.  The Alumni network, which I am guilty of not leveraging fully, is outstanding in every respect.  Most Alums – not just those who were your classmates or section-mates, but alums who graduates decades before you! – feel a duty to help other alums, and I have received help from many at every juncture in my career.  Obviously, the brand itself is a door-opener in several situations and provides you with entrée to places you would not ordinarily have access to.

The academic experience is also incredible.  If it were not so expensive, the Socratic method (a.k.a. the case method) should be used to teach *everything*, not just business subjects and law.  It is such an effective mode of learning that I still remember, for some case studies, the exact moment when a classmate explained something that made me look at a problem in a wholly different way.

So, yes, I went to Harvard for the brand and the alumni network.  But I also learned a whole lot.

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MBA Programs

Tanmoy: Over the last decade, what are the big developments that have impacted the Business Education (MBA) industry in the US?

Ramdas: The most critical change has been the requirement that people doing MBAs be much more focused on what they want to get out of it. When I went to B-school, there were quite a few people who were there because it seemed like a rite of passage for them.  There probably are still folks for whom this is the case, and they have the mix of right schools, blue-chip “name brand” companies, and so on to ensure that they get admitted.  But that’s no longer the case for the vast majority of applicants.

This has happened for three reasons:

First, it is a LOT more expensive in terms of both foregone opportunity and high tuition fees, to get an MBA from a top school.  That means you have to be **really** sure this is a commitment you want to make and once you’re in, you’re committed completely.

Second, despite the expense, it is still a lot more competitive today than it has ever been.  I look at the resumes of some of the people who were **denied** admission, and I just marvel at those who must be even more impressive than the ones rejected.  That’s obviously a testament to the enduring allure of the professional success that a high-quality MBA can help you access.

Third, business schools have themselves adapted and are anxious to ensure that they can still build programs that adapt to our changing world. That keeps the programs relevant in a changing world.

Tanmoy: Is a regular MBA still as popular as back in the 1980s or 2000s?

Don’t programs like MS Business Analytics, MiM, MS Finance or MS Data Science and MOOCs & Online MBA programs present a threat?

Ramdas: It’s mostly Yes, but with some caveats. The caveat is that for many people, a full-blown MBA is not required to further their objectives and is overkill.  If your intent is to be a Data Analyst/Data Scientist, then an MS in Analytics / Data Sciences is probably a better idea than an MBA.  Similarly, MOOCs and Online MBA programs have their place – for people who can’t spare the time to do a full-time MBA or can’t suffer the opportunity and financial cost of a full-time MBA.

Related Article: MBA vs MS Business Analytics vs MS Data Science – How to Choose the Right Program?

That said, a full-time MBA is still the best option for people who are relatively early in their careers, want a broad business education and the breadth of opportunities that are available to you from it.

Tanmoy: According to you, is a regular MBA from a top-10 B-School worth the $100,000 price tag? How should applicants go about funding/financing the MBA?

Ramdas: As mentioned in the last response, there is a distinct class of professionals for whom going to top-rated B-school for an MBA is a good idea. For them, it is absolutely a worthwhile investment.

Related Article: Why Brand Name Matters While Choosing a Business School?

Most of the top-rated Business schools have financing options available to MBA admittees, regardless of nationality.  Failing that, there are both large multinational banks and other financing entities that will help finance an MBA.

Related Article: How to Finance Your MBA in USA

MBA & Business School Rankings

Tanmoy: What are your personal thoughts on MBA rankings? How should the applicants use the rankings? How much importance should an applicant give to the numerous MBA rankings that get published annually?

Ramdas: MBA rankings are most useful when they reflect the opinions of both alums and employers. Alums are the direct customers of the MBA programs, and companies are their customers’ customers.  I would pay more attention to the ratings that poll both groups.

The ratings have value in helping you get a sense of where various schools stack up, what academic and GMAT/GRE scores are required to have a shot at being considered for admission at those programs, and what you can expect once you get there.  So, they do have some utility in helping you decide where to focus your energies.

Tanmoy: U.S. News, Businessweek, Forbes, the FT, Poets & Quants, QS Top MBA, and The Economist – Which of these rankings should an international applicant use and how?

Ramdas: Use them ALL, I would suggest.  Each has a slightly different take and will give you a valuable nugget or two of information about at least 1-2 schools that you would not have ordinarily put on your list.

If you have the time, I would suggest looking at the ratings of schools over time, particularly for MBA programs that seem to be improving their ranking over the years.  Those are often some of the hidden gems – programs that have made a large investment in faculty, coursework, infrastructure and are starting to show the results for it, but will likely continue to get better.  Those programs are often a bargain compared to the Top 10 ones.

Tanmoy: What are the signs that applicants should watch out for while analyzing individual business schools in the rankings?

Ramdas: Which schools show up consistently in the Top 5-10.  That list has been remarkably stable for the last 2 decades at least.  Look at which schools used to be in that list and are now definitively in the second tier, and view them with suspicion – they may not have bottomed as yet.  And look at the ones that seem to be moving up.  They’re doing something right, and you should try to take advantage of that.

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GMAT Prep & Profile Building for MBA

Tanmoy: What would be your advice for the Indian applicants on the GMAT and Profile Building?

Ramdas: Don’t neglect the GMAT – it is a critical piece of your application that answers, for Admissions Officers, the question of whether you can manage the academic side of the MBA program. A great GMAT score, in combination with a solid academic record, will ensure that your case gets past the first screen of a discerning Admissions Committee.  However, once your case gets past that hurdle, it still has to stand out for it to get you to successful admission.

Ideally, you should be considering an MBA at least two years before you start the application process.  That gives you time to improve your resume through evidence of a more rounded personality, including leadership (at work and outside) and community-oriented activities.

Most business schools like to see candidates who are more than a brilliant academic record and a good-to-mediocre employment record.  Are you also someone who is a leader and/or a problem-solver and/or a budding entrepreneur and/or a civic leader and/or … [you get the idea].

How would you pitch yourself to the Dean of Admissions at a major university, if you were asked to do so?  You should be building proof-points for your **entire** story, not just the GMAT and work-related accomplishments, starting at least 2-3 years before you apply for an MBA.

Tanmoy: Any advice/tips on GMAT preparation for busy working professionals?

Ramdas: Take it seriously. Prepare intensively for at least 2-3 months.  Start by taking a sample test from end-to-end, in exactly the same conditions as you would do the GMAT.  Then, score yourself, and be ruthless about it.  This score is your baseline score.  Also, look carefully to see where you made the most mistakes – both from carelessness as well as those questions where you were perplexed and had no idea.

Start your preparation, preferably with a good set of test materials available from one or more of the reputed agencies that do GMAT coaching.  Focus on the areas you identified above.  Also, discipline yourself to watch for where you’re prone to making silly mistakes.

At least 1 month before the exam date, start taking practice exams again, 1-2 times a week.  Again, score yourself and see if your score improved AND if you’re making fewer mistakes.

Repeat until you’re feeling like you’re in the Zone.  You’re now ready for the GMAT.  Good luck!

Tanmoy: What should applicants be doing 6-9 months and more before they apply?

Ramdas: Find a mentor or good counselor (or admissions consultant) and start mapping out a strategy. Once the admissions season opens, you want to hit the ground running.

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MBA Program Selection

Tanmoy: What are the key differentiators between a 2-year and a 1-year program? Are there specific considerations that should tilt the decision either way?

Ramdas: The former gives you a much better experience, and allows you the luxury of choosing a lot of diverse electives to help you stitch out a program of your choice.  The latter is designed for people who already have significant experience and networks, and need only the classes to round out their skills.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, but if you have the ability to do so, I would always recommend the 2-year option.  It’s more wholesome and gives you the best experience both in and outside the classroom.

MBA Essays

Tanmoy: Considering that the essay topics are pretty subjective with no absolute right or wrong answers, what are the top things that applicants can keep in mind while working on their essays?

Ramdas: Make sure it is telling your story and is in your voice. To repeat, it’s your story and you have to have conviction in telling it.  It’s also important that the story you tell be consistent with and additive to the one that’s in your resume and recommendations.  There’s nothing more guaranteed to lose your admission than you saying something about yourself in your essays that’s utterly at odds with what’s in your resume.

You should also use strong, simple language, without trying to get too ornate or flowery.

And when you’re done, have at least 2-3 people you can count on for honest feedback to read it and offer commentary.

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Tanmoy: The US is definitely the most sought-after MBA destination as the majority of top b-schools are located in the US.

But, with the tightening of the immigration rules, international students are looking elsewhere (Canada, Asia, Europe, etc.). What are your thoughts on this?

Ramdas: There are several excellent options outside the US that students should consider if they are worried about both their ability to get a visa to the US, as well as their ability to secure long-term employment in the US.  The most obvious ones are Germany, England, France, Australia, and Canada.

Outside Western Europe and North America, Singapore, Manila, and India also present very attractive and high-quality options.

Tanmoy: Apart from consulting and technology, which other industries are good bets for international students who want to work in the U.S.?

Ramdas: Don’t let me constrain you!  My advice is to go in with an open mind, consult with your classmates and the career services office.  Attend a lot of the company presentations.  And then make up your own mind.

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