16 Sep 2015 17:01 IST

How Ingeneam helps students get into top US B-schools

Starting early, sometimes when the aspirants are still in school, mentors help candidates build holistic profiles

Education advisory firm Ingeneam helps students to get admission to top MBA schools and Ivy League undergraduate programmes globally.

Rashmi Seshadri

In an interaction with BusinessLine, the company’s founder & CEO, Rashmi Seshadri, herself an alumnus of the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business, shares her experience in mentoring students, especially from India, to gain admission to major B-schools in the US.

Tell us about your advisory firm and what made you start such a company?

I started advising friends, as well as friends of friends, while I was still in Booth. I really enjoyed educating and coaching people and, after doing this for a couple of years while in corporate marketing for Sears, a Fortune-500 retailer, I knew this was my calling. So, I quit my job and started doing this full-time. I started in 2007 and have been doing this full-time since 2009.

Our team has helped hundreds of candidates from India and abroad get into elite programmes in the US, the UK and in Asia. Since then, as our business has grown, I have been able to recruit almost a dozen like-minded individuals educated at Harvard, Wharton, Booth and IIT to work with me to help young Indian professionals bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement.

How does such counselling work?

For undergraduate counselling, we help students right from the time they are in high school, with guidance on the kind of courses and activities they should select to build their individual profiles. In India, there is a lot of emphasis on marks and grades. So, we also try to educate students on how it is important to have a well-rounded profile. In terms of higher education, we work with young professionals who want to get into B-schools and help them with every aspect of building a holistic profile.

How difficult is it to get into prestigious MBA colleges in the US?

While 25 per cent of people registering for and taking the GMAT are of Indian origin, only about 10 per cent of students in business schools in the US are Indian. It is two to three times harder for Indian applicants to get in. In other words, not all those with 99 percentile scores in GMAT get into Harvard or Booth.

It would be a pretty boring place if these institutions had only type A personalities. In my MBA class at Booth, we had a chef, school-teachers, investment bankers and students from diverse fields. A lot of learning is not just from professors but from your classmates as well. The more varied a class, the more diverse a class, it makes for a better learning experience.

What does a typical MBA school in the US expect from the students, apart from those good GMAT scores?

They give a lot of weightage to what you have done during four years of college. That’s consistency. So, what you have done during those four years versus that one exam (GMAT) is extremely important. Indians do extremely well in tests. We are kind of pushed towards that.

Second, MBA programmes also look at leadership potential. They want to know whether you were a complete nerd or did you go out and start a club, did you improve your school in any way? What did you do for your community? It is not about donating money to the Red Cross. It is time and effort you’ve invested to organise blood donation camps, or to assume a leadership role in your extra-curricular activities.

The third, and most crucial, factor is self-awareness. Do you know yourself; do you know what you want and do you know why you want it. Can you make us believe it? There is no right or wrong but it all goes back to why you made those decisions. Questions like ‘how are you a better person today, what are your learnings from your life experiences’. We have had some candidates in the pipeline for over a year and a half, and we are helping them build their profile.

It is also about creating a personal brand, both on and offline that is not only a reflection of you, but also meshes well with what that particular school is seeking. The last, and probably the most straightforward, part is acing the standardised tests. Above all, get counsel from others who have been there, done that (and not your aunt, uncle or friend who lives around the corner).

Ideally, when should an MBA aspirant approach you?

The earlier they come to us, the better, so we can improve the candidate’s odds of success. Typically, you should reach out in your fourth year of graduation. The GRE and GMAT have a validity of five years and so you must take these exams when you are still in college. Once you start working, there are far too many competing priorities and you may not be able to do your best. So, complete these exams while you are still an undergraduate student, maybe in the third or fourth year.

Then comes work experience. You are still too green during your first year out of college. So, our process starts with having you complete a proprietary worksheet. It helps the students to reflect and introspect and takes them back to school, college, and teenage years. It forces them to reflect and think about some of the decisions they made and why those made sense at that time and also look at where they want to be in five to ten years.

How does the worksheet — that you ask the students to fill up — help them?

We gain an in-depth understanding about them and it also helps the student internalise how to project themselves. For example, he will be able to identify what the glaring gaps are and the process starts from there as we try to plug those gaps. Let us say the academics are a little iffy. You can enrol for free online courses. That does two things for your profile. It shows you have built on your skills and establishes that you have a love for learning. You can also take courses in line with your goals, to further show interest.

The next one is work experience. For an MBA course, you need solid work experience, unlike a Master’s degree. So, what gets counted is whether you have the ability to take up a senior role and hit the ground running. Do you want to be a career switcher? We work with the candidate and suggest specifics on what they could do at their current employer, be it making a lateral move or some other action.

The next will be a well thought strategy in applying to schools. Here is where the experience of our team helps. We have all remained connected with our alma maters, in various capacities. We do career coaching, alumni interviews and are in constant touch with the admissions staff and are able to use this knowledge to help our candidates.

We’re increasingly seeing Indians fill top CEO posts in key US-based multinational companies. What makes them so attractive?

The current boom in ecommerce and start-ups notwithstanding, an international MBA is the surest way of reaching the highest levels of corporate management. With consistent 7 per cent+ GDP growth, by 2035, the demand for middle and upper management talent in India will be five times what it is today.

While India has always been known for its engineering and technical talent, Fortune-500 companies sorely feel the need for world-class management talent and routinely import Indian talent trained abroad. Additionally, with more Indian companies going global, education, experience and networks developed abroad will be valued more than ever. The demand for our services keeps growing and this year, we expect to have twice as many clients as in 2013.

What other trends do you see among Indian students wanting to study abroad?

The US remains by far the most popular destination for Indian students, with over 110,000 Indian students enrolled in institutions there. The UK, Canada and Australia follow the US in terms of popularity. After declining for three years, the enrolment of Indian students in the US has grown robustly for the past two years. Still, we trail China, which has almost 300,000 students in the US.

While degrees in STEM remain the most popular choice for Indian students in the US, we are seeing some diversification. About 12 per cent are pursuing business degrees and an additional 10 per cent are in other non-STEM programmes. Another trend is the growth of women students from India with one in three enrolled being women now.

Finally, after sharp cutbacks post the global financial meltdown, we are now seeing more financial aid being made available for international students. Some 20 per cent of undergraduates and 35 per cent of graduate students across the board get financial aid. We are proud to say that over 80 per cent of our clients get financial assistance and, on a related note, we have experience with Credila, the dedicated education loan provider that has extended loans without collateral to our clients. To cater to the demand and due to the insistence of our partners, we have decided to formally launch a division to cater to undergraduate admissions.

With the number of IITs and IIMs growing in India, is an education abroad really worth it?

At the outset, let me tell you that we do need more such institutions. I believe every State should have an IIT and an IIM, and the total enrolment should be quadrupled. This said, it is going to take a while — maybe up to 25 years — for some of the new institutions to gain the same kind of reputation for high standards in teaching and research. It has taken a generation for the original IITs to become world-renowned and so, starting with infrastructure, faculty and finally world-class students, we have a long way to go to replicate that success.

I see an insatiable demand for education at reputed universities abroad. Why, we have even worked with students who have completed one year at an IIT and then chosen to continue their education in the US.