Posted on June 8, 2021

Indian Medical Officer’s Journey to ISB & IE at Age 35 against all Odds



MER (myEssayReview) student Dr. Praveen Sadananda Gopan works as a Medical Officer and Psychiatrist at a government hospital. He dreamed of pursuing an MBA from a top business school. However, there were many hurdles on his journey- his unconventional profile, age (34 years), employment gap, education gap, and above all, a non-competitive GMAT.

Learn how he overcame these challenges and received admit offers from ISB and IE. Praveen was waitlisted at ESADE.

Now presenting Praveen in conversation with Poonam wherein he talks about:

  • His background  00:57
  • Why MBA  03:38
  • Career Goals  05:54
  • GMAT Prep- the mistakes he made  07:25
  • Challenges during the application process  15:18
  • His preference for ISB over IE  22:35
  • Thoughts about older candidates' chances for MBA  24:40
  • Thoughts on leadership  28:00
  • Difference Between Interview of ISB and IE  32:30
  • Volunteer Work  36:55
  • Insights into Covid-19 pandemic as a medical professional  38:40
  • Impact of Covid-19 on your MBA experience  42:25

Now presenting  Praveen in conversation with Poonam:

Poonam: Hello Praveen! How are you doing? Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. How are you doing?

Praveen: I am doing well. Thank you.

Poonam: Congratulations on getting Admit offers from two schools, ISB and IE! It is an outstanding achievement. ISB was your dream school. How does it feel?

Praveen: It feels good. My struggle for many years has finally borne the fruit. I had left hope at some point in time, but eventually, I am back on track. So, it feels excellent.

Poonam: Of course. Can you say something about yourself to our readers? Where are you from, and where did you do your undergrad, etc.

Praveen: I hail from a very rural background in one of the backward districts in India, particularly the Chippakulam district. I had no formal schooling; I was home tutored. I appeared in my class 10th with the Jila Parishad High School- a government secondary school. Later, I studied in the same town in class 11th and 12th. I completed my 10th before the prescribed age, so I had to wait for some time to write the MSAT. After that, I took help from a coaching center in a nearby city, and I cracked the entrance examination test (MSAT) for Medical in our state.

I got into a Medical College on merit. I did my medicine and worked for some time in various domains of health care. I worked at multiple places and started my setup in my district to serve my people. Later, I did my post-graduation in 'psychiatry' and got accepted on merit. After that, I joined the Central Health Services, conducted by the Public Service Commission. I cracked that one during my second year of post-graduation and got into the job soon after my post-graduation. It was a stepping stone for me because I was very reluctant to join a job that didn't suit my profile. But I insisted my superiors start an outpatient department, and things worked out for me. Overall, it has been a delightful journey.

Poonam: You have a unique profile. You were doing well with your career as a medical officer and a consultant psychiatrist. In addition to your job, you are heavily involved with many voluntary organizations as well. So, where does MBA fit in?

Praveen:  To answer that, I need to tell you a few things. First, MBA was my career aspiration soon after my MBBS because my brother completed his MBA from one of the prestigious institutes, IIM Calcutta. It was a trigger for me. After my Medical, I realized that I didn't have a good resume because I didn't attend good schools. I thought of giving myself some time to build a good resume, which lingered in my mind. Soon after, I joined Central Health Services, a partly administrative job– consisting of managing the dispensaries, workers, and the drug supplies for everything. Around that time, we had a six-week residential training program, and this triggered my managerial affinity. After that, working in NGOs and managing them, and working as a consultant to one of the defunct hospitals made me understand that I need a formal and proper education to dive into things. I was more inclined to the managerial aspect, and I wanted to move to the administrative part of the business. So, I want to explore further in the field of management. Healthcare is a huge industry, so I want to work across various domains and explore things. For that, I need a good management education.

Poonam: Your story is very inspiring- without any formal school education, you went to do medical and post-graduation in medicine. And now you have received admission offers from two reputed B- schools. What are your career goals?

Praveen: My primary goal after joining ISB is to join as a Consultant in the healthcare consultancy because the healthcare vertical is one of the upcoming verticals in consulting services. This is my short-term goal, and I want to advance my career in that. And because working in the marketing consultant field gives me exposure to various domains of health care, where I can learn many things right. Further, I want to start my own setup at some point in time.

Poonam: As you said, you did not have formal schooling and you are from an unconventional background - the medical field. But  MBA required you to take the GMAT.  GMAT must have been challenging for you because it requires quantitative skills. I know it was a huge challenge for you. Can you tell us something about your GMAT prep?

Praveen: There were two tasks here for me. I'm from a medical background, and even in the intermediate (high school), we don't study Math. My Math education stopped at the age of 10.GMAT required at least secondary school and plus two Math. As I didn't have any formal schooling and I was home-tutored, my basics in English were also a bit on the rough edge. For me, it was like starting everything from scratch. I gave my first attempt way back in 2018. I could hardly score 560 with the preparation of two to three months. I didn't understand where I was going wrong. The only skill I possessed was critical reasoning and reading comprehension because we do that in medicine. It's fine with me because we need to go through an enormous number of books and comprehend them. But I struggled with sentence correction and did not know what to do because lack of schooling showed up there. That led me to the mirror, saying that you need to improve on that. If you don't, you will be stuck at this point.

At that point, I took a course of e-GMAT. Initially, I joined a classroom session where they taught people who were already well-versed in everything. So, everything went over my head. Later, I joined e-GMAT as such, and that helped me very much in building my basics. I took my second attempt in March 2020 and scored a 650. E- GMAT took me from 560 to 650. But I was stuck there for another one or two attempts. Again, I tried something else. ( GMAT Whiz), and that 40-point improvement took me to 690, my final score. I was ok with that. I could not take any more attempts since I had exhausted all my attempts. Now, I had to meet almost all the schools' deadlines.

Poonam: I know you contacted me in April, and we were supposed to start application prep in August, but we could not do that because of your GMAT, and we could start in early October.

Praveen: Actually, I made a few mistakes in my GMAT prep. I should have devoted some amount of time clearly to that, but that never materialized. I was thinking of leaving the job and looking after the family along with GMAT prep, but that was also difficult. So, I managed with Fridays, Holidays, and all days before the exam, but it never worked for me.   I would advise people to put aside at least three months of complete dedication to the GMAT before doing anything unless they were absolute wizards with a good quantitative and verbal background.

Poonam: Based on your experience, can you offer some advice on the mistakes that prospective applicants should not make about GMAT?

Praveen: I learned from my experience and my failures.  I have acquired a few skills and have failed in quite a few skills. Those are mainly due to my work. The Ad Com members told me that I was very late to the party because they had closed the Indian pool after Round 1. They were upfront, saying that they are just calling me because I have a unique background, and they wanted to talk with me. They said if somebody drops out, they will consider me, but still, I was late. My failure taught me that we should plan, and the most important thing is to get the GMAT out of the way. Even if you get some score, and if you are confident that you will track through with that score, take that risk earlier rather than in the later rounds. And for the GMAT, you need to give some time. The exam looks pretty simple on the surface, but it is not. It will throw you some bounces all the way, and as you come to 650 to 680 to 700, the difficulty level increases drastically. So you need to concentrate on that.

Poonam: You retook the GMAT 20 days before the deadline. At that time, I had discouraged you because I wanted you to focus only on the application.

Praveen: Yeah. Then, I was doing multiple tasks at the same time. I was going through the applications, GMAT prep, and I was sick.

Poonam: I think at that time you got sick with dengue.

Praveen: I was working at that time without any leave. So I was jumbling on multiple things. I would not advise anyone to do that because not every time the results will come in your cradle; sometimes, they may not.

Poonam: Despite all odds, you still accomplished two schools.  Also, Warwick and ESADE  waitlisted you.

Praveen: Yes, ESADE Ad Com members said they liked my profile and wanted me in this class, but the quota for Indian applicants was over, and the class was almost full. So they can't do much right now.

Poonam: Right. Let us talk about the application prep now. Can you share your application strategy, planning, and preparation?

Praveen: Actually, my application strategy and planning started with the stories, rough drafts. I think we had more than few stories in our box. And later, we tried to refine stories that fit into the questions and then fine-tuned it; we did four versions for each essay. Together, we did four iterations of the resume. Letters of recommendation are significant, too. I chose two recommenders- one was my direct manager (my professional work), and the second was from an NGO that I am associated with. They both evaluated me for my leadership skills, work skills, and personal traits to project different aspects of my candidacy. I requested my recommender to share his initial draft to give us some time to adjust it grammatically and in a flow. He was kind enough to permit me to do that. With your help, things went smoothly.

Poonam: Apart from GMAT prep, what was the most challenging part of the application process for you?

Praveen: Introspection into your experiences right from your childhood is most challenging because you must think backward.  Initially, I had ignored a few things about my candidacies, such as lack of formal schooling and my learning disability in the first eight years of my life. It was tough for me to learn things because of my learning disability. I thought that mentioning these weaknesses would hurt my chances of success. But you advised me to mention these in my application. I liked when you said that it would not be a dragging point for you; instead, it would be something that will show your perseverance and your character.   Also, in 2012, I left the course because of my family issues. And I never mentioned that in my flow chart. But you suggested that I need not shy away from telling the truth because it shows my character and values.

Poonam: Yes, I advised that the education gap needs to be explained.  We justified your education gap in the optional essay.

Praveen: So, these things that I never shared with anyone before are explained adequately in my essays.  You never know which part of your career is shining well and which part of your career needs some polish? So, we should weigh the facts because many things happen in the lives that we can miss. Secondly, we need to introspect multiple times to develop many stories because you cannot settle with two or three stories. After all, every question is different. You can't project the same thing in every application.  You need to have a safer bet with at least eight to ten stories that can be fine-tuned at a later point.

Poonam: Yes, brainstorming ideas is the most challenging aspect.

Praveen: Deciding on which story to finalize or which story needs to go to the drafting table is challenging. After that, things will fall in place. The first draft will be the most challenging. It would take at least 20 days if you had already thought about your personal and professional stories. But if you have just started thinking about your career, it will take more than a month.

Poonam: We should leave no loose ends, so we explained your education gap. You quit your studies to take care of your sick father because your mother needed your support. So, it was essential to justify that education gap. Similarly, we needed to spell out your learning disability because it is not a common thing. The admission committee needed to know that this person with a learning disability rose to do a master's in medicine, became a professional speaker, and then went on to take the GMAT.

Praveen: Yes, initially, I was terrified of public speaking.

Poonam: Your story is inspiring in every way as it tells people that handicaps in life should not pull us down. If you have a will, and if you persevere, you can achieve everything. Your story is an example of that.

Praveen: Thank you.

Poonam: As mentioned earlier, you received admit offers from two MBA programs, ISB & IE, but you decided to join ISB. Could you please tell us how ISB is the best school for you? ISB is an Indian school, and IE is a European school. People usually prefer to go to Europe. So how is ISB a better fit for you?

Praveen: I have both personal and professional reasons to choose ISB over IE.  I have a small kid now, so I would like to stay close to home and work in India for some time. So, ISB is the best fit because going back to India would be tricky if I go to a European school. Yeah, that is the reason why I applied to European schools. But still, coming back to India would be difficult. So, ISB is my best bet. And, even from the aspect of return of investment, ISB is on the higher side because it costs less and will offer me better value for my money. So, these are the factors that made me choose ISB. Apart from that, both IE and ISB are vibrant communities and have different offerings.

Poonam: I understand. One of the most common concerns that prospective applicants have shared with me during my ten years as an MBA admissions coach is the applicants' age. Often people ask me, "Poonam, I am 29 years old, and I'll be 30 next year. Do you think I am too late for MBA admissions?" I explain to them that it is not the end of the road if you turn 30. Praveen, you are 35 now; you applied to MBA programs after turning 34, so you are the best person to shed light on this that 35 is not very old for MBA programs.

Praveen: I always believe that it is better to do something rather than doing nothing. I do not want to regret it for the rest of my life, thinking that I should have done this later in my career.  Age is not a criterion for anybody to judge somebody because many successful people have achieved things irrespective of their age. You cannot even see their age because you only see their personality and their capabilities. Everything depends on how you present yourself and your aspirations. The brain does not know about age; only your body knows about age. As long as you are running and you're fighting, you are still in your 20's. But if you are in your 20's and give up the fight, you are already in your 50's. I was the same person when I did my MD, and I am still the same person doing my MBA.

Poonam: Correct. I would remember that the brain does not know age.

Praveen: Yes, the brain does not know age. You teach it that you are this old. Otherwise, your brain does not count the days. If you do something monotonous and do not challenge your brain, it will go down, just like another muscle.  Once the brain forgets the age, your body also tries to forget that.

Poonam: I love this statement. When you do not tell your brain, it forgets the age, and your body also forgets it. Wonderful. So, your message for older candidates is that they can apply for MBA even when they cross 30.

Praveen: Yes, definitely.

Poonam: Great. As a medical officer and psychiatrist, you come from an unconventional background. People often wonder they are from a medical background or an administrative job, so how would they portray leadership skills? Could you please share your insights on how we displayed your leadership skills in essays?

Praveen: For me, leadership is when you rise to a crisis and help people move on. There is no point in saying that you led a group of 30 disgruntled people. But when the situation demands, you can regroup people and make them rise to the occasion. That is the absolute essence of leadership. I have done it on multiple occasions, during the covid time. During the various crisis management things, I worked with them in emergencies, case setups, rehabilitations, and took charge. When you are delivering, people start looking up to you.

Leadership is also a learning experience. You learn as a leader. As I am growing as a father, I grow as a leader. You become a leader when you just start rising to the occasion. In my essays, we showed such events where I worked in my hospitals to help people.  I managed my teams effectively with inadequate resources, ensured that things are in line and my resources are not drained out. So, in my opinion, every day is a new lesson for you. Leadership is grouping people and moving ahead with them.  When I started working at the defunct hospital, I did not know anything about restarting a hospital. I had to learn because people depended on me and expected me to deliver. That pressure made me learn for myself, teach them,  move ahead, plan for them, and in the end, we were successful in starting that hospital. Right now, it is running in profits. You can pick any instance from your day-to-day life where you can demonstrate that ability to guide people properly, understand people, and show them the proper way. In the process, you learn from them.

Poonam: Very true. Especially during the pandemic, there were many instances when you had to rise to the occasion and show your leadership. Praveen, you have been interviewed with ISB and three European schools. How were these interviews different from each other?

Praveen: One major factor is that ISB is well aware of the situation in India, but being a European school, IE does not know much about India. In the ISB interview, they did not drill into my educational background or my undergrad, postgrad, or anything because they have a fair amount of knowledge about what is happening in India. My European school interviews were almost always generic, where they tried to grasp a complete picture of me as a person and professional instead of focusing on specific questions. Secondly, the European schools' interviews were conducted by one admission committee member. A three-member panel conducted the ISB interview, and they grilled me about my career goals. They even pointed out a contradiction in my essays, so I had to clarify that I never mentioned that I want to work in a single healthcare domain; I want to work across various healthcare aspects.

Everybody in the three-member ISB interview panel was ready with their questions. It went on for 45 to 50 minutes, and at least 30 minutes were centered around the goals essay. They also asked for clarification regarding my schooling and asked how it was even possible to come this far without formal education. They asked me, on a scale of zero to 10, how anxious I was. I said 2, that too because I was wearing a coat that day. Then they asked, why are you wearing a coat in summer? That means you are anxious. I said, "No, I am not. I thought there would be a dress code, and so I dressed in a coat." They told me to remove it. Though I was anxious, I stood my ground of anxiety level at 2. I could answer all the questions confidently. Overall, the interview went very well.

Poonam: Good. And how long was the IE interview?

Praveen: IE interview was 35 minutes.

Poonam: Praveen, you have a primary job as a medical officer and another role as a consultant psychiatrist, which you have been doing without being paid. You have also been engaged in many extracurricular activities and voluntary work. Can you tell us something about your voluntary work?

Praveen: I have been involved with voluntary work for a long time. Since my under-graduation days, I was involved with an NGO that works in disability welfare. Later, after joining my job here in Hyderabad, I started working in a rehabilitation center because that is very close to my subject. I have been working with adolescents, adult drug addicts, and older people; recently, I have started working with children. I was invited to address people with special needs. So, almost every day, I spend roughly three hours with these NGOs. It gives me satisfaction because I feel I need to pay back to the society that has given me so much. There are many underprivileged people. If I can help them somehow, maybe, I will get that help back in some other form.

Poonam: That is a very noble thought. As I said, your story is inspiring not only in terms of your professional achievements but also in terms of what you are doing for the community. It is commendable. Finally, being a healthcare professional, what are your thoughts on the turmoil, and uncertainty created by this international health crisis, COVID-19?

Praveen:  COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for everybody. Almost every other country in the world has suffered because of this and is still suffering. The pandemic has shown us our lack of preparedness to handle a big crisis. This is not a new crisis. Every hundred years or so, a pandemic has affected the globe. So, we should have the means such as budget, government allocations, and our health care systems, but we were not prepared for that. Apart from that, I felt there is a lack of communication between the health care system. On the one hand, there was a health care supply chain where you manufacture devices to prepare PPE kits and everything. On the other hand, there is a lack of coordination between these two service sectors. Initially, we were scrapping up the PPE kits. We were given only 5 N95 masks per month and were asked to rotate. It was a dire situation at some point in time. Wearing an N-95 mask and sitting throughout the day was like hell. We were entirely unprepared for this situation.

Also, the pandemic showed the economic consequences a small disease can cause, the changes to the healthcare infrastructure a country should bring up, and the changes the world should think about. Everything was just brought naked by Covid 19. And everywhere, health infrastructure is too much stretched. Too much hurt showed the lack of coordination in the healthcare industry because people are scraping out even for vaccines. They are using vaccine diplomacy to win over people and everything. I believe health is something that needs to be placed over everything. If you are not healthy, there is no point in having anything else.

Poonam: Very true. I agree.

Praveen: It is an unfortunate year as such. Apart from the Covid crisis, many people died because of hunger. So overall, it showed us doomsday. We still have not come out of this, but we are strong and fighting it back. And the war is not yet over.  This is a warning sign that there are still infections that can cripple the entire economies of the world. And the economy and healthcare can't be separated.

Poonam: Very true. How do you think this global health crisis will impact your MBA experience?

Praveen: Initially, I think our campus at the ISB will start a bit late. The website states that the classes will begin virtually. But hopefully, we might resume back. We might get back to normal soon. When some crisis hits,  you take it as a challenge and then move on.

Poonam: Yes, is it going to be all virtual in the beginning.

Praveen: It seems like that. There was no communication from ISB, but they have stated that the first two or three terms will be online. Last year, it was six months virtual and six months on campus. The campus opened even during the peak of the pandemic, during the lockdown also. So hopefully, this time, it would be a bit on the lighter side.

Poonam: Yes, let us hope for the best.

Praveen: So obviously, that interaction will be a bit on the lower side. Still, I am trying to create a health care group in the ISB loop. And I connected with at least 20 people with a similar healthcare background. Hopefully, it is a new learning experience.

Poonam: See wherever you will go; you will help people and add value. I am sure of that.  Is there anything else you think I should have asked?

Praveen: I think that we have covered all the areas.

Poonam: We have had a wonderful conversation. It was great to talk to you and learn about your experiences, thoughts, and insights. Thank you for taking the time for us, and it was a great experience helping you with your application.  I wish you good luck with your ISB experience and continued success in your career. Stay in touch. I would like to know about your ISB experience.

Praveen: Yeah. Sure. Thank you very much, Poonam.

Poonam: Thank you. All the best.

You can connect with Praveen via LinkedIn.

Related Resources:

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