Shekhar Iyer, a software engineer by degree, followed an unchartered path. After working as a software engineer for one year, he chose to work for the government. Currently working as a manager at the Reserve Bank of India, Shekhar partnered with MER on his application to business schools. His most significant challenges were his unconventional profile, employment gap, and paucity of time to create applications for multiple schools. Learn how he overcame these challenges and received an admit offer from Booth with a $40K scholarship for two years.
In this video interview with Poonam, Shekhar talks about:
- His background- 01:18
- Planning for MBA/ Career Goals- 05:42/ 09:44
- Planning for GMAT/ GMAT Prep Tips- 11:14
- Challenges during the application process- 18:12
- Three Top application tips- 25:45
- His ‘fit’ with Chicago Booth- 32:30
- Most memorable volunteering experiences- 37:45
- Thoughts on impact of Covid-19 on MBA experience- 44:25
Now presenting Shekhar in conversation with Poonam…
Poonam: Hello, Shekhar, how are you doing?
Shekhar: I am doing very well. How about you?
Poonam: I am doing well, too. Thank you. Thank you for your time for this discussion. I appreciate it. And congratulations on your admission to the Chicago Booth MBA program with a scholarship. How does it feel?
Shekhar: Thank you so much, Poonam. It feels good to have satisfactorily completed one phase of the journey and looking at the beginning of another journey. I think that the MBA application process takes a lot from you. It takes a lot of effort, and after sitting. I feel fortunate to have been admitted to this excellent center of higher learning. At the same time, I feel determined to make the most use of this opportunity and leverage all the resources to come on the other side of this experience as it transforms individuals.
Poonam: Of course, it is a great accomplishment, and I am so happy for you. Shekhar, can you tell our viewers about yourself, where you are from, where you did your undergrad, and what you do now?
Shekhar: I was born and raised in Mumbai, but I have moved around, and I think my most educative experiences had come when I was outside my home. I graduated from BITS Pilani, Goa campus in 2011 with a degree in information systems and soon joined a software company in Pune. I worked there for a year. While I liked my job there, a combination of things led me to question what I was doing and see more value from my professional experiences. After toying with the civil services plan for a while, I eventually joined the Prime Ministers Rural Development Services. It was a three-year Government of India Fellowship where I worked in one of the country's rural areas. It holds a transformative experience for me. At the end of my fellowship, I was looking for an opportunity to experience policymaking and decision-making, which led me to the Reserve Bank of India, which I joined in 2017. I have been fortunate to get the opportunity to draft some policies and take some decisions which we regulate through several hundred banks and impact over a million people.
Poonam: You have followed a unique career path. You have a degree in computer science, and after working as a software engineer for one year, you decided to work for the government. What was your motivation behind this transition?
Shekhar: I had always seen my professional experience as being something that creates more significant value than the value for myself. Of course, as a software engineer, I was, in a way doing that. In 2011, when I was working as a software developer, a large movement against the state of corruption, scams took place in the country, and I found myself attracted to the movement led by a Gandhian individual, Anna Hazare. While I was a passive observer, I slowly got more involved in the process and read about India's problems and quest for solutions. With this increased consciousness in early 2012, I went for a family visit to Singapore. I think this was a trigger for me. I realized that this nation was in a similar situation, or perhaps the worst situation, compared to India in the 1950s and 60s. It has transformed itself into this First world excellent economy within less than two generations with a very high quality of life, very little crime, and an excellent social system. And I came back determined to catalyze a similar transformation in India. The quest for this direct role in India's development led me to eventually join the Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow scheme, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since then, I have been with the government because I have found my comfort zone working with the government setting.
Poonam: Interesting. We will talk more about your work later. When did you start thinking about MBA, and why now?
Shekhar: As a prime minister's fellow, I really enjoyed the breadth of experience that my work provided me. I got the opportunity to work in governance reforms in education, in infant and child health, housing, and generally improving development infrastructure. So, when I joined the Reserve Bank, I found that I was missing the breadth that I found myself operating in as a fellow. So, I started looking for roles that would allow me to have more scope and a sizable amount of depth. While searching for such a role, I discovered that management consulting would be a role that would have a project-based approach where consultants would work with a diverse range of players on a diverse range of complex problems. I felt that this was what I wanted to do.
At the same time, in late 2018, when Jet Airways, a large airline in India, was facing a big survival issue, I found that they had engaged Mackenzie to solve a particular set of problems and Boston Consulting Group to solve a different set of problems. It was interesting to see how in each of these companies, the consultants worked on totally different problems. So, the breadth part was also there. My research led me to understand that an MBA program would prepare me much better to be more effective as a consultant and make it much easier for me to pivot into consulting from what I was doing.
I worked with the government and in the public sector for several years, and I felt that I had become comfortable. So I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, put myself out there, get feedback on my areas of development and transform myself as a professional and individual. I wanted to effectively communicate with stakeholders in diverse industries to look at problems in a more structured manner and use frameworks to solve them. And I think an MBA program would be the perfect addition to what I am experiencing as a professional at this point.
Poonam: Thank you for such a detailed response to why MBA. So, what are your career goals?
Shekhar: I am looking at leveraging the MBA to approach my first favorite into management consulting- preferably in strategy consulting because it will provide me with a diversity of functions and industries. After working there for a time, I will get exposure to a wide range of problems and industries and leverage that understanding and knowledge. In 5 to 10 years down the line, I aim to work with India's policy advisory body or with some state government in a leadership capacity or advisory capacity to resolve longstanding issues or challenges and attract investment of big plans to move towards a specific whole strategically. So that is the long-term goal that I see myself doing 10 to 15 years down the line.
Poonam: Wonderful. Let us talk about GMAT. It is a critical component of the MBA application process. Since you scored a stellar 780 GMAT score, I am curious to know your suggestions/pointers for people who are struggling to ace the GMAT?
Shekhar: After having gone through the entire GMAT process, I have found that every individual will have his or her own challenges and solutions in their individual journey as far as GMAT is concerned. But at the same time, I understand that it could be frustrating when the score that pops out on the screen is not representative of your values and professional abilities. One thing that I can say from my experience is that I was consistent. I prepared for my GMAT for five months, and I do not recollect a single day where I did not practice, even if that was for 30 minutes. So as far as quantitative ability is concerned, I understood that it is about testing my comfort with concepts. You feel that you excel in understanding the concepts, and then you start thinking about the application in a time-bound manner. Taking mock tests is the key here.
As an international student and somebody who is from South Asia, I have always found that quantitative abilities are not something that my geography struggle with; it is generally verbal ability and verbal ability with its three sections- sentence correction, critical reasoning, and reading comprehension. Each requires a different set of understanding. I felt that sentence correction for me was something that I could easily master because it is more predictable; it is more grammar putting into it. So my focus was on excelling in sentence- correction and ensuring that if there were twelve questions, all twelve of them were correct for me or maybe one or two wrong. For critical reasoning and for sentence correction, I have found that the strategy guides that you can access on the GMAT club really set the stage, so I went back to them multiple times during my preparation. For sentence correction, I also found this "Thursdays with Ron," which I believe you can now find on YouTube also. That was very helpful for me, and I would advise everybody to at least do that once during their preparation cycle.
Reading comprehension for me was never predictable, and I could never figure what would be my accuracy in those questions. Of course, you would need to prepare for reading comprehension, and I have found it helpful that reading novels or books, or even newspapers for that matter, helps improve your language skills. But I do not think that they are directly related to how you will be comfortable reading comprehension and comprehension passages. I felt that if you want to be better at solving reading comprehension questions, you must make yourself comfortable reading those often boring and abstract passages and making sense of their language and structure.
I think that was about it as far as the strategies are concerned. I am sure, Poonam, you would share my contact details. I would be available to anybody who is struggling with preparing a robust GMAT strategy. I could look at their strategy, what they are doing, where they are going wrong, and advise them as well. But I am no expert. When I went for the test in 2019, I was not expecting a 780. I would have been happy even with the 740 or 750 because the test is so unpredictable, and generally, you are not sure what you are going to get.
Poonam: You are too modest in saying that you were not expecting a 780, and you would have been happier with a 730, but you earned it.
Shekhar: But Poonam, I just want to say that the test is very unpredictable, so you are not sure what you will get. If you get that score, it is good, but as far as my target range was concerned, it was never 780. A 750 was also something that I would have been happy with, but nobody would complain about a 780.
Poonam: Of course. And thank you so much for all these valuable tips to prepare for the GMAT. Now let's talk about application prep. Can you tell us something about your application planning and preparation? What was the most challenging aspect of the school admission process, and how did you approach that challenge and overcome it?
Shekhar: So, I believe that several elements of my professional background and even my personal attributes at variance with what you would see from a typical MBA aspirant. My biggest challenge was this unconventional profile. I came from the public sector organization where people are generally looking at that job as a career where they would retire. So, anybody I talk to would ask me what I was doing, studying during my lunch breaks. I tell them that I am thinking of an MBA abroad, they would be surprised and because it was just so unbelievable for many people. Why somebody would quit that job and struggle, go outside into this unpredictable world, considering the visa situation still provides the context for all the MBA applicants.
There was nobody whom I could ask how to go about this process. I was already about to turn 30. I had a wife who would not be able to work in the US because of visa restrictions, and I did not want her career to be impacted in any manner because of my decision. I faced these challenges during my initial days and found it challenging to find answers to those questions. But, through various resources and just being fortunate in bits and pieces, I found some amazing resources that I am thankful for. So, one of the first resources that I accessed is this website called MBA Crystal Ball. It has done a fantastic job at bringing the knowledge in one place and demystifying the entire MBA abroad application process. And I still go there just whenever I have a doubt. Another resource that I was able to access is this technological platform called Applicant Lab. I found it useful to think at a more granular level on my strengths, where I want to go, which kind of company I want to target, and my short-term and long-term goals?
I spent about a couple of months just on that platform to get my pre- MBA ideations. And then, once I was there, I had the ideas ready. Then I contacted you, and then you took over from there and those ideas of putting them into a language and structure that Ad Com would value. Sometimes I was operating in a vacuum and created my assumptions about what admission committee members value, and I was not satisfied with how my essays shaped up. Also, I had spent several months perfecting my resume. But when I spoke to you, I realized this was far from perfect. To be precise, you brought two attributes to the entire process. First, you provided me with a clear and accurate understanding of what Ad Coms value, what should be the narrative of my essay, what is more practical, and what is more fluff. The second attribute was your ability to express it in as precise language as possible quickly.
To learn more about the schools, I used two resources. I attended school events and talked to current students or Alums. I referred to school guides of MBA Missions and Veritas Prep school guides to learn about the unique elements of my target schools. Thus, many people have contributed to my entire journey, and they are not even aware of it. This is how the world of the internet works.
Poonam: Great, So what are your three top application tips?
Shekhar: I feel that every applicant would have their own journey. My learnings from the past 18 months crystallize into three points. First, it is your story. You spend time on the various milestones in your life- what you have done, the decisions, the challenges, your dreams or aspirations, your mistake, successes, your failures. Also, think about key people who have led you to where you are, moments that changed the way you think. Try to put as much thought into it as possible. The earlier you start, the better. Make a mind map, explore the connections between them, and see if they complement each other. This will add substance to your story, and you will tell your story through the various components of your application. Your resume will tell the Ad Com a particular story about your professional achievements.
The second thing is- be yourself; think freely, but always confirm. When you are thinking about your ideas for a particular essay, some essays might ask you to think about how well you have engaged with diversity in your life or professional experiences. You could have your own perspective that you want to discuss. I would advise you to have somebody to read that, somebody who has a stake in your success and wants you to succeed. Even if they do not talk about your language, they might question your idea and say that this does not flow freely. So, it always helps to have that kind of additional confirmatory voice.
Poonam: I always tell people that English writing skills do not automatically translate to MBA admission writing skills. You may be very good at English, an excellent writer, but you may not be able to write good admission essays.
Shekhar: Surely. And the third tip I have is that you have to find your own path. Just because your friend has applied to only two schools and attends admission events once every week does not mean you need to do that. You do not need to follow the same path. Everybody has their own strengths, constraints, and expectations. And they might be having essentially different amounts of time on their hands. So just spend some time before your application process starts, try to understand the process, prepare your own plan, and find your own course of action. And once you have done that sufficiently well, get it confirmed by somebody who might be able to help you. Trust yourself and trust your ability to stick to your plan.
Poonam: I agree with you. So how is Booth the best school for you? How would you say you are a good fit for the program?
Shekhar: It is also important to decide which schools you want to apply to, which school would appeal to you, where do you find that, where do you see that fit because eventually, every application will cost $ 250 to $ 275. This is a huge amount for somebody who is not earning in dollars. When I started this process, the first school that really appealed to me and stood out distinctively was- Chicago Booth.
Booth’s commitment to intellectual curiosity and independent thought appealed to me. It spoke to me and reflected who I am, and I felt that I would thrive in such an environment. I enjoy the experience of challenging everything, championing the question, and finding answers to those questions. I wanted to experience that commitment to pedagogy and a rigorous commitment to education. So Booth was always my number one choice. That did not mean that I did not apply to other schools, considering how competitive the application process is. But Booth's flexible curriculum would allow me to choose my own journey and decide on areas I would want to experience and areas I would like to dive deep into. I felt this would help me design a better experience for myself and to learn better.
And this past month, I have found that the community is so welcoming. I have spoken to current students to incoming fellow admits, and to alums, some of whom have contacted me on their own and offered to help me with whatever questions I might have. They took no time to respond to my questions. Faculty members and staff members have also contacted us. This community wants me to help me fulfill my ambitions from my MBA experience and overcome any challenges that I might face. I think I could not have asked for anything better than this.
Poonam: Great, it is good to know that you are already feeling a part of the Booth community even before joining. I am happy about that. Shekhar, while working with you, I found your volunteering experience is very impressive. You have worked with the rural population, so could you share some of your experiences?
Shekhar: Sure. What I see is just a group of friends helping each other solve their problems and grow as individuals. To give some context, I would provide a brief background of the Prime Minister Rural Development fellow scheme that I was part of. This fellowship ran into cohorts, some from 2012 to 2015 and some from 2014 to 2017, where the Government of India allowed young professionals to work in some development-challenged districts of the country. As a fellow, I worked with the district collector or the CEO of the District Administration and provided that catalytic support to the district administration in providing governance improvements, better planning, and more effectively implementing government programs. So, while working as a prime Minister's fellow in a district in rural Odisha, I was welcomed into the village by this enthusiastic group of young people. Very few of them spoke Hindi, which I know was the only language that I knew amongst the language that they spoke there. I wore jeans and spoke funnily in a language that they had only heard in movies or their Prime Minister talking. Initially, I was a subject of amusement for them, but as time progressed, we developed a deep bond with each other. During my interaction with the young boys, I discovered that the village and the surrounding area were challenged with alcoholism and drug abuse. Some young boys were caught in alcoholism and drug abuse and a generally wayward lifestyle. I soon discovered that perhaps they lacked role models or did not have many opportunities for self-expression, or maybe a school or college education did not attract their attention; they had a lot of time in their hands.
During my fellowship and even after that, I worked with the boys to create avenues to engage with each other and do something together. We started certain institutions to keep them engaged and provide mentorship and career guidance. The boys respected me, and even to this day, they like to be in touch, ask me how I am doing in Mumbai, and generally talk about their lives. One of the boys left college in the middle of their second year and started working in his father's field, and he reached out to me to ask how he could complete his graduation. This would give me a trigger to learn more about the entire graduation apparatus in India and millions of youths like him who are forced to quit their job or education to help their families and how we can help them complete their education. It is a symbiotic relationship, and I like to be engaged with them because they give me the trigger to be more idealistic and do something.
Poonam: You made a difference in their lives. That is why they respect you and hold you in high esteem.
Shekhar: Perhaps I am. I am thankful to them for this opportunity that I was interested in.
Poonam: So finally, we have been living in COVID world for more than one year. How do you think this pandemic might impact your MBA experience?
Shekhar: I think COVID has really shocked the world. It has shocked every organization and every entity into rethinking their operations and strategy and come out with solutions that they might not have considered a little while back. I remember having read some articles around 2018-2019, where there was talk of online MBAs taking over the world and how they benefit at the expense of full-time MBA programs in the US. And then there were the traditionalists who said that eventually, the classroom experience will always be the flagship program for everybody. But Covid has made even the most traditional B-schools consider at least some element of online delivery of instruction. I think that Covid has impacted and will continue to impact education.
Regarding my MBA experience at Chicago Booth, I am given to understand that if everything goes as planned and the situation in the US continues to show a downward trend, they may start in-person classes in Fall, which is exciting to me. This past years’ experience has shown us so much to expect the unexpected that even if classes are delivered online, I am sure the community as a whole - Booth students, faculty, staff, and administration - will come together to ensure a great learning experience. Current students have told me how quickly every B-school, including Chicago Booth, could transition from in-classroom programs to online education delivery. Indeed, this is encouraging for an incoming student.
Poonam: Indeed, it is. Alright, Shekhar, it was nice talking to you. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I wish you good luck with your Chicago Booth MBA experience and continued success in your future. It was great assisting you with your applications. I thoroughly enjoyed the process.
Shekhar: Thank you so much, Poonam. It has been indeed a pleasure for me to talk to you, and I loved every bit of the process that we had. I appreciate you working on New Year's Eve and on several weekends during the application process to ensure that I had sufficient time to review it and then send it back to you again for review. From your words and actions, I learned so much about the admissions process and about how Ad Com members think that I can now help a few students achieve their dreams of getting into certain B schools.
Poonam: Good to know that you feel yourself in a position to help other applicants. This interview also will be a helpful resource for the prospective students.
Shekhar: I forgot to mention another resource that helped me. It had always been a challenge for me to find stories that would apply to me or be relevant to me. I found the certain interviews you had conducted with bureaucrats who had secured admissions into some US B- schools after working with you. I really found some commonality with that candidate who was in his 30s and who had spent a lot of time in the public services and was targeting a top B school in the US. I benefited so much from that interview, and I hope that this interview also helps people who are on the fence and struggling to find the right path.
Poonam: Of course. I think you are referring to Rohit's interview. Yes, he got accepted into Kellogg. I'm so glad, and I will let him know that his interview helped you. You will also be a valuable resource for prospective applicants in your industry and others too.
Shekhar: I hope so.
Poonam: Thank you so much for your time. It was nice talking to you. Bye!!
Shekhar: Thank you very much. Bye, take care.
You can connect with Shekhar via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/ishekhariyer/
You may email Poonam at email@example.com with questions about your application for the 2021-22 admission cycle.