Preparing for an MBA and not just the CAT

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CAT / Motivation

The results of quite a few top b-schools are out and even now I get a lot of queries about that revolve around specialisations — which specialisations should I choose, I do not have any idea what my area of interest and so and so forth.

This is not surprising since in India our strategy is simple — first crack the test, then see what is the best college your percentiles can get you and then finally start thinking about specialisations! The funny part is that we do not seem to learn from our mistakes since this is the same policy we followed for our graduation as well and now want to do an MBA so that we can undo the mistakes of our graduation but without having changed our standard operating procedure!

There are only a handful of aspirants who know what they want to do and more importantly who also know what a career in that field entails (it is very easy to say with absolute conviction that I want to get into investment banking without having the slightest clue about the same).

What an MBA means?

One of the misconceptions is that MBA is equivalent to management. From this simplistic equivalence comes the notion that most people hold — doing an MBA will help them play manager-manager. The most important letter of the three in MBA is B — Business!

The difference between an MBA and other degrees such as MS or CA or CFA is that with those degrees the functional knowledge you pick up in the text books and master is very directly applicable in the jobs that you will take up.

An MBA on the other hand prepares you at a very broad-level by giving you a framework and direction to think through the real-life business problems you will face by using real-life business case studies.

Also, you might not be directly applying most of what you learnt in your first job post an MBA. It will be a few years before you reach a decision-making position that will demand you to draw on what you learnt in a b-school and find a way to apply it to the unique business problems you are confronted with.

It is not very different to learning swimming extensively in a swimming pool for two years before being thrown out into the sea.

So given this is it not ironic that very few CAT aspirants read the Business section of the newspaper?

Also, almost all the IIMs and other top b-schools have started doing pure GK and Current Affairs interviews over the last few years. Why do they do this? They know that most Indian applicants have been excellent students in class but few have little to show for in terms of their awareness of the larger world. They use the interview process to filter out those few who know more than what they learnt in the books.

The CAT results are usually out around mid-Jan and your first interview can be before the end of Jan and there is no way that you can mug up all the current affairs over the past year in the world in two weeks!

So, the first step towards really preparing for an MBA and not just the CAT is to start reading the sections in the newspaper apart from the sports section such as the business page, international news and the front page.

The IIMs call 4 people for 1 seat so technically even if you clear the CAT,  and you can’t leave the preparation for that part of the equation for way too late in the game.

A reading list to learn a bit more about the MBA

A question that I get asked very often, that typifies the middle-class Indian mindset and one that, to put it bluntly, I hate the most is — sir, kaun se field mein scope zyaada haiFin, Mark or HR?

Well, the daftness of this question can be understood by looking at an analogous question — sir kaun se field from scope zyaada hai  – Batting, Bowling or Wicket-Keeping?

From this it should be very clear that the question itself is incorrect.

Your aim should be to find out about each specialisation and analyse which one will you be good at. Any above-average person can be a 6 out of 10 on most things but a 6 out of 10 is not good enough for you to be really successful in the long run. You should try to find the area where you can be an 8 out of 10.

One small query will still be lurking somewhere but kaun se field mein paisa zyaada hai. There is a enough money to give you great roti, great kapda, great makaan in every field. What you need to ask yourself is – why should someone pay you money?

The IIMs are under no obligation to ensure that you get placed. They only provide a platform for the best companies to visit their campuses and recruit their students. The 20-odd lakhs you will pay to an IIM is not a guarantee of a 20-odd lakh job because no one owes you a job!

Firms will pay top dollar to top talent. What you need to spend your time on is to find the area where you have the potential to become a top draw talent.

A good way to begin is to start learning a bit more about Finance (beyond Wolf of Wall Street), Marketing (beyond I-can-make-better-ads-than-these), Operations (beyond I-am-a-Mechanical Engineer) and Human Resource Management (beyond I-love-interacting-with-people).

The Finance List

Before one gets into Finance one needs to understand the basics of Economics and these are covered in an easy to understand manner in these two books by a professor who teaches Economics at IIM-A.

While learning the technical aspects of Finance can be left for later, you can pick up a real world flavour of the workings of Hedge Funds, Investors and Quantitative Finance by reading these two books that narrate real-life events pertaining to the financial markets.

Both of the books above are very entertaining reads and the first one as some of you would know has also been made into a movie.

For anyone interested in trading The Intelligent Investor  by Bill Graham is a must-read.

For a less entertaining but more historical understanding of Finance, you can go through

The Marketing List

Maybe seemingly the least bookish of all disciplines and yet posing the toughest challenge for all firms  — how do we sell what we make or should it be what should we make or should it rather be what do people want?

Not too many books that are directly explain the nitty-gritty of marketing but these three should do the job.

The Operations  & Project Management List

The bible for Operations and a part of the syllabus in most of the IIMs, The Goal uses a fictional story to help you understand the core concepts of operations and systems management. The author Eli Goldratt has used the same concepts to write a few more books to cover the entire domain of operations; the last book in the list below covers Project Management. Read him and you will not have imagined Operations can be taught in such an engaging and insightful manner.

The HR List

Read to get better, read with a target

The first thing to do is to approach these books with the right mindset. Do not read to

  • use information from these to build answers in your interviews; that can be the most stupid thing you can do since you will be showing the panel that you are doing what the Indian system has taught you to do — memorise & regurgitate
  • show off that reading is your hobby; if it is you should already have a list of favourite authors and books (that hopefully does include a certain Mr.Bhagat and his creations)

Treat these books as stepping-stones to learning more about the vast world of business management.

Do not look only at books that deal with your specialisation because if you want to be a business leader you can’t just be Finance guy or a Marketing guy, you need to be curious to learn about everything that contributes to building a great organization.

The ones among you who should read all of this at any cost are those who one year from now when facing interviewers asking you — Why MBA — are ready to say — I want to start my own firm in the future. 

These books will cost you, some a little and some a bit more but think about how much you spend on watching a stupid movie or an evening out with friends. If you have your priorities right, you will find a way to acquire and read them even it means making a few sacrifices on other fronts.

A good target to set will be to choose 12 out these 15 and finish them before June 2018 — the month you should be starting your MBA.

And before you sigh thinking I don’t have the time for this or I wish I had the time for this — no one has time and you will rarely have more time than you have today until you retire.

Look at your day, look at the apps on your phone, look at your browsing tendencies. Whenever you make a choice to do one thing with your time, you are not doing something else with it.

Your current consumption of entertainment might seem much more interesting than this reading list but that is not very different from eating potato chips — absolutely irresistible to eat but absolutely useless for your health.

So time to weed out the potato chips you are feeding your mind and feed it something that is aligned with your long-term goals. But there is an exception to every rule, in this case the upcoming season of Game of Thrones :-).



  1. Pingback: How to prepare for the VA section of the CAT – The CAT Writer

  2. Anupam says

    Wow. I never thought I would find so much answers in this single article. I had been thinking for a long time if an MBA degree will ‘help me start my own business’ or ‘just prepare me for a job discipline in the business world’. I guess I am at peace now. The only doubt I have left is that I am neither supremely talented nor very smart and mostly an introvert. Should I pursue an MBA degree?


    • Hi Anupam,

      Glad you found the post useful.

      Well when you say you are neither supremely talented nor very smart, you are using superlative degrees. I guess okay talent and decent smarts when couple with ability to work hard and manage people well will make you achieve your goals.

      Also if MBA was only for extroverts the bulk of the students at to b-schools will not have made it.

      Extroversion is not a must. It is the ability to communicate precisely that matters. This is a very famous talk that will throw more light on the same –

      What you need to decide is whether you are a techie or whether you are more of a generalist interested in managing people, sales and businesses.

      Eventually unless one is into core tech or R & D an MBA becomes a must for career growth.

      Hope this gives you a direction to think.


  3. Pratik More says

    Really great post!!
    I felt like my inner self is speaking through this post while I was reading it!!


    • Hi Pratik,

      Felt really nice to read your comment.

      One tries to write from within so it is gratifying to hear that it spoke to you.

      All the best!


  4. Faraz says

    I really liked your post. I am following it n sharing it to many people as it will give them a clear view of why do a candidate should pursue MBA and they should try to find out in which specialisation from this post.. thank you sir.. thanks a lot.


  5. Nabeel says

    That was really an awesome post.. And i wanna know is that necessary to have experience to pursue MBA?


    • Glad you found the post useful. Work ex is not necessary if you want to major in Marketing or Finance.

      It becomes mandatory, though not formally stated, for Ops and Information Management since firms recruiting for these domains need work ex prior to MBA.

      For Consulting, primarily the brand of you Grad college and the rest of your resume plays a big role in whether you get a shortlist or not, work ex is again not mandatory.

      Hope this clarifies.

      All the best!


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