One of the things about preparing for a b-school personal interview, especially that of an old IIM, is that one struggles to find a structure to prepare for what can potentially be the most random 20 minutes of one’s life. I am sure my previous post, despite my intentions, would have scared readers rather than reassured them. So let us see how you can bring some structure into your PI Prep.
One-half of the prep is what I wrote in my previous post — doing a 360-degree survey of different aspects of your profile from a GK & CA perspective.
The other half is answering The Big 5 questions —
- Tell me something about yourself
- Describe your work experience
- Why MBA
- What are your career goals — short-term and long-term
- What are your strengths and weaknesses
Answering these questions individually can be a painful task since there might be an overlap in the answers you have framed for each one of these. Also, most people end up mouthing clichés and platitudes when they look at these questions in isolation.
The IIM-B SOP Prompt asks, more or less, the same 5 questions.
Prepare a short essay of 600 words on yourself in the space provided below. You may wish to talk about your background, significant events, accomplishments, extra-curricular activities, relationships with friends and family, career plans and how the Post-Graduate Program in Management from IIMB fits into your dreams and aspirations. Please make sure your essay forms a coherent whole.
I think this prompt gives you clues about what goes into a good SOP.
Firstly, an SOP and a Tell Me About Yourself need not be two disconnected things.
Aspirants tend to look at an SOP as a literary exercise and look at a template that best allows them to write one.
So they employ the usual worn-out formulas — start with a quote.
Quotes are good, but good quotes that are relevant to an SOP are few, so you start searching frantically for a quote that few people are likely to use or you take a quote from a famous person and then try to show that your whole life revolved around that.
There can be quotes that we live by or use as guiding lights or touchstones in our life, but we cannot explain everything about ourselves through a quote unless we have been actually living our life based on one.
If you look at the IIMB prompt, what it is essentially saying is this — Tell us the story of your life.
How to best tell the story of your life
We divide this story of your life into four parts: Formative Years, Graduation, Work Experience, MBA and beyond.
To make these parts most impactful & honest and to give a narrative arc to your story, you need to use the hooks in the IIMB SOP Prompt.
Let us take a few words and phrases from the IIMB SOP Prompt and try to see how best you can use them to frame different parts of your story.
Formative Years: Your background, significant events, relationships with friends and family
When you look back at your childhood, what is it that you want to talk about? Ask yourself the following questions.
- What role did your parents or their occupations play in your life?
- Did your parent’s transferable job mean that you travelled to different places and hence know different languages?
- Does your parent’s occupation stand out in any way for it to have an impact — business, police/defence, a senior government official who achieved a lot
- Your parent was none of these but was a great source of inspiration for you; it can be the way he/she built his/her life or the values he/she passed on to you.
- It can be that they played no significant role, they were, well, just parents, so there is no need to include anything about them!
- What role did your school play in your formative years
- Did your school have any role to play in shaping your personality?
- Did it have a particular focus on sports or academics that led you to focus on a specific area, or did it make you an all-around talent?
- What was the big spike growing up, or what did growing up revolve around?
- Were academics a significant focus, and did you always do well?
- Were sports or other extracurriculars, say music, the most significant part of your life while growing up?
- Were there any financial hardships, personal setbacks, or emotional challenges that you had to face as a family or as an individual that has really shaped you
- It is essential to search for what was most important and what impact it had on you. For example, suppose your parents are divorced, there is no point mentioning that if it did not really have any major impact on you then or in your world-view now.
- You cannot mention things just to elicit sympathy; you have to show how they shaped you as a person. For example, a student told me that having lost his father at an early age, he became financially independent at a very young age, he did not take a single rupee from his family during the whole of his graduation and supported himself was doing part-time jobs, and it is no wonder that he has a start-up now.
This is also the place where you mention your relevant accomplishments.
Accomplishments are like data to support an argument. In themselves, they make no sense, if they are recited or presented as they are on a resume. The argument should be the frame within which they should be presented — I was and am very competitive, so I did really well throughout in school and stood first or in the top 3 right from KG to X or Math was a major passion and I participated in various Olympiads.
Graduation: Significant events, accomplishments
Use the same method for graduation as well.
- What did it primarily revolve around?
- Did the stature of your graduation college give you opportunities you did not have until there?
- Was it a time of personal growth for you?
- Were you part of any clubs and teams that participated and/or won events?
Work Experience: Significant events, accomplishments
One of the big things about the way you present your work-ex is to change the perspective or vantage point. Instead of looking at your role from the inside out, zoom into it from the larger point of view.
Instead of describing your KRAs right away, you should lead there from the larger organizational structure. For example,
I work as a Sales Engineer in XYZ. The organization is divided into three segments, passenger vehicles, trucks, and HCV. I work in the HCV department. I am part of a network of sales engineers whose job is to do XYZ. I handle the ABC region and I handle XXX clients with a turnover of YYY. My role is to do XYZ. In my stint, I achieved ABC.
Or for the most common job role — IT.
I work in the BFSI Domain of ABC. I have worked with X client(s) so far as part of a team of YY members. We help the client with ABC business solution by providing them with XYZ tools. My role is to do ABC. In my stint I achieved XYZ.
MBA & Short-Term Goals — For those with work experience
For those with 18 months or more of work-ex, an MBA has to be about career growth — moving from the functional side to the business side within the industry. For example,
- From coding and maintenance in IT services to Business Development, Pre-Sales, Product Management, Data Analytics, or IT Consulting
- From technical support or product design to Sales & Marketing roles in the same industry (for automobile design to sales and strategy for the same)
- From handling a small part of R&D or Quality or Logistics to larger roles in Operations in XYZ firms.
Do not make MBA a route to a full-fledged industry shift from IT to Finance or Automobile to FMCG.
Even if that you are sure that you want to leave IT, even if MBA is the parachute out of IT that you are dreaming of, do not mention it. You can try for the same once you make it to a b-school.
For the purposes of the interview, you should say that you want to leverage your experience to move into business-side roles in the tech sector at large; it need not be IT services only. Otherwise, what you are saying is that please ignore my work experience, and treat me like a fresher, so instead of ignoring your work-ex and treating you like a fresher, they might as well ignore you and take a fresher.
The only way you can make a case for a domain shift is if you have already taken concrete steps towards the same — IT work-ex but have done CFA L1 and want to move to Finance.
MBA & Short-Term – Freshers
You have to link your MBA to your
- educational background — from Commerce to MBA in Finance, and within Finance, you want to build a career in ABC.
- traits and interests — match your traits, interests, and accomplishments to a particular specialization and career in the same
Engineers looking to get into Marketing or Consulting should use the latter route — skills, traits and interests to make a pitch.
MBA and Beyond – I want to become an entrepreneur
I know some of you are intensely passionate about becoming entrepreneurs, and others are harbouring hopes of the same.
In both cases, what matters is how specific the dream is and what work you have already done. Ask yourself whether you have any of these.
- Have you already worked with or have a start-up of your own?
- Do you have a business plan (numbers, not ideas) for the business you want to build?
- Are you or were you part of E-Cells in your college and have hence developed a strong passion for entrepreneurship through the various activities you have organized as part of the E-Cell?
If all you are going to say is — I will do an MBA, gain corporate experience for some time and then start my own venture — do not say it. It is just a thing you think about, occasionally, you have not done one thing about it — no, watching videos of Jobs, Ma, and Musk, do not count as having done anything tangible towards entrepreneurship.
Your thoughts and your consumption of relevant content do not hold water since it is only actions that count, be it entrepreneurship or spirituality (do you sit and meditate every day).
Instead, you can mention that in the long run, you see yourself taking up CXO roles in this industry and making an impact in that industry, like XYZ (if you have anyone in mind).
Why this institute?
This is the answer on which you can spend the least amount of words and time. The pre-eminent colleges won’t expect you to praise and glorify them and hence might not even ask you this question in the interview.
If you can find a link between what the institute is known for and your aspirations, then mention it — since I want to build a career in Finance, this college will give me the best courses, teachers and job offers for the same.
Why it is vital that you write this down
Most aspirants practice or rehearse answers in their heads. They have broad points jotted down and feel that they will be able to express them in front of the panel.
Now, irrespective of your confidence or your communication skills, you need to realize that what you are doing is crafting the story of your life.
And stories are written down word by word, sentence by sentence, and then sentences are rearranged, deleted, added, and organized into paragraphs, sometimes paragraphs are re-ordered before they can deliver what the last sentence of the IIMB SOP Prompt asks for — Please make sure your essay forms a coherent whole.
There is no way you are going to deliver a coherent whole if you do not write, re-write, re-write, edit and polish.
Some of you might feel — What’s the point of writing this if I don’t have an IIM-B call.
Interviewers do not follow a fixed sequence. They might ask you a GK question and suddenly ask you why you want to do an MBA or what your weaknesses are.
Once you are ready with your story after spending considerable effort on the same (and you have done the prep I have recommended in the previous post) you will have the confidence to instinctively take the relevant portions of your SOP and quickly modify it in your head to answer the questions posed.
Think of this as the foundation, like basics or technique for Test Match cricket, that will help you deliver in whatever format the interview goes — Test, ODI, T20 or Gully Cricket.
A few writing tips to come up with a unique SOP
I have read quite a few SOPs over the years, and one of the common features of most SOPs is that they sound really, really clichéd.
An SOP is not a test of your literary writing skills.
It is a test of your ability to tell a good story.
Imagine telling, not writing, a great story to an audience, do you imagine yourself
- using big words or
- trying to deliberately introduce formal words or
- using what you feel are “corporate” words.
So please avoid aping what you think is corporate-speak — holistic, corporate ladder (just so that you know, there is no ladder in any corporate closet), corporate world, game-changer, add-value etc.
You can use words like augment, and bolster not to impress but because you use them naturally without having to use a thesaurus to find them.
You are a human being, not a brochure. They want a convincing story not a literary manuscript. So use simple words and relatively short sentences. Focus on the overall impact and narrative quality.
And yeah, use the Grammarly App to run a Grammar check.
I know what some of you might be thinking.
After reading all of this, I know what some of you might be thinking. In your head, you might be going
- my parents are ordinary and boring; they did not cause me great harm or do me any great good; they are just nice and supportive (not always), so essentially nothing to write based on them
- my schooling from an average or above-average school was just about doing well — no sports, no music, no dancing, nothing, just going to school and coming back
- outside of school, what I did cannot be called sports — mostly gully cricket that yielded no certificates or accomplishments, only sweat and unadulterated joy
- my graduation is the main reason why I find myself reading this blog post now
- the only growth I experienced during graduation was the weight I put on
- my work experience in the IT firm cannot be called work if one really examines it
- it is because of all of the above reasons and with a wish to make my life better and/or to earn tons of money that I want to do an MBA
Well, I can sympathize, and I have had a student who asked me this question after I took a class that was along the lines of this post — Sir, mere paas kuch nahi hai, I have nothing worthwhile to say!
Those of you who feel you have nothing much to write about — focus on your traits, qualities, and skills to make a case for why you are suited to do an MBA.
Use stories or minor accomplishments from your life to demonstrate these qualities.
It can be as simple as, it is you who all of your friends turn to for advice; this can be used to illustrate that you are a level-headed and sensible person. You can use an incident or project to show that you can handle and deliver under pressure — you do not crack.
There must be something inside of you that makes you believe that you are a suitable candidate for a career in management and for taking up business side roles post your MBA.
If you feel you have nothing and an MBA is the most logical option right now, then…(well, I won’t say it!)
B-schools, on average, call 4 people for 1 seat, so the chances of conversion are still only 25%, and you can take it from me that a higher percentile has very little bearing at this stage.
And remember, the harder you work, the luckier you will get.