“GMAT scores govern 30% of the process, smart form filling is the key to success” Dr Pooja Chouhan
Dr Pooja Chouhan (BDS) successfully transitioned from being a full-time clinician to getting accepted for the MBAEx Program at IIM Calcutta, which is currently ranked the 42nd best college in the world for MBA by Financial Times. She did it with a less than average GMAT Score and on her very first attempt. This is a must-read interview for all aspiring to join a prestigious IIM after their BDS.
What made you want to join a B-school and make a career shift after all these years? Do you not see Dental practice as a successful career anymore?
Contrary to popular opinion about people who leave clinical practice to take up management studies full time, I believe in clinical dentistry's money-making potential. I was a topper during BDS, took courses on prosthodontics, worked with successful clinicians, consulted at clinics, and lectured on several platforms, and won quite a few coveted trophies during my voyage as a dentist. However, just like I had not pursued MDS simply because I could not find a particular clinical branch that I felt passionately drawn to in all these years, I never saw myself as a clinician running a practice forever. It did not excite me at all. In 2017, I took up a part-time marketing role for a dental products startup to eventually realize that this was something I enjoyed doing. My extrovert nature and innate selling skills helped me grow, but it all eventually plateaued due to a lack of knowledge. If I wanted to succeed, I needed to learn structured management in a place that will incubate and nurture me methodically and prepare me to join the corporate world full-fledged.
How difficult was this decision since you have had a reasonably successful stint as a young dentist?
It certainly was a big decision to take a hiatus and join a B-school because that meant giving up on my successful clinical career. Nevertheless, there is a quote that never left me while I was contemplating. Roy T. Bennett says, "If you want to fly, you have to give up on what weighs you down". Moreover, that is what I did.
There seems to be much ambiguity around which courses would help you land a good job. How did you decide on a particular program, and what is the entry procedure for the same?
Once you have decided to act, all you need to do is work towards it with tenacity. I was full of doubts, too, so I did the most obvious thing to do when you have questions, you ask people who have similar experiences. Management education for healthcare professionals has managed to carve a niche for itself, and hence MHA is a very successful path that one can choose to walk on. I prefered marketing over healthcare, so I chose to pursue general management from a reputed school that would keep the post-MHA options open for me and train me for my preferred marketing roles in our domain. With this training, I can become an investment banker if I want to, and I like having that flexibility. I had 6+ years of experience backing me, so I was eligible for a one-year MBA program offered by the top B schools in India and worldwide. The majority of these programs have a similar 3 step process for entry - the GMAT exam, application essays and the final interview.
Tell us more about your GMAT preparation and exam experience.
Like any other healthcare personnel, my biggest fear in the entire admission process was the GMAT exam because it is a test of Mathematics and English, and we, mostly, do not like numbers. By the time I found answers for my dilemma and the path looked less hazy, the lockdown was announced. Just like every other person, I was worried and panicky too. However, as days passed, I understood that there was no point waiting for things to get 'normal' to start my GMAT preparation. Also, looking at the pandemic situation as an opportunity instead of a calamity, this was the best time to prepare as I had much free time. I subscribed to online lectures for basics, purchased the GMAC OG and started studying as I did for Final BDS exams.
I was giving an exam after eight long years and touching maths after 13 long years, so setting a routine and getting disciplined did take time. However, I eventually got to the usual 10-12 hours a day for over a month, solved and solved all three central guides and gave my first mock, thinking I was ready; I ended up with a mere 470! (it is just 23rd percentile, just for the record). I started questioning my decision and capabilities, drowning in self-pity, but once I was done sulking, I picked myself up and started looking for the problem. It was not like I could not solve the questions or the basics were tough. It is 10th level syllabus, and I knew I could not fail at this. The trick here is, GMAT is a test of application and aptitude. It runs on an adaptive algorithm that refreshes itself every time you get an answer right or wrong. Medical studies are challenging, but we have not been trained for these kinds of tests at all, so I changed my method from learning to analyzing, I went back to my mistakes and corrected each of them by understanding why I made them in the first place.
Studying for GMAT became like a HIIT workout for the brain. It was intense, exciting and exhausting at the same time. Like any other physical exertion, this needed adequate breaks and regularity to get the best results. Once I understood the exam's nature, I managed to pull my scores to a decent 650 while working within 35- 40 days. I booked my exam date for a month after. I kept taking multiple mocks, followed all the instructions left by top scorers on the internet and scaled up to a 700-710, so far so good to make it to one of the top schools. The exam day dawned with its eccentricity, and the screen flashed a 660. My heart sank.
That must have been not very encouraging. How did you cope with it, and what was your next step?
Honestly, I never pondered on the hows and whats and whys of the surprisingly lower score. I probably would have done that had I decided to retest, but at that point, I knew I had a number at hand, and I had to make the best use of it. My target colleges, the top IIMs and ISB, do not entertain students below 700. Hence, I decided to apply whatever was within the scope of this score and moved on. I promised myself that I would compile an application strong enough to get into one of the tier 1 colleges for sure. I read somewhere that IIM-C is relatively holistic in considering applicants, and with zero hopes, I took that chance too.
Is the application process too tricky? Which aspects should receive more attention?
Applications for top B-schools were a new war-field for me, I was only a week away from the application deadline for IIM-C, and I had to make sure my essays were airtight to compensate for the low scores. A typical application includes filling a form, writing the statement of purpose, other essay questions subjective to schools, getting relevant recommendations and a series of letters proving your education and work experience. However, I needed to weave my story for all of this, a compelling story that spoke about how my journey to date has gotten me to this point. Most importantly, I needed a story that resonated with my post-MBA goals. All the documents mentioned above had to sing that tale and suggest how the B school would help me meet my end goal, highlighting my achievements and describing how I will contribute to my peers' lives coming in from distinguished backgrounds. Today I can confidently concur that GMAT exam scores constitute only 30% of the admission process, and filling the form smartly is the key to receiving an interview call. It would help if you had a decent score that is very well achievable (not a 470), but the rest is about vision and confidence that arises from your self-belief during the interview.
The biggest mistake is to make your application sound like a brag. I used the entire application very prudently, with different sections underlining different aspects of my resume. For example, my recommendations spoke about my accomplishments, activity/ interest section was used to highlight my social contribution, research interests, leadership activities, etc. This way, my SOP spoke only about my journey, goals and how the school would contribute to my life. Furthermore, this recipe worked. Despite a below-average score, not so great HSC, SSC marks or any momentous victory in life, I was called for the interview.
How was your interview experience? How do you prepare for these kinds of interviews?
Never have I ever given an interview in my life! Firstly, I was glad these were online interviews, and there were no group discussions, thanks to CoVid. I began prepping by reading quora answers on interview experiences to find out that people were asked about trigonometry, geography, politics, classical music and whatnot. I realized fretting over this is wasting time. You never know how conversations turn when people talk, so I focused on the most routine questions of any interview, made sure I knew my industry well and clarified the roles that I want to get into post MBA. I read many newspapers about Covid-19 and government policies that could reflect my plans to appear woke, but none was asked. I was the first candidate and the only girl to be interviewed in my slot. Two strict looking professors having massive shelves with fat finance books in the background appeared on the screen. I am not scared of facing people, and I am an extrovert and am very candid, which is not a good quality for an interviewee, I am told.
The first 15 mins of the interview around my career and goals went impeccably well and then came in the big trick question about how I would cope with advanced mathematics in the curriculum. I knew this was coming, and I prepared an impressive answer along the lines of me scoring well in the Quant section of GMAT when I needed to, so I might not know as much math as required, but I am a go-getter. They were impressed and threw a math question at me, which I did not see coming and got incorrect, blunder right, I thought as much. Post this, my confidence slacked a little, but luckily they were asking general questions. I was just myself, to the extent that when I asked what is happening around you where you stay, I said teenagers are scared because they are being framed as peddlers for smoking funny things and politicians are putting influencers in jail; I live in Mumbai!
Did you think you would get an admission offer after all of these ups and downs?
The entire process was full of highs and lows. As you said, the negativity followed the low scores, but I did have high hopes after being called for an interview. Honestly, the way my interview ended, I thought this would not work because I am supped to be smarter to become an alumnus of the CEO factory, as they call it. However, a week later, to my surprise, I did convert.
What is your take away from the entire journey?
It will sound very romantic when I say that 'if asked to walk the path again, I would do it in a heartbeat, but I would be lying. It was thrilling and made me very anxious because it did seem impossible till it was done, but like Charles Schwab says –"A man can succeed at almost anything he has unlimited enthusiasm for."
So here I am, despite a low GMAT score, having even lower hopes while filling the application and talking about drugs in my interview, I converted MBAEx at IIM-C thanks to the sheer belief in my choice goals and my journey.
About Dr Pooja Chouhan
Dr Pooja Chouhan joined BDS in 2008 and explored multiple verticals of the dental industry ever since. She is a passionate and extensively trained restorative dentist practising for seven years, and an education enthusiast who has organized numerous conferences and courses, an enterprising marketer that helped build the famous dental products brand, MIK Dental, an eloquent speaker presenting on various platforms, a motivated teacher conducting workshops on Basic Prosthodontics, a dedicated editor of the book, Clinical Fixed Prosthodontics, a thoughtful leader and a founding member to Medical-Dental student organizations like IFMSA and IADS international. Besides these, she enjoys riveting conversations, content writing, digital designing (memes included), and a huge social media buff. Her never-ending quest for knowledge, catalyzed by her expedition on brand building, swayed her towards management studies, and she is now set to delve into the strenuous curriculum of a B-school. With her perseverance, she has managed to crack open the entrance gates of India's top Institution. She is an able MBAEx candidate at IIM-Calcutta - a program ranked 42nd among the top MBA programs in the world!