First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

Akansha Singh is an incoming MBA candidate at INSEAD, and will be starting the course in January next year. A 2015 graduate of NLIU Bhopal, Akansha has spent more than five years as a corporate counsel. In this FPA, she shares her reasons for opting for an MBA instead of the more popular LL.M., the MBA application process itself, and a whole lot more.

Akansha Singh is an incoming MBA candidate at INSEAD, and will be starting the course in January next year.
Akansha Singh

Let’s get right to it – why the MBA? What are the advantages of an MBA over, say an LL.M.?

While the LL.M. has its own strong set of advantages for a lawyer, an MBA presents me with a unique opportunity to learn something entirely alien to lawyers.

As an M&A lawyer, I keep coming across business-related commercial issues in our transaction documents, and more often than not, leave them in with a footnote that says “To be confirmed by the client,” because that’s of course not my expertise, but an interest in underlying commercials has bothered me from a while. I have spent the last few years figuring out where I would like to see myself 10 years down the line, and I finally settled on the dream of placing myself at the confluence of law and business.

This is my key motivation to pursue an MBA.

I want to understand corporate strategy, valuations, marketing principles, financial statements and everything else that a core-legal role will not expose me to – essentially, what is it that drives the decision-making of the client.

The biggest advantage of an MBA is that it requires no prior background in its subject matter and warmly accepts candidates from diverse professional backgrounds, i.e., “non-traditional candidates”. My to-be peers at INSEAD include doctors, social impact professionals, architects and coders.

The second advantage is that unlike most masters’ programs (which are typically considered early-career degrees), an MBA abroad is a mid-career degree. Most leading business schools do not accept candidates unless they have been working for at least 3-4 years.

The average work experience of an INSEAD MBA candidate is around 5.5 years, with 1/4th of the batch having 7+ years under their belt.

Also, why one at this stage of your career considering you will be half a decade into the legal profession by the time you enrol?

I realized that the best time for me to explore an education in business is after I have established a strong grasp on what the time spent in law school prepared me for. Otherwise, I feared that I would have been setting sail with my feet in two boats.

After 5 years, I have not only solidified my basics of corporate law, but have also grown in terms of analysing facts, finding solutions, managing a transaction, communicating with a client, training a junior and leading a team. These are profession-agnostic skills that need sufficient work experience to build, which is why I believe that now is the right time for me to explore building a new skill-set.

My options are to be a commercials-oriented corporate lawyer with a nuanced understanding of M&As or transition into a new role where my existing skill-set and my business education can help me adapt. Like I said, an MBA abroad is a mid-career degree, so even if you do transition into a new profession / role (especially business), you would most likely start at the same level as someone who has spent a couple of years in it already.

Once you had decided that the MBA it is, how did you go about shortlisting just where to apply? How early did you begin this process of shortlisting, and which schools made it to this list? 

Every business school has its own unique offerings, so there are a couple of factors that one needs to take into account – geography, target post-MBA role / industry, length of the program, ranking, recruitments, internship break, school ethos, teaching methodology, average GMAT score etc.

For example, if you want to work in Europe, you wouldn’t want to study in a US school; or if investment banking is your target (where an internship is almost mandatory for recruitment), you don’t want to end up in a 1 year MBA program with no summer break.

I started my shortlisting process towards the end of my GMAT prep and focused on three sources for my information – spending hours going through school websites, attending every online webinar and event of the schools I liked, and networking with MBA grads from those schools to understand whether the school is a good fit for me and whether I am a good fit for the school.

This process is important because B-school applications are time-consuming and need to be tailor-made to each school. So, you don’t really have the time to apply to as many as you like.

“B-school applications are time-consuming and need to be tailor-made to each school. You don’t really have the time to apply to as many as you like.”

INSEAD was my dream school. The other schools on my list were London Business School (LBS), Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg and Dartmouth Tuck – all of which invited me for an interview, though I could only manage to convert LBS and Tuck into admit offers.

At the same time, my dream school (which, compared to the schools on my list, held the highest global ranking) surprised me with an admit as well as € 37,000 in scholarship. So, I guess a lot depends on your “fit” with what the school is looking for.

Also, given that you were working full time while applying, how did you go about GMAT/GRE preparations? 

In retrospect, the GMAT / GRE is not even the most challenging component of the MBA application journey. The MBA process is quite different from the LL.M.’s and I learnt that the hard way.

“The MBA process is quite different from the LL.M.’s and I learnt that the hard way.”

I recommend taking as much time as you need for the end-to-end process and not cram everything within a stretch of 7 months like I did. I spent around 3 months studying and got a 710 (which fell short of my personal target) and unfortunately was left with no time for more GMAT attempts.

GMAT prep was definitely time-consuming, since I was working full-time in a law firm and it had been close to a decade since I had given a timed standardized test or done any math. I found that consistent studying of an hour or two everyday seemed much more effective than a weekend-to-weekend crash course, and that’s only because you need a lot of practice to get used to timing, question patterns and the higher difficulty questions.

On busy days, I used to solve questions in the cab during commute, between calls at work, and at night in the office (when I knew I was too tired to prep after reaching home).

Just do what you got do to find time for your prep.

That being said, a high GMAT score doesn’t really increase your chances of getting in – it only determines whether the school would take your application seriously or not. So yes, for a lot of effort that goes into studying for the GMAT, it’s only just one aspect of your application.

Apart from the GMAT, any advice for the rest of the application?

After the GMAT came the introspection stage, where it took me an entire month (and a lot of research) just to figure out my “story” – why MBA, why X school and not Y school, my short-term and long-term career goals, how they tie into my work experience, how I plan to achieve them etc. This is super important because every B-school’s last level involves an interview where you will be expected to justify your ‘non-traditional’ decision to pursue an MBA.

“Unlike the LL.M., there is no one-fit-all 2 page SOP concept. I had to answer multiple different questions for each school.”

Next was the application stage, which was insanely time consuming – 2 months for 5 schools, with me almost quitting my job towards the end from exhaustion. Unlike the LL.M., there is no one-fit-all 2 page SOP concept. I had to answer multiple different questions for each school ranging from “tell me about yourself” to “how have you helped someone else succeed” with 300-500 word essays. I think I wrote and revised over 20 such essays in aggregate. INSEAD, Kellogg and LBS even asked for on-the-spot 30-second video essays to behavioural questions. In a nutshell, each school requires a special effort and very limited content can be recycled.

The last step, if you get short-listed, is the interview where in most cases an alum in your city will interview you in-person. I was interviewed over a period of 1.5 months by an EY partner, the founder of a successful start-up, a senior-level Microsoft strategy professional, a Bain consultant and a private equity professional 15 years my senior.

My interviews lasted from 30 to 90 minutes and explored every aspect of my story, goals and work experience. After all of this, you can expect an email from your school giving you the good news or a reason to put in even more effort into the next school on your list.

Why narrow down on INSEAD?

INSEAD was my dream school because it ticked a couple of boxes for me. It’s a 1-year program, so I’ll spend less time out of the workforce. The January-intake (which is what I am starting in) even has an internship break for me to experience a business-oriented role, irrespective of whether I come back to the law or not. It has a strong focus on giving students international exposure in their MBA experience, with two main campuses (one in France and one in Singapore) and you can spend time on both if you like.

It has one of the strongest recruitments in management consulting among the leading b-schools, a role that I look forward to exploring through an internship. INSEAD also feels strongly about maintaining diversity in the class – both professional and in terms of nationality. A typical INSEADer has either lived, studied or worked abroad at some point in his/her life (with candidates like me being the minority), and I looked forward to this kind of cultural diversity.

“A typical INSEADer has either lived, studied or worked abroad at some point in his/her life, and I looked forward to this kind of cultural diversity.”

Lastly, in all my interactions with MBA grads, I found the INSEAD network to be the most approachable and supportive alumni network, which is extremely important to me as a non-traditional candidate whose entire network consists of mostly lawyers. I had current students & alumni much senior to me get on calls with me to share their MBA experience, even though I was a stranger who had reached out to them on Linkedin.

Not quite related to the application itself, but how did you approach your referees as well as your employers as well? Any advice for how to go about this conversation? 

I am glad you asked this, because this is a critical aspect of the application – and also one of the most challenging considering that you may need to approach a boss and say, “Hey, I want to pursue an MBA and may or may not come back to this profession all together.”

Each school requires 2 recommenders who need to have supervised you or worked with you in a professional capacity (current or former) – so kind college professors can’t help us out here. Again, unlike an LL.M., there is no one-fit-all recommendation letter. MBA recommenders are sent a link by each school where they answer a couple of specific questions (which may vary across schools) and rate you on metrics like leadership, team-work etc.

Hence, my advice is to get recommenders who you have a good equation with and who will have the patience to deal with this process. I reached out to 6 recommenders who could give different perspectives to do a mix-and-match depending on the school – 4 partners and 2 clients.

When approaching bosses, my suggestion is to be completely honest about your game plan and how they (and the organization) feature in it. The most reliable support that you can get is when your recommender is invested in you getting into your dream school.

“If you feel like your current boss may not react well to your request, my advice is to ask someone else who would (e.g., your principal associate). “

If you feel like your current boss may not react well to your request, my advice is to ask someone else who would (e.g., your principal associate). When approaching a client that you are currently working with (or keep working with), your best bet is to run that interaction past the partner concerned (either before or later, depending on your equation with the client) so that there are no surprises in the future.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian lawyer who is considering a master’s abroad? 

My advice is only to be sure about the ‘why’ of it. It could be to get a job in another country, change professions, change sectoral expertise, specialize in something, get quality education, learn something new, get a fancy degree or a combination of these.

Whatever it may be, be sure of it and how it fits into your personal and professional goals.

A master’s abroad is expensive, not because of its fees or living expense, but because of the opportunity cost associated with it – the 1 or 2 years that you spend outside the workforce, after which there is a possibility that if you come back to your employer or profession, you may lose that time in terms of seniority or if you join an employer in a new jurisdiction as a lawyer, you may have to start at an entry-level.

There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with either, as long as you graduate with the satisfaction that you achieved what you set out to achieve, and more importantly, if things don’t go as planned, the risk was still worth the taking and you walked out a better or happier person than before.