Thursday, December 01, 2005

MBA entrance: time for a rethink?

Rohit Awasthi wrote in to me with info on a screw up at this year's IIFT extrance exam, held on 27th Nov. As this thread on shows, students at some centres are aggrieved. This is the gist of their online petition which currently has 69 signatures

The complaints:
1) The papers were not sealed and were distributed 5-7 minute before the test started. In some centres they were distributed 10-15 min earlier because invigilator were unaware of the correct instructions to be followed i.e. Question papers were distributed before OMR sheets.

The point being that in an exam where there is fierce competition even a small headstart may give an unfair advantage. A single extra answer may get you that coveted GD/ PI call.

2) At some centres there was precious time lost by the students owing to mismatching between Question paper and OMR sheets distributed by the invigilators. In many centres the mismatching went unnoticed.

3) There were numerous printing errors on the paper leading to confusion in marking answers.

More discussion is going on here.

There is even talk of exerting pressure on IIFT to reconduct the exam - by filing a PIL. Given the current media obsession with everything-to-do-with-bschools, it may make the front pages as well.

Not a nice prospect for IIFT, which is generally considered an A + or "top 10 institute".

Questions that arise
Must IIFT have its own separate exam based on the argument that we are a 'foreign trade institute'? If MICA can take in students through CAT, although it is a specialised advertising and communications course, why not IIFT?

They can test short-listed candidates on foreign trade knowledge at the GD and interview stage - MICA does something similar.

The reason I stress on more institutes joining CAT is that barring the 2003 leak it is a well-conducted exam. There is a set procedure where senior academic and non-academic staff from IIMs are deputed to supervise the administration of the exam at different centres.

From what I know they take the discharge of this duty extremely seriously and one has not heard of IIFT-like complaints.

The reason b schools insist on their own exams is to make a neat packet on the exam fee (average : Rs 1000) from the 10-15,000 students who take each test. (adding up to a couple of easily earned crores)

To put students through this expense and hassle and then not conduct a fair exam is, therefore, rather inexcusable.

With regard to the IIFT exam the buzz is 'such things have happened before'. It's just that with online discussion forums like more students are airing their grievances. And their voice is more likely to be heard.

Going online
Conducting paper and pen exams on gigantic scale is becoming a pain for b schools. But when XLRI did an online exam a couple years ago the result was an embarassing system crash. They're back to pen and paper since.

The future of b school entrance is online, but getting the technical and infrastructural details right will take a couple of years. We would have to go the GRE/ GMAT way and not insist on a simultaneous exam for 150,000 students.

But then, doubts might be raised about the difficulty levels not being the same for every exam taker. Yes, the same happens with GRE/ GMAT but that is not a make-or-break score.

Even with a relatively poor GMAT score you can hope to get into a good b school - if your profile is outstanding in other ways. The same is not true in India.

If CAT is to go online, the entire approach to b school admission would have to change. But, you might ask, how will an IIM A or B cope with the US style admissions. How will they sift through essays from 150,000 students?

Allwin Agnel, a non-MBA and founder of has an interesting perspective on this. Right now, he says, we have 150,000 applicants because all they have to do is take a 2 hour multiple choice exam.

Make it harder - ask applicants to write 3 essays, get recommendation letters, demonstrate leadership capability through past work experience. The number will fall drastically, as only committed students will apply.

Winds of change
That could well be true. IIM A's newly launched PGP X program is a 1 year course for managers with 7-15 years experience. The admission procedure was very different - GMAT scores were accepted, candidates had to write essays and 'leadership potential' was an important selection criteria.

This participant profile: average GMAT of 700, age of 32 years and work experience of over 9 years. The average salary applicants are forgoing to join the program is Rs 10.7 lakhs. The course fee for PGP X is another Rs 10 lakhs.

So while IIMA is offering placement services, that is not the only carrot. This is going to be one bunch of let-me-get-the-most-out-of-this-course participants. Compared to regular PGP students, these folks will be far more knowledge-hungry - no doubt about it!

As regards selectivity: around 1000 applications were received; admit offers were made to 71 candidates of which 67 accepted (a bit of a surprise - the institute was expecting 60 to join). But overall, the selection committee was delighted with the profile, depth and breadth of experience on offer.

This could well be the future of b school entrance but then we would have to accept some level of subjectivity creeping in. And that, in India, always leaves scope for doubts and corruption.

ISB admissions and IIM A's PGP X are indications that it can be done in a fair and credible manner. But it would mean moving out of the comfort zone. Never easy but probably inevitable.

Let's wait and watch!


  1. CAT, and most MBA entrance processes in India are very messy. Incidents like these are rampant.

    Starting this year MICA accepts CAT, XAT or GMAT scores. Had it been a regular B-School, it would have been the right step. But for an institute that is trying to position itself as the Communications Management School (C-School), it might work the wrong way. We have thousands of students applying to MICA each year, just because they wrote CAT. Thy believe that MICA gets them the usual MBA Marketing, Finance & HR jobs.

    It might be a failed positioning exercise for MICA, but for niche B-Schools, it might just make sense having a special entrance. The only pitfall is that we might not get quality MBA level applicants.

  2. Well most of the competitive exams are conducted in a pathetic fashion..lets hope atleast these premier exams are conducted well!!Sad state, this.....

  3. About Allwin's idea....
    Bring in the concept of Essays & Recommendation letters into the eequation and you'll soon have the coaching institutes selling "sample/Illustrative" letters & essays...

    Adding letters & essays is not going to serve the purpose of reducing the number of applicants and thus enabling the whole system to go online...

    It will only add subjectivity (hence corruption) into the system....

  4. Make it harder - ask applicants to write 3 essays, get recommendation letters, demonstrate leadership capability through past work experience. The number will fall drastically, as only committed students will apply.

    Having friends and cousins who went on to study in US, let me assure you there's a non-negligible industry out there that does tehse jobs for applicants. They start with long 'consultation' sessions to gather as much information about the candidate as possible and then in agreement with the applicant to write their SoPs, 'design' recommendation letters and suggest which proffs to get them from, writing instances from work experiance (or life) that could project any dim-witted lazy loser as the best go getter on this plannet and a bill gates or jack welch in the making.

    We are a country of innovators (remember those 'jugar' jokes?) and the way out has to be innovative, not just a copy of a process developed almost a century ago in a foreign land which is under debate even back home!

  5. I agree with raven. Essays will only make the process seem easier (no need to "prepare" to take an exam, the impression will be: "spend a week or so to write a nice essay and you're done". This does not mean that essay will be good enough to get selected, but the impression will be that of greater ease).

  6. Reference letters, previous work experience (for leadership) are dangerous territory. Suppose I am from an A grade Delhi University college - do I stand a very unfair advantage over a student from a Government Arts College in a town centre? Especially given that the concept of reference letters is a big scam. You have to essentially bootlick all the right profs and egg them on to write a glorious proof of your existence. The prof's academic standing also makes a difference.

    Opportunities in smaller towns for joining associations or fruitfully engaging oneself in a college based society in India are small. CAT is a great equalizer in many senses. (Or not - Given that more rocket eh.. career launchers makes money out of damn exam!)

  7. Obviously CAT would have a role to play but it would not be the ONLY criteria. Say candidates accepted to Harvard or Wharton have an average GMAT score of 700.

    Similarly it could be that at IIM A it's a 95 percentile in CAT. The interview call would be based on CAT score + recommendations + essays + academic record.

    CAT would still filter out the numbers. But some outstanding people may not do as well in CAT - say they are at 91 percentile. BUt based on the oter info available they may get a chance to go for the GD/ PI round.

    On the other hand everyone who makes a 99th percentile may or may not get a call if they are lacking in other aspects.

    Sure, coaching classes will get in here as well. But selection committees are generally able to smell the genuine candidates. Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink' explains how and why their instincts should be trusted.

    And given that there are 3-5 interviewers biases do get evened out.

    If such a process involves a larger no of interviews then alumni could be roped in to also sit on some of the interview panels (it happens but has not been institutionalised).

    Neha, 70-90% of current IIM students are engineers. Some may be from 'small towns' but to the best of my knowledge there are hardly any Govt Arts College graduates there - even with the current entry system.

  8. As I am an MBA aspirant & gave CAT this year, I could not resist myself from writing some of my views on this topic.

    1-It is not possible for all small/Medium level MBA institutes to conduct exam on such a large scale. There is always a possibility of leakage of question paper, lack of standard of question paper (includes wrong questions & printing errors) or some carelessness shown at the exam center which happened in IIFT's case.

    2-Also, the exam center of all these entrance exams is in big cities only. For students coming from small towns, traveling to different city to give exam is very problematic. It is very expensive also considering the fact that sometimes students have to come a day before the exam (if the exam starts early) & rent a room in a hotel. Travel costs are anyway there.

    3-But these institutes don’t do it for exam fee. Anyway students have to fill separate forms for the institutes in which they want to apply. So, institutes are making money even though their selection is based on CAT scores.

    4-Some of the institutes give the reason of not referring to CAT scores that their question paper pattern doesn’t match with CAT & they want to evaluate students according to their criteria. Like some institutes add a GK section or an extra essay writing section.

    5-I personally think that it is the need of the hour is to make the entire admission procedure more effective & better. Suggestions like going online (computer adaptive test) or weight age for SOP’s, letters of recommendation, quality of work-ex etc are most welcome.

    6-Advantage of making it on the lines of GMAT/GRE is that sometimes deserving students are left out because they perform badly on D-day. What if one performs well in all Mocks but on the final day his luck doesn’t favor him or he is unwell or he misses out the test because of some important work on that day. CAT (computer adaptive test) provides the test taker extra options of taking the test on their own chosen date & even if he gets bad scores, he can give himself another try.

    7- SOP’s, letters of recommendation etc. should also play an important role in final selection. It is true that students can take help of coaching centers in writing SOP & they can even fake their letters of recommendation (dude, everything is possible in India) but admission panel can easily identify it in the interview or by simply scanning through the profile of the candidate whether the candidate has himself written it or has he expressed his own opinions in SOP’s.

    PS: I am not a good writer. So, please overlook the grammatical errors if there are any :)

  9. Including essays, recommndations etc. is a better idea. Just because the existing system is not geared up to do a fair evaluation on a new and better criteria does not mean that the new changes should not be included.

    BTW, if some people can get their way by cheating/providing false information, and can do so (and flourish too !!) for their life, they have a "sustainable competitive advantage"..., which now a days is equivalent to attributes like IQ, good looks, street smart etc..

  10. Hi,
    I was also an MBA aspirant and remembers the same thing happening in SNAP(Symbiosys entrance exam) last year.I remember the papers were without seals with no proper instructions and the exam was a total mismanagement personified.

    This not only gives an unfair advantage to few but also hits the moral of the student who has been slogging for a year(or more in some cases).Its is the time that someone takes all this matter seriously and do something about it.

  11. I think BITS, Pilani has achieved a pretty decent start in terms of online exams with students being able to take the exams as and when they want to (somewhat like GRE) and also maybe twice with a duration of a month separating the two attempts. Hats off to them.

    For further information visit:

  12. Let us NOT correct one wrong with another. Is the aim simply to reduce the number of applicants to an exam?

    The difference between India and most other countries is the sheer number of people available to try every lucrative looking career option.

    While a lack of focus among students in India is a reason for these numbers along with a thriving coaching class culture. (Read here for more on this), However by making it difficult to appear exam (either through exbortent price tags or through an elaborate process) looks a sarcastically capitalistic idea.

    Our aim should be to encourage focussed people to appear for these tests. Some of the solutions offered are making the exams exclusive to "richer people" - not necessarily to the focussed ones.

    I feel I am going to write an entire blog on this. So visit my blog for more discussion after 5th Dec 2005

  13. This is worth following up:

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