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  • Malvika Patil

International Applicant: Bangalore to NYC for the Cornell Tech MBA

Swarnima graduated with a Bachelor’s in Engineering in 2018. She worked with Salesforce for 5 years before applying to her Tech MBA at Cornell Johnson last year. Her GMAT score was under Cornell’s class average, but she had a strong undergrad GPA of 9.03, a confident communication style, and a compelling narrative. 

Her hard work paid off; as of last month, Swarnima is a Cornell grad (congratulations, Swarnima!).  She is now recruiting in tech in NYC. 

We sat down with Swarnima to discuss her tech MBA experience at Cornell, why she picked a one-year MBA as an international applicant, what tech recruiting is currently like, and what advice she has for other international MBA hopefuls. 

Watch the full interview here:

Q. Tell us about relocating from India to the US for an MBA. What were some challenges you faced?

A. For me, it was all happening very fast. I had an admit from Imperial College London first, which I had already accepted. I had been planning to join Imperial sometime in August or September, which was a while away. But I had also been waitlisted at Cornell’s one year tech MBA program, which had a different timeline. So, I didn’t know until the last minute that I would be attending the school! As an international student, that was a bit worrisome because I still had to figure out my Visa, my education loan, and my travel plans.

I heard back from Cornell only in mid-April, and classes were supposed to start on the 1st of June. And one of my best friends was getting married at the time! So, I only had a little over a month to figure it all out. It was quite crazy.

I had a few things to do: My first priority was to get the i20 submitted and get the education loan going. The i20 is a form issued by your business school which confirms your admission, expected cost of attendance, and the duration and nature of the program. You have to submit your financial statements to get it. It’s an important document that is essentially the gateway to your Visa process and education loan. Cornell was very supportive, and gave me my i20 within a day. Then, I started my Visa and loan process.

Luckily, I already had my B1/B2 Visa, which is the visitor visa in the US. Until last year, the policy was that if you have an active B1/B2 Visa, you can just use a Dropbox (which is a Visa waiver) and you do not need to sit the F1 (Student Visa) interview. But I have heard from incoming students that this policy has changed this year onwards. So I was lucky – I only had to drop my documents in the Dropbox with the i20 and loan papers. There were no interviews or biometrics involved. Within a week, I got my visa in the mail.

And then the rest of it was the bank loan. I chose to go with an Indian bank - I don’t know whether that was the right decision, but I didn’t have enough time to figure things out! And then I booked my flights, packed my stuff, and got a good night’s rest for the first time in a month on the flight. 

Q. Tell us about your experience at Cornell

A. Cornell’s main campus is actually in Ithaca, but my course was delivered by the Cornell Tech campus, which is in a small strip of island called Roosevelt island, between Manhattan and Queens in New York. 

Before our cohort, the class spent two months in Ithaca and the rest in New York. But this year they delivered the entire program in New York. They might revisit this decision next year.

Having said that, it has been a great experience:

  1. Accelerated MBA: Classes start in June. We had a very accelerated core summer term where we studied the core MBA subjects like finance, strategy, marketing, etc., which wrap up 2-2.5 months into the first semester. Then, we began the Fall semester with everyone else, followed by the spring semester. Instead of the regular MBA’s four semesters, we only had three. 

  2. Location: Cornell Tech is one of the few schools which actually has a campus in New York. It’s small, but lovely, and has campus accommodation. Roosevelt Island is close enough to Manhattan, but far from the chaos. I lived with 80%-90% of my classmates in the same building, which really helped us bond. 

  3. Network: New York offers incredible opportunities. Coming from a tech background and wanting to go back into tech, the ecosystem here is massive. For example, we’ve just concluded the New York tech week, where there’s a host of events happening. And it’s not just limited to the school or your classmates; in New York, you have unlimited access to these sorts of events to expand your network. Something or the other is always happening! You just need to start getting involved with these communities and be consistent about showing up. 

Learn more about Cornell University:

Q. Tell us about Cornell’s Tech MBA program

A. First, I’d say the program stands out because of how entrepreneurial it is! Very few MBA programs come close to Cornell. It’s not just the curriculum, but also the access to a supportive ecosystem that is very encouraging for entrepreneurs. Personally, I want to build my own health tech startup in the long run, which is why I was inclined towards this program. It helped me apply my classroom learning, especially through the Studio curriculum. You work with a diverse team of people who are pursuing Master’s in areas like engineering and law on a startup idea or product challenge. That really stood out to me. 

Second, being in NYC was great. I don’t think I’d fit into a college town. I’m a very city person! 

And third, what really stood out as well is the access to the university’s overall alumni network, not just Cornell Tech. The school encourages you to reach out to alumni across disciplines, the doors are always open. I was part of the High Tech Club, which is one of the clubs that both the 1-year MBAs and the 2-year MBAs can join. We did tech treks to offices like Adobe, Uber, and Google in both NYC and the West Coast. Even during the school year, there are a few weekend courses where students from both programs study together. Some of the 2-year MBAs who had registered for the course would come down to the NYC campus for it. 

So, that way, Cornell is a really supportive environment and the people are very collaborative. You get the benefit of the NYC base, a strong curriculum, access to the wider Ivy League university, and the network from both the 1-year and 2-year programs. 

Q. Should I do a Full Time MBA or One Year MBA?

A. If you are an international student with zero work experience in the United States, an internship could give you an edge In the current job market. That’s where a full time, 2 year MBA really stands out. 

But at the same time, I know people who have not been able to secure those internships, who weren’t able to convert them to full-time roles, or who have had their offers rescinded. So this is debatable, but for me, it seemed like the ROI of a 1 year MBA program was potentially better in today’s market. 

Also, tech is a very dynamic industry. I knew I couldn’t afford to be out of the industry for more than a year, so my focus was clear that I wanted to apply to one-year programs. 

But the biggest highlight of my program was getting to connect with people outside the classroom. That doesn’t mean I constantly missed classes! If there was a great opportunity to network with the Cornell community outside of the classroom, I prioritized that. Our professors were also very open to it. I also build deep relationships with my peers in the classroom. We were a small cohort of 85-90 people, which is quite unlike regular MBA programs. I didn’t want to be in a program where I would be studying alongside 300 or 500 people, because I wanted to get to know everyone personally and build lasting relationships. The program’s curriculum, the hard skills, classes - all were great, but it all changes every year. You miss a class, you can catch up. But you only have that one year or those two years to establish those relationships. I think that’s what stays with you at the end of the day.

Q. How is the current Tech recruiting landscape? 

A. It’s definitely a tough recruiting market at the moment! (This interview was in spring 2024). Being an international student makes it tougher to get that first job out of school.

Another aspect I had to consider was the nature of my program. I did the one-year MBA, so there’s no space for an internship. You complete the accelerated MBA and directly apply to full-time jobs. Having said that, recruiting was very difficult last year because tech companies were unable to forecast what their hiring pipeline would look like. This is atypical; the program has been around for a few years, but the market has been slow, so we all had to resort to just-in-time hiring, which is applying to regular, full-time positions as they open up and not just relying on any MBA grad hiring. This was also the case in other industries like consulting. Many of my classmates who thought that they would pivot to consulting had to get back to tech.

Q. What types of jobs do Tech MBAs apply for?

A. A lot of my peers came into the program with the goal of getting into roles around product, like product management, marketing, strategy, and operations. 

The second type of roles that people aim for are in sales, like consulting and software sales.

The third category includes those trying to enter the VC space. Given our tech background, we understand how to evaluate tech startups. 

So while people are definitely trying to enter various industries, all of these roles are within tech or are tech adjacent in some way. Not everyone aims for FAANG!

For example, I have a friend who was a lawyer and now wanted to pivot to a product manager role at a legal tech startup. Now that’s not something one would think of when it comes to a tech MBA, but the depth that this program brings allows you to explore different industries. My class was quite diverse. We even had doctors completing their MD, someone who was defending his PhD thesis, people from the social impact sector. They had all been linked to tech in some way, and now wanted to take their careers further into tech with this MBA. 

Q. Tell us about your MBA application process

A. I actually started exploring and applying to MBA programs by myself 3-4 years ago. I got a few admits and a few rejects, but didn’t feel like it was the right time to go ahead with it. 

And then I tried again 2 years ago; that’s when I worked with you and your team. So I want to talk about the differences between both times.

So when I started my application journey by myself, I had already done my GMAT a couple of times hoping for a higher score, which I wasn’t able to get. But it was during COVID, so many schools were offering test waivers. I thought that could potentially be a better option given my score. After the GMAT, I just took the application one thing at a time. There wasn’t much of a strategy involved, and I wasn’t looking at the overall holistic picture. I didn’t reflect deeper on questions like: what is the school looking for? How do I position myself to appeal to the school? I simply looked at the application portal and wrote the application essay by essay.

And that’s the massive difference between my first and second MBA application attempts. When you and I started talking, we didn’t even look at any essay prompts. We focused on getting our narrative right, reflecting on my life journey, and writing down stories about my highlights and ‘lowlights’ and everything in between. I still go back to our document and refer to those stories for my interviews! During this journey, I realized that it’s not just about answering a question and preparing for an interview, but it’s about formulating a strategy and pitching yourself. 

Another difference was my school selection. I would say I aimed even higher this time. There were some things I was not willing to compromise on, like the school’s brand name, for example. I was clear about which schools I wanted to pick. But I had to tailor my application to each school; it wasn’t like I could just use one statement of purpose everywhere. Again, I had to do my research and use a strategic approach.

Q. Tell us about your waitlist strategy

A. I got waitlisted by NYU and Cornell. Initially, I felt like all hope was lost. But working with you and Jon gave me the reassurance to keep going on. I realized that there are still things we could do. I hadn’t thought about formulating a waitlist strategy, but it turned out to be crucial.

I applied in the priority rounds or the Round 1 cycle. So I could send in my updates on a rolling basis to the schools and let them know that I was still interested in their program. I knew I had a better shot at converting Cornell because I had been interviewed, while NYU hadn’t sent me an interview invite. 

So I began working on my updates. It involved a lot of talking! I spoke to current students and alumni from the program to get their insights on how to proceed with my waitlist updates. My goal was to send the school an update at least once a month. I wrote an additional essay and got an additional letter of recommendation from one of my mentors. I worked on them early on and strategically timed when they would be sent. Similarly, I also timed my update about the change in my pay, my outreach to the program director and admissions team, and all the school events I was attending. So while it was stressful, it was a lot more structured this time than my last application. 

And one weekend, I received an email which said “Please join the admitted students coffee chat”. I was confused. And it was the weekend, so the school was not able to respond to my queries. Later, I found out that there was an issue with the portal, which is why my admission status wasn’t admitted. But that’s how I found out that I had gotten off the waitlist!

Q. Did you get any scholarships for your Cornell Tech MBA?

A. I was waitlisted, so I didn’t feel like I was in a position to negotiate a scholarship. Typically, scholarships are given out in the early rounds. But fortunately for me, when I joined the program, we had the Albert Fried Jr. Fellowship, where you had to be nominated by your peers or your faculty. I was nominated and interviewed for it, and ended up getting that scholarship! 

I was glad to have been able to offset some of my expenses towards my student loan. If you’re applying to MBAs, definitely apply to scholarships. You can get them midway through programs as well. These scholarships are more common in two-year programs, where you can cover the cost of part of your second year through the extra funding. 

Additionally, a lot of two-year MBAs participate in case competitions and other MBA contests. These usually come with prize money, which is another good way to recoup some of your costs. 

It’s trickier for a one-year MBA student, as you don’t have enough time to explore all your options. But there are definitely ways around it. For example, I did a course assistantship as a part-time job on campus. 

And don’t forget, lots of MBA graduates get good sign-on bonuses! That quickly covers a lot of the cost of the MBA as well. 

So think carefully about your investment, but be reassured that things can work out. Have a little hope!

Q. Do you have any advice for international applicants who are considering a Tech MBA?

A. First, choose wisely between a One year and a Two year MBA. There’s a lower opportunity cost with the one-year program, but you are limited by the sort of career pivots you can make right after the MBA. 

Second, choose your schools wisely as well. Think about whether the school is right for your specific goals. It won’t help you to just go through the website or program brochure. You’ll need to connect with current students or recent alumni. And when you do reach out to alumni on LinkedIn or other social media sites, write a personalized note. No one will accept your request otherwise! Tailor it to their background and present yourself to them the way you would present yourself to the AdCom. 

Third, the job market is tough for international students, so the opportunity cost rises even more. Evaluate your investment carefully. Don’t try to calculate your ROI based on the short-term benefits you might gain from the program.  Think about the bigger picture and how this MBA will help you with your long term goals. 

Finally, keep your eye on the big picture when it comes to your applications! You need to introspect, have a consistent story, understand how your short term goals will link to your long term goals, and write authentic essays tailored to each school. 

And quick tip: don’t use ChatGPT to write your essays. Even if you do use it for support, ensure that your essays sound like yourself, and not like a bot wrote them. Remember that it’s very evident when someone has used an AI tool, especially if they haven’t optimized it. You can even know when someone who has reached out to you on LinkedIn has used ChatGPT to craft their message. It’s not a good look!


International applicant vying for a spot at Cornell Johnson? Learn to position yourself strategically by booking a free chat with us.

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