#AdmissionsPros: Shaifali Aggarwal Keeps It Real In MBA Admissions

Welcome to#AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

Shaifali Aggarwal is the Founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, a boutique MBA admissions consulting firm that assists students at every phase of the application process. A graduate of Harvard Business School herself, Shaifali knows what it takes to impress admissions committees and receive offers from top programs. She spoke with Noodle Pros about the benefits of earning an MBA, key steps in the MBA admissions process, and why she coaches clients to tell authentic stories.

Can you share a little bit about Ivy Groupe and the services you provide?

At Ivy Groupe, we work very closely with clients, on a one-on-one basis, and provide personalized and customized support on their MBA applications. We help them focus their stories, and help them get to the heart of who they really are; we’re very big on authenticity. We are a boutique company, so, unlike some of the bigger firms who may have part time consultants, the clients who comes through our doors are all talking directly to me from the outset.

In terms of services, there are a few things that we offer at Ivy Groupe. The first is your traditional comprehensive service, where I work with clients on their applications from start to finish. We start out with strategy — and of course, a part of that strategy is based in the client’s story — then work on the essays, recommendations letters, short answers within the application, and the resumé. Then, ultimately, once the application is submitted, we help clients with interview prep, scholarship negotiation, and waitlist strategy if necessary. I have an advisory board filled with members who have also gone to top schools, have experience with admissions consulting, have been interviewers, or have had some access within an admissions office, so for those different touch points that I mentioned, the Advisory Board comes in and provides additional insights. For instance, in the strategy phase, I discuss the client’s story with a member of an advisory board, get additional feedback, and relay that to the client. So that’s the first service we offer; the hours are unlimited.

The second option is hourly services. This is for clients who are looking for feedback on particular pieces of their applications and don’t really want our full suite. This could mean helping the client formulate their strategy and story, helping them with the essay, their resumé, the short answers, recommendation letters, interview prep, etc.

The third service is what we call Bundled Packages; these are really meant for people who are working on the applications on their own. I have authored a course to help clients walk through the application process; they can take that course at their own pace. As part of the course offerings, they have the opportunity to purchase additional “add ons.” If students need someone to take a look at their resumé, or if they want help with their essays, or some one-off advice to solidify their story and their strategy, they can “add on” those services.

And then finally, the last service is for pre-MBAs — those who are about nine months out from applying. They could be students who are still in college, or they may have just graduated from college: Young professionals who are seeking help with respect to bolstering their profiles before they actually apply to business school. I work with these students one-on-one to build their profiles, so that once they are ready to apply, they can put their best foot forward.

What is your educational background, and how did you get into admissions consulting?

I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in economics, and I also graduated from Harvard Business School. I have a traditional finance background, so I spent a lot of time before business school doing investment banking, and then time after business school working in the asset management space. When I was at Harvard, I collaborated with the admissions office as VP Admissions of the Women’s Student Association. In that role, I worked directly with the Associate Director of Admissions on marketing initiatives. I was really the bridge between current students and prospective and admitted students, and that gave me really great insight on what HBS is looking for, and what other top tier schools are looking for in candidates.

After business school, I started informally helping friends, family members, and colleagues with their applications. After working in asset management, I wanted to go down more of an entrepreneurial path, and decided to start my own online media company. I began helping clients with their MBA applications at some of the bigger counseling firms, just to support myself while I was building my company. I realized over time that I really really enjoyed it; it is very rewarding to be able to work with amazing people all over the world who are looking to attain their own dreams and their own educational goals. So, I eventually decided to focus on admissions consulting full-time.

What are three questions that you would typically ask in a first meeting with a client?

The first thing I ask clients is to tell me about themselves and their backgrounds. That’s pretty vague, but it’s where we start to dig in, and where I start to gain an understanding of their story. Oftentimes, there are things that clients don’t really think are that important, but are actually really interesting and big motivators towards their unique path.

The second question is just about understanding what they hope to do post-MBA. Goals are a very important part of the MBA application process, and it’s important that clients are very clear with respect to what they want to do, and that they are able to connect it back to what they have done in the past.

And then finally, I ask new clients why they want to go to business school. This gives me a good sense of what they’re trying to get out of this experience, and what we need to work on to ensure that their story really comes through.

One of Ivy Groupe’s mantras is: “Achieve your dreams, impact the world.” Can you talk about the ways in which pursuing an MBA can help a student change the world in some way?

Absolutely. Most business schools, if not all, are really looking to develop leaders who give back to society. To be a leader in your field, it’s important to gain certain skill sets that will get you where you want to be. And that’s where business school really comes in, to help people achieve their dreams by filling in those gaps that may be missing from their toolkits.

And there are a few areas where where business school can be very helpful. One is honing a candidate’s leadership skills, because that’s really really important when someone is trying to effect change. A leader needs to be able to motivate other people, and inspire them to buy into a vision.

Getting a business degree is also a perfect way to gain a cross-functional skill set, because, more likely than not, you’re going to be exposed to many different things and you will be involved in many different areas of business.

And then finally, business school provides a networking opportunity; you’re able to forge really close friendships and relationships with peers and classmates and professors, a lot of whom can help you throughout your career.

What is your perspective on GMAT or GRE test prep, and how should test prep be prioritized with all of these other application goals?

The test is probably the one part of the application that people really don’t like — which is understandable — but it is an important part of the process. It’s important because it helps to standardize candidates. It’s a constant that can give admissions committees a sense of a person’s sequential ability to handle the rigor of an MBA curriculum. 

Ideally, I encourage clients to get the GMAT or the GRE out of the way as soon as they can. If I’m working with clients on a pre-MBA package, I encourage them to take it in that timeframe, before they actually start applying. I actually think that the ideal time for students to take the GMAT or GRE is their senior year of college, since the exam has five years’ validity and college students are already in that study mode. But if not, taking it one or two years out of college and getting it out of the way is nice.

If students have to take the GMAT or the GRE in parallel with working on their applications, it does tend to increase their stress levels more. At that point, it’s just about being very systematic with the time spent,  because it can be tough to balance. Some clients spent a lot of time focusing on the GMAT and then leave the application for the last minute, which can be very detrimental.

Other than the mistake of waiting until the last minute to take the GMAT or GRE, what is another misstep you sometimes see with your clients?

I would say that the biggest misstep is underestimating how much time the MBA application takes. Most candidates are well-intentioned with respect to pacing out applications and working on them systematically. But, of course, life happens, and they sometimes get pushed back. It’s very difficult to be thoughtful about the application when you’re pressured with a deadline looming over you. The MBA application is very unique. It requires a lot of reflection, and deep thinking about who you are and what you want to do.

Speaking of reflection, are there any topics you would recommend avoiding in application essays?

I don’t necessarily think there are any particular topics that should be avoided, but what clients tend to do a lot is focus on the “what,” and not the “how” or the “why.” So by focusing on the “what,” they’re saying, “Here are the facts. This is what I did.” But when we focus on the “why” and the “how,” we provide color and perspective. It’s very important for clients to bring out the things that will differentiate them from other people: What are their values? What shaped them? What are their unique perspectives? That’s really going to help them be more authentic and going to help them stand out in the eyes of the admissions committees as being human and genuine.

How much essay writing help do you think applicants should be getting from friends, teachers, or advisors?

I always, always, always believe that clients should be writing their own essays. They can definitely get feedback, and they can get other people’s perspectives — and I always encourage people to do that earlier in the process rather than later — but ultimately, the essay is the client’s or the candidate’s. And so I always tell my clients that they make the final decision, no matter the feedback they receive from anyone else. Because these are their essays. Their voice needs to come through to reflect who they are.

What is your best advice for students who are applying to competitive MBA programs?

My advice is to focus on being authentic. I’m a huge proponent of authenticity. Candidates sometimes think that there is a cookie cutter application that will work. They look at what’s worked for friends, or family members, or colleagues, and oftentimes, they try to emulate what others have done. And that’s a huge mistake! Because I truly believe that everyone has a very unique story to tell, and that by being authentic, their unique story will come through. What worked for someone else is not going to work for you, because you have had very different experiences. No one has walked in your shoes, and no one has seen the world from your eyes.

I stress this very heavily: your authenticity will demonstrate your emotional intelligence and your humanity, and will show that you have had great experiences that you can contribute to an MBA. And that’s ultimately what admissions committees want: they want people who are very authentic, because that’s what’s going to shape a rich and diverse class.

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Interested in working with Shaifali Aggarwal at Ivy Groupe? Contact her via the Ivy Groupe website for more information.

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KC is a writer and educator for Noodle Pros, and is currently earning her MA in Educational Theatre and English at NYU's Steinhardt School. She is from a big family of gifted and 2E kids (and parents), and is passionate about creating inclusive learning environments for all children.