“In a place like IIM A, once you are left behind its very difficult to catch up” – Rahul Agarwal, Commerce Grad and Rank One at IIM Ahmedabad
This is a continuation of our Special Ones series. After interviews with toppers at IIFT, JBIMS, IIM Kozhikode, FMS Delhi, XLRI Jamshedpur, IIM Bangalore and IIM Calcutta, we turn our focus to WIMWI. Intense competition makes it really really difficult to top at IIM Ahmedabad. After interviews with stars like Ashima Setia, Akarsh Shrivastava and Abhinav Gupta, we now have an interview with Rahul Agarwal.
Rahul Agarwal was Rank One after the first of MBA at IIM Ahmedabad – topper of India’s pre-eminent B school. As far as academic achievements go, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. And what’s more, he is a commerce grad – a rarity in the world of engineers that dominate elite B schools in India.
About Rahul (in his own words)
Born and brought up in Ahmedabad, Rahul was Institute Rank 1 in the first year at IIM-Ahmedabad. All India Rank (AIR)-9 in CA-CPT & AIR-47 in CA-IPCC, Rahul interned with McKinsey & Company. An awardee of a scholarship by the French Consulate, he is currently pursuing an exchange term at HEC Paris.
Ranked 5th in the Ahmedabad University B.Com. programme, he also received the ‘Student of the Year’ award for best all-round performance in college. One of the two head-boys in school, he has also won many state-level case analysis & public-speaking competitions. He is also a member of Beta – The Finance Club, Eloquence – The Public Speaking Club and Chaos – The Cultural Festival at IIMA and is passionate about cricket, tennis and swimming.
Tell us a bit about your educational background – were you a topper all through your undergraduate and school days? What brought you to an MBA?
I have consistently done well in academics, both in my college and school. But I wasn’t a topper throughout. I was always among the top performers though. Born in a family of businessmen, I had a keen interest in business management and hence I opted for an MBA.
2. Walk us through your academic journey in the first year – How did you pace yourself academically in the first, second and third term?
I didn’t consciously pace myself in any term. I just tried to do my best in every term. But yeah, some terms are a bit more demanding than others so you end up working a bit more.
3. Did you encounter situations where you were in a group in which others were not as committed as you were? How did you handle this?
Different people have different priorities both in life and in IIMs; and one has to respect that. So one can’t expect everyone to be equally committed to every assignment. But people are often very interested in particular assignments or parts of it. So, it helps to allow them to take the lead in those assignments with others pitching in. Clear demarcation of who is responsible for what and setting timelines also helps in getting work done efficiently and effectively.
4. What were your thoughts and goals when you entered IIM Ahmedabad?Did you expect to top the program in the first year?
I just wanted to learn as much as I could. I looked at it as an opportunity to develop skills that would help me through my professional and personal life and grow as a person in the process. And no, I didn’t expect to top IIM-A.
5. B school life is always buzzing with all kinds of activities and distractions. What did you do to keep focus?
There are always a lot of activities going on in a B-School and one always has limited time. But not all activities other than academics are distractions and it is important to participate in them too. So, one has to prioritize and take a call on what is most important at that moment. I think I maintained the balance quite well.
With respect to academics, I think I was fairly regular and did not procrastinate assignments. In a place like IIM-A, once you are left behind its very difficult to catch up. Hence, being regular helps a lot.
6 . Tell us about your summer internship.
I interned with McKinsey & company, a management consulting firm where I worked on the sales transformation project for an agrochemical company in India. I worked on a number of HR and IT initiatives for the client. It gave me a great opportunity to develop interpersonal skills through extensive client interaction and gave me a flavour of real-world challenges faced by organisations. It was a great learning experience.
7. What was your reaction upon knowing that you were one of the toppers of the first year? How did you celebrate it?
I was elated when I found out that I topped the first year at IIM-A. I am a foodie and I went out with friends and family to celebrate it.
8. Competition for acads at IIM Ahmedabad must have been insane. What was your secret formula?
There is no secret formula. When you are competing at this level, you have got to exercise a bit of humility and be humble about the things you can control and the ones you cannot. You can only give your 100% but you cannot control the performance of your competitors. So, you just do your best each time and leave the rest to God. Nothing like a secret formula there.
9. What is your advice to a student entering a B school, in the first term? How can they achieve their academic goals? Apart from academics, what should they focus on?
A B-School offers great learning opportunities and the best way to approach academics is to try to learn as much as you can without bothering too much about results. And as I highlighted earlier, just do your best, give your 100% and don’t worry too much about where you will end up in the final merit list. Apart from academics, there is a lot to be gained from events and student bodies on campus and most importantly from interacting with peers. One must not miss out on these opportunities. Also, if one has clarity on what skills one lacks or what skills one specifically needs to improve upon, it might make sense to consciously direct your efforts more towards activities that give you an opportunity of harnessing those specific skills.
10. If you could go back in time and you had to live the first year differently, what would you do?
I wouldn’t want to change anything. Of course, I made some mistakes but then they presented great learning opportunities and hence I wouldn’t want them to disappear. On the whole, I really enjoyed and learnt a lot from my first year at IIM-A and I would like to keep it just the way it was.
11. What are your future career plans.
As of now, I plan to pursue a career in management consulting. I think it provides great learning opportunities and would help me acquire the skills needed in a top management position, be it in consulting or outside.
12. Apart from imbibing academic knowledge, how else has the first year of MBA enriched you? What is the greatest non-academic learning you had at IIM Ahmedabad?
One important thing that I have learnt at IIM-A is to value my time. In a college like IIM-A, you are always short of time. This is in stark contrast to undergraduate college days when you typically do have quite a bit of free time. So, I am a lot more conscious about how I spend my time now. Apart from that, I think IIM-A has made me more mature as a person, a lot more capable of dealing with demanding situations.
13. Usually toppers are regarded as nerdy types, and in the high-stakes environment of a B school, they are subjected to a lot of peer pressure in ways that range from good-natured banter to mockery and bullying. Did you face this? If yes, how did you deal with it?
No, I didn’t face any such banter. You expect your friends to crack a joke once in a blue moon but then, they are all in good humour. So, it’s all good.
14. How was your performance in the CAT? Which institutes did you interview with, which ones did you convert, and approximately where did you lie in the final list of candidates selected for IIM Ahmedabad?
I secured 99.77 percentile in CAT and interviewed with IIM A,B,C,L and XLRI. I converted all my interviews and had final admission offers from all these institutes. I have no idea about where did I lie in the final list of candidates selected into IIMA as the list isn’t revealed to students. But I wasn’t in the top 20.
15. You have a commerce background. How did you find it interacting with so many engineers? What did you learn from them and what did they learn from you?
It was fun interacting with engineers. They are quite a diverse group actually and it would be wrong to assume they are all the same.
I learnt quite a bit from my friends who were engineers. For instance, I was new to programming and my friends helped me quite a bit with it. However, this is just one instance. I am sure there would have been many skills that I would have picked up from individuals, who were engineers in the last 1.5 years.
As for what the engineers learnt from me, I think you would have to ask them. It would be a bit presumptuous of me to assume that I had a major role in somebody learning something. But I do hope I did add some value to them.
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