Every year, there are lakhs of students who give the CAT exam with dreams of getting into IIM Ahmedabad. Only a select few make it to this B-School. These students then compete against each other for 2 years in a high-stress environment. In this article, we bring you the story of Arunabh Saxena. He is a Gold Medalist for Scholastic performance at IIM Ahmedabad, Class of 2021. Find out about his journey from not having planned to do an MBA to joining the top B-School in the country, his personal struggles during the course, and his motivation to achieve the medal. Read about his inspiring journey here.
Q1. Please tell us about your educational and professional background, and what drew you to pursue an MBA.
I completed my BTech and MTech in Electrical Engineering from IIT Bombay and joined IIMA immediately after. I had never planned to do an MBA (or at least not immediately). In fact, I was going to join Honda AI’s R&D division in Tokyo. However, we discovered that my father had stage-3 pancreatic cancer, and since my parents were based out of Ahmedabad, I left that opportunity and decided to look for something in Ahmedabad so I could be close to my parents. Doing an MBA was thus a bizarrely tangential move from my planned trajectory and not something I had anticipated doing.
Q2. Please tell us about your journey from preparing for CAT to finally joining IIM Ahmedabad.
I did not prepare as such but just kept solving a lot of TIME test papers. I struggled initially with DI/LR a lot but got better as I got closer to the exam date. On the exam day itself, I was fairly calm and just focused on executing the strategy I had planned out for myself. The paper was on very expected lines, and I think I also got a little lucky!
For the interview, I prepared my undergraduate degree a lot, read up on a lot of current affairs & news, and generally strived to come across as a decently well-read citizen of our country. The interview was fairly straightforward and lasted less than 10 minutes for me in all. I had mentioned card stacking as one of my hobbies, and so they asked me to demonstrate it right there, with a pack of business cards. I think by the time I reached 3 stories; we all knew I had made it. My overall performance in CAT and interview were strong enough that I was one of the 20 students to be shortlisted for the ABG scholarship from IIMA (and was also a recipient eventually)
Q3. When you entered IIMA, did you expect to win the award? What did you expect from the program?
No, I honestly didn’t. The whole of the first term was spent juggling between visits to the hospital and surprise quizzes. I was used to a heavy workload, but the crushing first term in PGP1 was compounded by the tension and worry I had about my father’s health. My father passed away on 26th August 2019. I almost dropped out of the PGP program, but my mother and friends convinced me to continue.
By that time, the 1st term was almost done, and my academics were in shambles. The 1st term is easily the most scoring in PGP1, and where the top rankers were around 3.7-3.8, I was at a measly 3.2. It was a real uphill battle from there, but I resolved that I wanted to make my parents proud on the convocation day. After that, I never got lower than a 3.7 in any slot.
To be honest, I never interested in pursuing an MBA. That changed when I arrived at IIMA, and realized there was a lot I didn’t know. Looking back, I am glad that I didn’t continue with my bias, and managed to extract a lot from the program.
Q4. Given that only the crème de la crème of India makes it to IIMA, could you give us an idea of the degree of competitiveness at IIM Ahmedabad?
I personally found the people at IIMA very hyper-competitive. I was used to a streak of healthy competition from IITB, but the intensity of competition near the placements season was on a different level. Most of the times it is quite unnecessary because we all get to where we want eventually. It also somewhat makes the environment a little harsher than an undergraduate college.
Q5. Please tell us about your Summer Internship Experience. How will that experience help you in the future in your career?
I interned at Brookfield Asset Management – a PE firm focussed on infrastructure, real estate & renewable energy investments. My internship experience was completely virtual, and really intense, as I ended up clocking really long hours most days. However, my team was very nice to me, and with their assistance, I ramped up my skills at modelling, and analysing investments at a rapid pace. I think I did a decent job overall, and was fortunate enough to receive a PPO. Given that I am starting my career in finance, I think it was an invaluable experience.
As in most things about my IIMA life, my internship preparation was also random. I had started out thinking I wanted to do consulting since I wanted a PPO and job security. However, I was more inclined towards a finance internship, and PE in particular (I don’t think I would have been able to survive investment banking!). When BAM shortlisted me, and I went along with the process, I decided to go ahead with it instead of consulting. I did the usual stuff to prepare for my internship – selected a sector, 2 companies, brushed up accounting skills, and a couple of engineering puzzle questions. It worked out pretty well for me.
Q6. What did you do differently and how did you study differently that helped you win the Gold Medal?
I did nothing differently. Everyone wants good grades, but I just wanted them more. So, I worked harder for them. That’s really it. This counts more in PGP2, where it is easier to lose enthusiasm.
Once, you are sure you want the medal, you interact with like-minded & similarly motivated people, and you begin to observe patterns in courses that you can tap for getting good grades. I also feel that my internship helped me gain a degree of maturity that helped in courses in PGP2, where I was the overall topper. I also took a heavy proportion of finance & economics courses, where I was primed to do well.
Q7. How does an MBA student balance studies and extra-curricular activities at b-school? Is it possible to balance the two, or must one be sacrificed for another? How did you bring about a balance?
I did manage to do a bunch of extra-curricular activities. Hosting the Finance Minister for a discussion on the Budget, winning the IIMA squash event & taking part in a social action lab project were all things that I did beyond my academics. However, this was more in PGP2, because I spent PGP1 salvaging my wrecked grades.
It is possible to strike a balance, but then you can rule out very high achievement in any field. To get a medal, for example, I feel that you need to put in a high amount of effort, and while it is possible to do a lot of other things on the side, it’s really difficult to do so. If you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing.
Q8. What were your, your family's and your friends' reactions when you won the award? How did you celebrate?
My mother & sister were ecstatic. My friends from Dorm 7 (thank you Skyfall!), my finance competition friends (we called our team “The Moat Diggers” & we won a lot of finance competitions together) were also very happy that I had achieved what I had methodically been working for the last two years.
I am not really into parties and celebrating a lot, but our family friends invited us over for a dinner at their house. I guess I would have celebrated much more if the actual convocation would have taken place!
Q9. Regarding b-school life and academics, what are three crucial pieces of advice you would like to share with the incoming class of 2023?
I am really no one to be dishing out advice, but if I must:
A. Don’t sweat the small stuff & don’t be unnecessarily competitive
B. Have the vision to say “No” to a lot of things that will distract you from your goals
C. Always remember the support of family & friends that got you here in the first place
B-School doesn’t have to be an ordeal. It is also the place to forge a lot of new friends, meet a lot of interesting people (including possibly your future life partner!) & experience college life one last time.