Manthan Shah, a senior at SP Jain, has been selected to join the 2023 cohort of Schwarzman Scholars, one of the world’s most prestigious graduate fellowships. As a Schwarzman Scholar, Manthan will head to Beijing in August 2022 to commence a one-year master’s program in global affairs at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, China. Manthan is one of the youngest authors to be commissioned by Penguin Random House to write his first book, Unstoppable. The book will be published in March 2022 and will showcase stories of young non-conformist Indians who are changing the world. Currently based in Ahmednagar, India, Manthan is a Dean’s list student and Global Citizen awardee at SP Jain School of Global Management. He is also the founder and two-time president of the TAMID chapter, a premier business club with over eighty members. In addition, his weekly Planet Impact podcast shares the stories of highly impactful social entrepreneurs from around the globe with its thousands of listeners.
On a cold September morning, I woke up to an email from my dean – Prof. Golo – titled Scholarships. The name Schwarzman appeared to be way beyond my league. After all, it is one of the world’s most competitive and prestigious postgraduate leadership programmes, with an acceptance rate of less than three percent. The application deadline was only two weeks away. I was sure to let the opportunity slide and apply next year instead.
Fast forward a couple of months, I got an unexpected call from a New York-listed number. A soft-spoken voice said, “we wanted to congratulate you for being accepted to the Schwarzman Scholars!”.
A lot happened between these two months. I got overwhelming support from my college dean, book editor, internship boss, and several former Schwarzman Scholars in this process. The things I learned from them made all the difference. So, if you’d be patient with me, I would like to share my key learnings with you for the application process:
Schwarzman timelines :
- Essays – Leadership, Statement of Purpose, and two short essays.
- Three Letters of Recommendation
- One-minute video
- Resume – 2 pages
- A brief biography
As a former table tennis player, I was always fascinated by China. Now, my motivation to apply for the scholarship was to learn from China’s sustainable finance leadership, its unique governance, and policymaking practices, and engage with a cohort of driven global leaders.
Schwarzman’s application process allows you to share every aspect of your personality. Therefore, it is crucial to string your story together in one piece coherently across all the essays, LOR’s, resumes, and videos.
My leadership essay was a necklace of three stories. First, I spoke about my life as a former athlete. Second, I narrated how I gorged my sporting ambitions due to circumstances and discovered my passion for writing, as I wrote my upcoming book Unstoppable that will be published by Penguin Random House in March 2022. Finally, I concluded how my definition of leadership has changed over the years, and what it would mean to be a leader in India today.
This narrative arrived only after deep conversations with my college Prof. Golo and a few very generous Schwarzman scholars. They acted as a soundboard, and I learned that authenticity, ownership of failures, and highlighting key learning areas were a crucial part of my personality that should be reflected. It might seem counter-intuitive but reframing my disadvantages and tapping into my insecurities helped me narrate a story that was true to me.
For example, I used to feel insecure about coming from a town, not going to a target school, failing as an athlete, and being removed from the non-profit I started.
But they turned out to be the cornerstones of who I am today, and thus my essay.
Removing all the fluff and being genuine to my values of humility, empathy, honesty, and hard work helped me write a memorable story.
When you write your story, I recommend reflecting on all the life choices you took and your most formative experiences and highlighting motivation and intention. You should believe in your leadership story so much that you would do the things you would say regardless of the scholarship.
Statement of Purpose:
Your leadership essay should transition the reader to your statement of purpose. And your purpose should have a laser-sharp focus area.
As a 21-year-old, I still struggle to identify my purpose and life goals. But something one of my favorite Schwarzman scholars, who has become a good friend, said helped me a lot.
“Think out loud. If money and resources weren’t a concern, where would you want to be in 50-years? Now think of a jigsaw puzzle that will lead you to that north-pole. Then, finally, showcase how the last piece in that puzzle to reach your life goal would be this Schwarzman Scholarship”.
It is ok to not have that expert-level clarity; I still don’t. But identifying a trend in your past decisions and figuring what the most probable future might look like might help. This might arrive from conversations with your confidants and mentors.
China element is critical in your SOP, and you need to be updated with all the current news. Listening to the Sinica SupChina podcast, reading the Economist Magazine, and a few books on China helped me immensely. Also, I must mention, Prof. Golo, my college dean, sent me a list of the most critical news topics of interest then, which were most helpful.
Letters of Recommendation:
Reach out to people you have worked with and those who can vouch for you. I was blessed to have the most amazing recommenders: my college dean, my book editor at Penguin, and my boss at the public policy think tank where I worked then.
I know of candidates who have got LORs from presidents of the countries and many important people through contacts. But what the admissions team told me was that the titles don’t matter as much as the depth of insight does. The LOR should reflect your story deeply. It can be your professors, bosses, or anyone you work with, but they should genuinely champion you.
All my referees wrote me a reference letter within a day of request, a few hours before the deadline. Telling them your leadership story would help them highlight things that align with your essays.
You are recommended to upload a 1-minute video about yourself. It doesn’t need to be professionally made, but it must be authentic.
I made my video on the day of my submission. I divided 60 secs into three equal compartments. The first 20 secs showcased my past: town, table tennis background, college, and volunteer work. The middle 20 secs showed my present: podcast and book. And in the last 20 seconds, I told them three things I could bring to the Schwarzman community.
Transcripts, resume, and a brief Bio:
Make sure to ask your school for the transcripts a few days in advance. Your resume can be only two-pages long at max. Make sure you quantify your achievements and highlight your leadership experiences. There are many examples of a brief bio on the Schwarzman website that you can follow. Make sure you thoroughly proofread to weed out any grammatical and spelling errors. For instance, I misspelled ‘investment banking’ as ‘investment baking’ in my resume, and I feared how embarrassing it would be if they pointed it out!
Once you submit your application, you may get the interview invites in three weeks. The selected candidates fly to London, Singapore, New York, and San Francisco. But all interviews in 2021 were on zoom.
The interviews last for 25 minutes. When I saw the list of panelists, my jaw touched the floor. They included the former prime minister of Australia, a senator from the Malaysian parliament, the foreign minister of New Zealand, chairpersons, CEOs and MDs from leading multinational companies, and the dean of Schwarzman College.
I had my mid-terms during the scheduled interviews and little time to thoroughly research. So I reached out to a dozen former Schwarzman scholars, professors, mentors, college seniors, and co-workers for guidance. To my surprise, eight of them volunteered to do mock interviews. These mock interviews truly conditioned me for everything that the panel would ask.
And as it happened, the panel asked me questions about my book, non-profit work, life ambitions, that I had already answered in my mock interviews.
The last five minutes of the interview are reserved for global affairs questions. I was not too confident about this. And In fact, I didn’t even understand the questions, so I asked for clarifications, took a pause, and gave structured three-step answers. And it worked!
A common pitfall in interviews like this is that candidates try to present themselves as the perfect person that fits the program. But that doesn’t work. Be your genuine 20-year-old self. As a Scholar told me, “Be the person who anyone would like to have as a roommate. “
The anxiety that came in the long wait for the results was the worst. I used to check all my emails and spam folders every morning. But during this wait time, I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t make it.
The social isolation and coming from a rural town break your spirit. In the two-year lockdown, the small things such as going to the nearby city, eating in a restaurant, or going to cinemas appeared extraordinary. Additionally, before my interview, I met these accomplished candidates from highly prestigious universities such as Ivy League schools, Oxford, Cambridge Stanford, etc. So, naturally, I was convinced this application was way beyond my league, I still do.
Irrespective of the results, just by attempting to apply, I knew I had won. I had succeeded at overcoming my insecurities and learning my unique leadership story. The unlikely result of a random brown kid getting selected to the program was truly mesmerizing.
There are only exponential returns in applying for scholarships like these and believing in yourself. Therefore, give it a shot. You would be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Additional Resources that helped me immensely: