Aradhana Khaitan is a fresh-faced, female entrepreneur who has been working in the test prep – and more recently, tutoring and recruitment – market in India for a number of years, as well as in admissions counselling.
She spoke to The PIE about her company’s enduring focus on students’ potential for success as the real barometer of success.
When she founded Manya, The Princeton Review’s largest operation outside of the United States, she says – the evolution was something she took within her stride.
“We started off as a franchise of the Princeton Review in India, but at that time we only had the rights to North, East and South India,” Khaitan explains.
“We did so well that we quickly expanded outside our base in Delhi and managed to convert our franchise rights within three years for all of India.”
Manya converted its franchise rights so they became a master franchise, expanding far enough that it made them a leading test prep provider in India.
The now booming Indian offshoot of the Princeton Review boasts average scores of 7.3 in IELTS tests, 1327 in SAT scores, 704 in the GMAT and 312 for the GRE exam.
In terms of their admissions figures, Manya sports an applicant to admit rate of 88%, and admit to visa rate of 81% and dream and reach admits of 71%.
“We only did a little bit of IELTS at the beginning – now, of course, things are very different.
“GRE was and still remains our biggest and strongest product offering because of the nature of the Indian demographics, with the Masters being the bigger focus for the Indian student wanting to go overseas,” Khaitan says.
Everything else, she remembers, was a distant second, which has now transformed. Two decades later, Khaitan describes Manya as an “omnichannel company”, with a physical presence in almost 50 locations across India, proving its exponential growth.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so that was in my DNA”
‘Because most aspire to go overseas and just start with focusing on their grades, we help them with building their profile.
“We are now an ecosystem starting as early as grade six, offering online tutoring for students who are also studying GCSEs and IB boards.”
Manya prides itself, Khaitan says, on providing test prep and development for the full educational journey – psychometric tests, profile building sessions, then test prep and internships – and now, a full admissions platform where it represents universities acting as agents directly and with indirect partners, along with offering “high touch premium advisory”.
Khaitan hit the ground running not long after she graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in 2000. After only a couple of years in consulting, the company began.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so that was in my DNA,” she says.
“I joined consulting and it was a great experience, but during the recession we were encouraged to take paid sabbaticals, and on mine I began to explore business opportunities.
“We looked at multiple things, from environmental engineering to waste management and even biotech, but education was the closest connection because we’d already been through the journey,” she reminisces.
The Princeton Review [which provides a range of test prep, admissions and tutoring resources in the US] brand partnership helped the brand build, and as Khaitan says, there has been no turning back.
“It’s constantly evolving – at one point, QS was a strong partner as well, so we’ve had multiple partnerships,” she says.
“With the hyperactivity that’s happened in this space and how it’s changing, I think everybody’s trying to get a piece of the pie,” Khaitan observes.
Having had access to students at test preparation level, the obvious expansion was to go into admissions. “QS, for example, has around a million students going to their website for rankings – so how do you monetise that?”
There’s a lot of opportunity in this business, Khaitan asserts, but Manya remains clear on its priorities.
“We want to use our hybrid network, we want to use the brand that we have, which is premium – we are in the paid business, not free student servicing, because that requires a different approach,” she insists.
Manya does charge a “nominal” amount for their services, which does make it more challenging, she acquiesces.
“We’re not trying to be something for everyone”
While it makes for “insane competition”, everybody has to create their own niche and stay with what their brand caters to.
“We’re not trying to be something for everyone.”
During Covid, admissions numbers went up significantly at Manya, but college test prep numbers crashed due to the optionality of various university tests that were emerging.
SAT really suffered, she says, and went test optional, and GRE students were not taking a lot of tests – but the other issue was scams.
“India, some parts of it, is the land of scams. One of our biggest markets had an online testing scam where illegitimate fly-by-night operators emerged – you could pay them and they would go and take the test for you in India,” she explains.
While this caused a large crash in numbers for a time, Manya went to the media, ETS and other companies with the issues, and it was covered front page in the country’s leading dailies.
The Indian market is booming and identifying quality applicants is a big focus for Khaitan.
“There will always be concerns about a lower-academic student profile, and they will always remain – that’s why I think universities have to up their screening process as well as work with companies like ours, in spreading the right message and identifying the right student.
“You don’t want students to just sit in – you don’t just want bodies. You have got to have a certain level of capability”
“That’s why we’ve never been as focused on the student recruitment market, because that’s more of a low-quality mass market – we’re more focused on the premium student. We look at your profile, we invest in you, to help you get to your best.”
Khaitan muses that “we invest in you” would describe them best, and their motto is based on Saraswati before Lakshmi, the goddesses of education and wealth in Hinduism.
“You don’t want students to just sit in – you don’t just want bodies. You have got to have a certain level of capability and you have to screen better for the larger interests of that student.
“At a human level, what are you doing to that student who’s going to go there and fail? That student’s mental health, that students’ families’ well being when they know that their child isn’t succeeding – it’s so important to keep track when you’re going to a faraway land.”