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By Candy Lee LaBalle, mbaSpain
Six Tips from the Trenches
MBA admissions consultants help applicants in everything from choosing schools to essay brainstorming to resume editing. But, when dealing with non-US applicants, we also have to do a little cultural translating. At mbaSpain, I face this reality every day, and, after comparing notes with several AIGAC colleagues, I’ve identified six application areas where cultural awareness is essential.
1. Sell Yourself
Call it branding, positioning, or tooting your own horn, what is second nature to US applicants is often taboo to non-Americans.
“With Middle Easterners, particularly women, I spend a lot of time encouraging them to talk openly about themselves, their accomplishments and initiatives, and their dreams,” notes Tanis Kmetyk, who handles EMEA applicants for Accepted.com. With Asian applicants, she says, “Standing out is not considered a ‘plus’… so helping them to, well, stand out, is important.”
In addition, many foreign applicants believe an MBA application means all business. Rocio didn’t think the fact that she co-founded one of Spain’s most important youth sporting events to be relevant. “But I was in university, wouldn’t the schools rather hear about my banking experience?”
2. Embrace your Failures
“Even physical hurdles that people face (like handicaps) are seen as a weakness in many countries,” says Tanis. We have to push them to realize that the value of that failure, what they learned can actually be a strength for their application.
Some non-US applicants try to avoid sharing failures by thinly veiling achievements. Jaime was determined to tell LBS that his failure to graduate number one in his class (instead of number two) was due to his demanding role as captain of the rugby team! It took a bit of coaxing to help him realize that his initial struggle with leadership was actually a more powerful story.
3. Answer the Question
Getting non-US applicants to clearly tell a story is another struggle. Vince Ricci who runs VincePrep.com in Japan notes, “Japanese storytelling emphasizes context – a long wind-up before the final punchline.” With this approach, they’ll run out of words before they get to the point.
Spanish applicants love to share mucho ruido, pocas nueces (a lot of noise, few nuts). Though it is good advice for all MBA hopefuls to stay focused and answer the question, non-US applicants benefit immensely from the application of STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result.
4. Commit to the Tests
Standardized tests provide their own cultural challenges. Victoria Pralitch of MBA Consult in Russia says “My applicants see GMAT as just a math test, and our schools in Russia give a great math training, so no need to overstrain. As a result, the percentage of those who pass successfully the first time is not that high.”
“German applicants are typically exasperated about the GMAT requirement,” notes Dr. Marlena Corcoran of Athena Mentor. “They are convinced they are superior candidates, and their less-than-stellar scores on a standardized exam must mean the exam is unfair.”
Other applicants choose to ignore their English test until it is too late. “I have a 720 on GMAT and use English everyday,” Pedro, a very promising candidate told me last November. “I don’t have to prepare TOEFL.” He got a 104 and had to put off his Harvard application for a year.
5. Recognize Extracurriculars
“Most Western Europe governments take care of their people from ‘cradle to grave,’ so community activity here is not at all the same as it is in North America,” notes Tanis.
Maybe our non-US applicants haven’t done typical extracurricular activity, but most likely they’ve played team sports, served on an events committee at work, helped a family member open a business, or participated in some activity that allowed them to take initiative, have impact and show leadership.
Ricardo was convinced he had no extracurricular activity to share. Then I found out that when he was in university, his family went bankrupt. He used his computer skills to make 20,000 euros in an online venture which helped his father get his business back. Talk about impact!
6. Go Beyond Rankings
“I have to educate my non-US applicants about the diversity of schools – many are just focused on the top 10 and it’s frustrating, whether it’s not realistic for them or just there’s a better fit,” says Yael Redelman-Sidi of Admit1MBA.com based in New York.
While a top-ten obsession is typical among most MBA applicants, non-US applicants also face the cultural pressure of attending a brand-name school. Everyone in Spain, China and Brazil knows Harvard, not so many know Babson or Kelley or Tulane. It is our job to mediate their expectations (not all of them can go to Harvard) and open their eyes to other schools that could be a better fit.
The Wall St Journal had a great special section this week on graduate business education. As an admissions consultant for the last fifteen years, I read the articles with memories of similar sections and articles from the past floating through my head. And I see major changes reflected here.
First the article, “Looking for an Edge,” shines a spotlight on the increasing role of admission consultants in the application process. According to the article, 20% of applicants in a GMAC survey said they used admissions consultants. Clearly the applicant interviewed for the WSJ article found beneficial her experience with AIGAC member, Clear Admit. Her comments on her experience closely mirrored the arguments I made in an earlier post, “Why use an admissions consultant?”
The article also reveals increasing acceptance of admissions consultants by admissions directors. According to “Looking for an Edge,” “Deirdre Leopold, managing director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, says meeting with admissions consultants is useful to ‘get some field intelligence’ about how prospective students view the school and its admissions process.”
“Ticket to an M.B.A.” shows that Derrick Bolton, assistant dean and director of M.B.A. admissions at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has moved from definite opposition to cautious neutrality:
“Applicants approach the process saying, ‘What are the areas over which I have control?’ They see part of that as getting coaching or guidance from someone who may have seen more candidates.
“Does it help? Does it hurt? It’s candidate by candidate. What I would always ask is, ‘How can someone who doesn’t know you help you be a more authentic version of yourself?’ Some people probably can, if they’re asking the right questions.”
While these admissions directors haven’t become evangelists or advocates for consultants, their comments reveal a marked change in their public posture.They have moved to acceptance, perhaps even grudging respect.
These trends reflect a lot of AIGAC’s hard work over the last five years. AIGAC has set industry standards for professionalism and ethical consulting. It has increased and improved communications with the schools especially at our annual conferences, where members have visited Chicago, Kellogg, Columbia, NYU, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Haas.
Finally, the article also has enormous implications for AIGAC, its members, and non-member consultants. The Wall St. Journal overwhelmingly turned to AIGAC members when it wanted information on MBA admissions consulting. Almost every consultant mentioned or interviewed in the WSJ article, “Looking for an Edge,” is a member of AIGAC. In fact the only link in the article is to AIGAC: “To find a consultant, one place to start is AIGAC.org, the website of the admissions consultants’ trade group.”
If The Wall St. Journal is saying that one place to find an admissions consultant is AIGAC.org and you are an admissions consultant, don’t you want to be found here?
If you are a member, you know your AIGAC investment is paying dividends — big time. If you are not yet a member, but you share AIGAC’s values, believe in its vision, and meet its membership requirements, now is a great time to join.
By Jon Hodge of Strictly English TOEFL Tutors
Within the international community of MBA applicants, there is a series of commonly held beliefs about the role TOEFL scores play in an admissions office’s decision-making process. One is that a high GMAT score can compensate for a low TOEFL score. Another is, just the opposite: that a high TOEFL score can make up for a low Verbal score on the GMAT. Another is that if you study for the GMAT first, then odds are, you’ll unproblematically breeze through the TOEFL because TOEFL is believed to be exponentially more simple than GMAT. Finally, many applicants also believe that a higher TOEFL score will knock out any competition from their country, as if admissions offices would reduce the application process down to gathering together all the dossiers from, say, China, and picking the candidate with the highest TOEFL score.
These myths gain credence as applicants tell each other stories of a friend of a friend who got into HBS with only a 99 on the TOEFL because that friend of a friend scored perfectly on the GMAT. (Interesting, rarely do any of these urban legends claim that it was a well-written, earnest essay or a truly professional job history that balanced out a weak TOEFL score!)
The truth is, though, instead of investing all this energy into gossiping and fantasizing, it’s much more productive to just work hard to get the score that the school lists on their website. No more; no less.
Yet, there is one reason why it might be worth working a bit harder on one section of the TOEFL: the Speaking section. Arguably, oral communication is one of the most important skills that any business person needs to get ahead. So learning how to speak clearly, concisely, and persuasively is something that anyone can benefit from. If you’re called in for an interview, you’ll want to deliver answers in a manner similar to how someone who scored a 27 or a 28 on the TOEFL delivered their responses.
To be clear, though, I’m not claiming that a higher Speaking score on paper will in itself do anything for you. The application committee won’t scramble to the phone to call you merely because you have that high Speaking score. No. But a TOEFL Speaking score of 27 or above does mean that you will most likely speak with eloquence and professionalism (with only a slight accent) during an Interview.
And remember, ETS now lets admissions offices listen to some of your six answers, which means you might get the ax simply because your TOEFL Speaking responses were sloppy, unclear, or off topic. Let’s say you nailed that 104 for the school of your dreams, but you did it with a perfect 30 in both the Reading and Listening and a 25 on the Writing. This means that your Speaking was only a 19. Regardless of whether the admissions office invites you to an Interview or merely listens on ETS’s website to the audio file of your speaking, you have to own up to the possibility that odds are low that you’ll impress them with your ability to communicate orally.
Therefore, make Speaking a top priority in your TOEFL study. Mastering public speaking will ensure that you are as empowered as possible, not only for the short-term goal of the TOEFL exam, but also for the long-term goal of being a persuasive and articulate businessperson.
There are endless and frequent discussions on forums and message boards questioning the value of admissions consulting. One of the more common arguments against using a consultant runs something like this:
“Everyone I know that’s been accepted and is attending top schools did so without …an admissions consultant…. Is [using a consultant] crucial to top-school acceptance? Absolutely not.”
I’m sure if you took a poll of AIGAC members, the overwhelming majority would have attended grad school without the aid of a consultant. Many, including me, would not have taken a test prep course before applying to graduate school. However, over the last thirty years test preparation went from being an act of desperation, to a competitive edge, to a mainstay of the application process. Today, to maximize chances of a top score and acceptance at the best possible school, virtually all applicants take a test prep course.
The same phenomenon is occurring to admissions consulting, but educational advising is currently at the “competitive edge” stage. At this point, using a consultant is not crucial for some. It is extremely helpful for all.
The question is not whether one can get accepted to business, law, or medical school without a consultant. Many are accepted without professional advising. The question is: Are the advantages of using a consultant worth the cost?
First let’s discuss the ways in which a consultant can help you. We bring:
- Experience that you lack.
- Objectivity to a subject that is difficult to be objective about: You
- Editing skills. Professional writers have editors because their writing benefits from a knowledgeable, critical eye. The same is true for the writing of non-professionals.
How do these benefits justify the cost and provide a critical competitive edge?
Using an admissions consultant can:
- Enable your acceptance to a “better” school. “Better” implies more professional opportunity, increased earnings, and an educational experience more to your liking. Just looking at dollars and cents, “better” represents potentially tens of thousands of dollars in your pocket during your career.
- Help you snag a fellowship or scholarship. Savings: tens of thousands of dollars.
- Save you the cost of reapplication. Applying to medical, law, business school or any other graduate program including application fees and travel expenses can cost several thousand dollars. When you apply one time, you save.
- Reduce the time, stress, and frustration you (and those close to you) experience during the admissions process. We can guide you so you don’t go down tangents and useless paths or flounder for weeks as you struggle to learn what we know.
So can you gain acceptance to a graduate school without using an admissions consultant? Certainly. Should you try? Only if you don’t value the experience, objectivity, and skill that can provide you with returns many times the cost.