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By Scott Shrum
Just as the quality of a stage production or musical performance depends on all of the work that went into months and months of rehearsal before the performance, how successful you are in your business school applications depends a great deal on all of the work you do before you ever start drafting an essay. Remember that your application is a mere snapshot of who you are (and how well you can present yourself) at one point in time. How well that message will be received will partly depend on whether you’re targeting the right schools, and how well MBA admissions officers at those schools see a good fit between you and their institution. And this comes down to knowing how to select the right MBA program for you.
By Betsy Massar, Master Admissions
AIGAC is a truly international organization; not only are our members from places like Spain, Brazil, Russia and China, our clients are from even more exotic places. I recently worked with someone from Inner Mongolia! For those who have not had too much cross-border experience, many MBA programs allow for, if not encourage or require, study abroad. Students who leave, as well as those who host, are amazed at how much they learn.
International exchange programs were brought home to me at a Forté Foundation where I met Katie Cannon, a London Business School student currently on exchange at UCLA Anderson. Katie’s infectious enthusiasm for LBS and international study—and her passion for the arts and her interest in media management— make a semester in LA perfect for her. There’s no question that the Anderson students will be learning from Katie as much as she will be learning from them.
Katie is hardly the only one studying abroad during business school. More than half of the top MBA programs offer full-term international exchange programs. London Business School is a good example. It’s a particularly international school; about 35% of its students spend a semester in a foreign country, and a typical class may have people from over 60 different countries. To facilitate exchange, LBS partners with over 30 schools worldwide, and students at those schools can also study in London.
UCLA Anderson, located in southern California, is an ideal exchange choice for students like Katie who want to pursue careers in film, television, or talent management—or even financial services and venture capital. It’s also a great home-base business school for students who want to study abroad— 20% participate in an international exchange. UCLA—along with Cornell Johnson, Duke Fuqua, NYU Stern, Chicago Booth, and Michigan Ross—is a member of the Partnership in International Management network , an international consortium of business schools, and it also has exchange agreements with schools outside that network.
UC Berkeley Haas offers exchange programs established with several leading b-schools, “if,” says the website, “you can bear to be away from Berkeley.” (Click on the Haas link for useful descriptions of each of the exchange schools.) In addition to international offerings, Haas also has an exchange with Columbia Business School, giving students the chance to spend a semester in New York City.
Most other top schools require some form of international experience during their MBA years. For example, Yale School of Management mandates that students take a short-term trip abroad in the second semester of the first year. Professors lead the trips in countries they specialize in, from Brazil to Estonia to Israel to Japan. Yale also offers a more traditional fall term international exchange for second year students. Stanford GSB also mandates a “Global Experience Requirement” which can be fulfilled by study trips or a summer immersion program.
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.
By Betsy Massar of Master Admissions
As we come up to the business school application deadlines, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. Some might argue that it’s already too late to hit up a busy executive for a b-school recommendation, but if you plan and execute right, the amount of time remaining should be reasonable.
You can find many opinions about how to strategize the recommendations all over the web. I only have three words to say about it: Don’t overthink it. Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.
A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former Director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way. “
Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.
Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:
You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.
And from Harvard Business School…
Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific (good advice for applicants as well as recommenders!). Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples of how your wonderful qualities play out in real life,” she explains. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Her blog is not indexed, so I recommend searching for her posts of August 24, 2009 and June 17, 2008.
The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips
1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time
More Excellent Resources Available
Several students and former students have chimed in on the recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process.
Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who is on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and currently a JD-MBA student there. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. Good question! His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”
Many of my AIGAC colleagues have some great advice on recommendations, and a read-through of their websites can be worth your while.
Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.
I know you’ve got it in you.