International students applying to U.S. business schools need to demonstrate their unique qualities and skills.
By Stacy Blackman
Creating a robust and dynamic classroom experience through diversity is a primary focus of the top business schools in the United States, offering students the chance to interact with peers from an array of countries and professional backgrounds.
In fact, international candidates made up a significant percentage of the 2016 class: 32 percent at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, 35 percent at Harvard Business School and 40 percent at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
However, sometimes cultural differences or a simple lack of awareness regarding what a strong MBA application should include can unwittingly derail even the most stellar applicants. With that in mind, international students should avoid these seven common hurdles when targeting top-ranked U.S. business schools.
1. Choosing business schools solely with rankings: Many international students are unable to visit each prospective school in person due to financial or time constraints, so poring over published rankings is an obvious method to create a short list of schools.
But don’t let this be your only method. While brand and cache carry a lot of weight worldwide, you need to look beyond rankings to find the programs that best serve yourr individual needs.
2. Omitting unique personal experiences in essays: In many cultures, sharing personal stories with strangers is taboo. International applicants may be strongly tempted to keep the focus solely on previous education and professional experience.
But to stand out from the masses of similarly qualified applicants, you must focus your essays on aspects other than your quantitative or technical background.[
The key to a successful MBA application is showing exactly what you – and nobody else but you – can bring to the program. Don’t be afraid to let your originality and true personality come through in your application materials.
3. Focusing too much on MBA message boards: It’s unsettling to be so far away geographically, and the instinct is to seek out all news and information possible about your dream programs in the U.S.
But local MBA websites and message boards can be rife with rumors and inaccurate information that can steer you in the wrong direction as you consider application strategies.
Remember that no one except the admissions committee knows what’s going on with interview invites, acceptance rates, waitlists or anything else of importance for prospective students.
4. Failing to correctly translate or explain GPA and undergrad transcript: This is a common yet complicated issue, since there’s no universal standard to convert an international GPA to the American 4.0 system. Once you’ve translated your home country’s GPA using an online grade conversion calculator, assess whether it accurately reflects the rigor of your undergrad institution.
Variations in course difficulty can lead to confusion – for some transcripts, a 75 percent would be equivalent to an American A-plus, and at other, more difficult programs, a percentage as low as 60 would translate to an A grade.
If you feel there is some ambiguity in this metric of your transcript, briefly explain to the admissions committee any relevant information that would clarify its understanding of your academic performance.
5. Appearing uncomfortable with a new culture and language: Feeling comfortable working across cultures is crucial in today’s global business landscape. Make sure to highlight any previous study or work abroad experiences, and include examples within your application of times where you have worked with people from other cultural or language backgrounds.
The ability to communicate effectively and fluently in English is also nonnegotiable at top MBA programs. This is one reason some schools have introduced a video interview question in their applications to verify candidate’s comfort with the language. Enroll in conversation courses if needed and continue to read business publications in English to bolster your vocabulary and increase fluency.
6. Failing to manage recommenders, especially nonnative English speakers: You have to convey to your recommenders the criteria for a successful letter of recommendation to a top business school. Otherwise, you’re left with well-intentioned but generic platitudes that provide little insight into exactly what makes you a strong leader, team player or an asset to the program.
Determine exactly what your recommenders should highlight and guide them by providing anecdotes or themes you’d like them to mention.
If your recommenders are not native English speakers, you need to make sure the letter is well-written or, if needed, translated into English.
7. Applying in round three: Round three is difficult to pull off successfully for any applicant, but international candidates should avoid this application cycle for practical reasons. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so applying in one of the earlier rounds reduces the stress of managing this process once you’re already received an offer of admission and can apply for a student visa.
Also, the earlier you apply, the more time you have to secure and provide proof of funding, whether through work, loans, family or other means. At some schools, scholarship offers go out at the same time as admissions offers, so more award funding is generally available the earlier you apply.
Planning, planning and more planning are key to a smooth application process no matter where you are applying, but the logistics are even more critical for international students.