“I founded a small candy company.” I could see in the faces of my fellow admissions committee members that they were not that impressed with the candidate; none of them had ever heard of “Del Sol Candy,”* and Roberto’s modest description did not make it sound all that impressive an accomplishment.
Many times while interviewing international MBA candidates, I have found that some of them sell themselves short, particularly with regards to their work experience. Whether it is because of culture or family upbringing, there is a certain type of candidate who finds it hard to present his or her own professional accomplishments in the best light.
This contrasts dramatically with what is expected from MBA applicants; committee members expect candidates to present their best case and promote their accomplishments. This mismatch between the candidate’s culture and the committee’s expectations can sometimes harm the candidate’s chances of admission. A second layer of complexity also arises for some international students: if an American applicant mentions that he or she is a regional manager at Hershey’s, for example, the adcom would have at least an idea of the size of the operation, the level of responsibility, and the selectiveness of the company. If, on the other hand, you come from abroad and your company is not well known in the U.S., the adcom may have a harder time evaluating your work experience.
Just by chance, I had been to Roberto’s home city the previous year on a recruitment trip, and I happened to know that the company he had started from scratch was not only the biggest candy maker in the country, but that it exported millions of dollars’ worth of goods to international markets as far away as the Middle East. During the interview I asked him a couple of probing questions about it, and once he started talking about specifics (sales figures, market share, etc.) he became more comfortable. More importantly, the committee was able to assess the magnitude of his accomplishments.
If you, like Roberto, feel hesitant to promote your achievements for fear of sounding boastful, you need to be aware of those emotions and make a determined effort to overcome that tendency. It is up to you, the candidate, to provide the school with enough information to evaluate your accomplishments.
A good way to overcome any qualms regarding self-promotion is to be ready to provide the adcom with hard data that will document what you have done. If at all possible, do research and be prepared to provide them with a benchmark, a point of comparison with an American company, or at least some details of the level of the operation, but most importantly, the size of your responsibilities. By preparing yourself with facts, you will dramatically improve your chances of admission and, later on, your employability prospects for internship and beyond.
By Esmeralda Cardenal, previously the Associate Director of Admissions at Yale SOM, Director of MBA Admissions at MSU Broad, and consultant at Cardiff Business School in the UK. She is happy to help you showcase your achievements in your MBA application.