What international applicants to U.S. business schools need to know [Show Summary]
Michelle Stockman has a Master’s in Journalism, 15 years of experience as an Accepted admissions consultant, and has lived all around the world. Bridging all of these experiences, Michelle gives her tips for international students applying to U.S. MBA programs.
Interview with Michelle Stockman, Accepted MBA admissions consultant [Show Notes]
Hello, and welcome to the 467th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me today and whenever you can tune in. The featured resource for today’s show is Accepted’s MBA Admissions Quiz. Are you ready to apply to your dream MBA program? Are you competitive at your target schools? Accepted’s MBA Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/mba-quiz, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get an assessment but also tips on how to improve your qualifications. Plus, it’s all free.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Michelle Stockman. Michelle earned her Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. While studying there, she worked in Columbia Business School’s admissions office and got a real insider perspective on the MBA admissions process. She reached out to me way back in 2007 and has been an MBA admissions consultant ever since.
She also pursued her career in journalism and has lived in different parts of the U.S. as well as different parts of the globe. For the last six years, she has lived in Berlin, Germany, and assisted many of our European, Asian, and Middle Eastern clients, and even a few located in the U.S., to gain admission to U.S. and European MBA programs, and occasionally, journalism school.
Before we get to MBA admissions, can you please tell us a few of the places that you have lived? [2:18]
Absolutely. I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is near Niagara Falls. As an adult, I moved to New York City, where I lived for about five years, and I loved it. I was a journalist there. I went to journalism school there. I worked in the Columbia Business School admissions office and felt like I was entering a movie every day, helping people achieve their dreams as well as pursuing my dream. Then I moved to Washington D.C. and got to experience living in the city that’s the seat of government and watching U.S. politics up close.
Then I moved to Islamabad, Pakistan, where I also worked as a journalist and admissions consultant. It’s a beautiful city. It’s right in the foothills of the Himalayas. I had a wonderful time there, and that’s where I started my family. After that, I lived in Qatar for a little while. Family had brought me there, and I worked from there as well. That was a really interesting experience. I found it to be incredibly diverse. I met people from all over the world who had come to work there, and did a lot of hanging out in mall food courts so we could have some yummy meals while staying out of the heat, and just made some wonderful friendships. Then I moved from there to Berlin, Germany, and I love it here. We’ve lived here for six years, and it’s just been an incredible, wonderful, international experience.
What do you see as the main challenges faced by international applicants to U.S. MBA programs? [4:15]
The easy answer is that it’s hard to get to know the schools that they are applying to because of distance, because of perhaps the inability to travel and visit campuses. We also have COVID, which absolutely made that impossible even for domestic candidates. I’m going to go a little deeper than that because there are a lot of resources that schools give you to get to know their programs. The reason why they want you to get to know their programs is so that you can make the most of your time when you’re there. They also want to make sure that you are a good match and that you can actually pursue and achieve your goals with the resources that are available through their programs.
But again, as I said, I’m going to go deeper. I think an issue that I’ve seen a lot when I’m dealing with international students is when they write their “Why this particular program?” essay. A lot of people say, “I want to follow this concentration and it’ll give me some really good insight into the future. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to be a part of that network,” and they leave it at that kind of level of detail. That’s just not enough, because you are competing with people who have really done their research. They may have been able to go to campus and meet people in the admissions office or professors or current students and really get that insider perspective.
If you are not able to do that, you need to create opportunities for yourself to get that insider knowledge. Think, “If this is my goal I’m already thinking about it, what are some challenges that I foresee that I might like to engage with other students about to kind of get some ideas to solve this? Maybe one of these professors at this particular program is an expert in this. If I could have a one-on-one conversation with him, what is the question that I’m just dying to ask him?”
That’s the kind of information that really excites people when they’re reading your essay because they know you’ve really done your homework, and you’re really going to make the most of your time.
So what I would say is, dig into your network, and dig into social media networks to start making connections to current students or alumni who you can get these insider tips from. Who’s a great professor? If you want to pursue something, what’s a good aspect of the program that will help you get there? Where could you meet other students, professors, or alumni who could engage with you and find answers or leads to the next step? Who can help you solve this challenge that’s going to be essential for your next career step?
Do you think that part of the challenge might be the focus on stats in many other cultures? [7:07]
I think it is a different perspective. It’s a perspective shift that often I talk to my clients about. I have lived in India, I’ve lived in Pakistan, and other countries where the test is it. You got a high score on this test, and you’ve kind of got your life made. It is so competitive so achieving that is wonderful and masterful. It’s something to brag about, but it’s not always going to be understood outside of the culture or country that you have achieved so much in.
It’s wonderful that you have reached that level, but now you are competing on a global level, and what is really valued is you being able to show you’ve got a certain level of aptitude and academic skill, but also that ability to create new things, to have ideas that you take and you execute and you make a reality, and to show leadership. We have to dig even further, and we have to challenge ourselves. You’ve reached this level but thinking global, you need to go to the next level and we’ve got to dig deep to get there.
When you are constructing your goals essay, you want to have a believable goal and you want to have a concrete goal a lot of times. You want to be able to say, I see myself in this position at “xyz” company. That’s a really, good concrete goal because people can understand and grasp onto it, but again, it’s not just about saying, “I’m going to achieve that and my life is made and I’m going to be the bee’s knees to everybody.”
What are you going to do in that position? How are you going to make an impact? Why are you the right person at the right time to go in and have this kind of, again, impact that’s going to make this company want to hire you and will be another springboard to your goals? It’s not just the title, it’s thinking about what you can do in that role and how you can lift the people around you and make the world a better place by working towards your goals.
What are the main challenges facing applicants from South Asia, especially India and Pakistan? [10:49]
Absolutely. I forgot to mention that I lived in India as well. I lived there for around eight months before I lived in Pakistan, so I have experience on both sides of South Asia.
I’m going to speak first about India. There are some really structured ways to move ahead academically and then careerwise. A lot of it has to do with exams and scoring well on these national exams to then get into top universities. That kind of idea of a very structured advancement also exists within corporate structures.
So when you talk about activities with Indian applicants, it actually often has to do with work. It’s a structure within the corporation that says, “Okay, you’re volunteering with this organization and this is the social initiative that is sponsored by the corporation that you might have helped spearhead and you’re really working hard within.” But to an outside perspective and to U.S. schools, it starts to sound very similar. A lot of applicants say, “I was part of this initiative through my corporation.” It doesn’t quite come off as really authentic volunteer work or authentic ideas that you’ve tried to make into reality and have an impact.
When we come up with ideas for essays, we’re not looking just at scores to define who you are. You’re a mosaic to an admissions committee. There are so many different parts of you that they are going to look at to see the big picture. We want to talk about things outside of work that you’ve done, or things that mean a lot to you that you’ve acted upon to try and have an impact on other people’s lives in a positive way. Oftentimes I’m working with Indian applicants who don’t really have that. They’ve got something that existed within the corporate structure that they participated in but not something that they may have started on their own and pursued.
I think applicants are getting smarter over the years and I’ve seen more applicants doing things like that. But some don’t because they are so busy and they have such high demands on their work hours. What I try to do with my applicants is make it really micro. Let’s think about one person that you may have worked with to help improve their life, where you took time out of your busy schedule to say, “I see that I can help this person with my skill set and I’m going to nurture and help them. Or you might say, “Something is happening that I don’t agree with and I’m going to stick my neck out and I’m going to say, “No, we’re going to change this,” and you take a risk to change something that you think isn’t working right or isn’t ethical and make a difference in one person’s life.
I have had success with candidates who take that micro perspective rather than try and say, “I did all these things.” It’s not nearly as impactful or impressive as if you can show some bravery, sticking your neck out or really figuring out how you can help one person who might be in need.
It’s not impressive if you’re a member of all these things and can’t really talk about how you participated and made an impact.
What would you say to applicants from Pakistan? [15:20]
I would say that we are talking about demands on people’s time. When you reach a certain level of success and when you’re hired to certain roles, there are just huge demands on your time. I would say there are just different ways that people might watch out for each other or get involved that don’t always translate easily to what a U.S. or European way of approaching that would be. Again, we have to find those micro-stories.
As I said, over the years that I’ve done this, I’ve seen more and more applicants really hearing, “I’ve got to do something,” and maybe getting something started that’s more structured. But again, if you don’t have time, if that’s something that you weren’t aware of, that doesn’t mean you didn’t do it. It means you just need to look for that in your life.
What is the most common mistake you see applicants making, whether they are from India, Pakistan, Europe, or the U.S.? [16:32]
Again, it is that failure to really dig into the program that you’re going to apply to, having very superficial reasons for why you want to attend the program, and not really thinking about how you’re going to make the most of your time there. That’s by having some idea of the classes you want to take and the clubs you want to be in. It’s not just listing the clubs but showing that you’re going to be an active member. Put your neck out. Propose some ideas for something that you might like to start as part of the club or a seminar that you might like to organize. Come and show that you’re going to make an impact. I think that’s a huge thing.
Another thing that I see as a mistake across the board is, again, we are so used to in a job interview, showing our resume and showing what we’ve done. A huge part of the MBA application is to show you thought about the future. I often see slim pickings when it comes to justifications for the goals that people want to pursue and not so much research done in terms of why this is a good move or why you’re the right person at the right place and the right time. Help me learn something that I think would be cool. I think those are some of the most exciting essays that I read, saying, “Wow, this could be possible? You want to make this change. That’s so great. Let’s do that.” Oftentimes it takes some digging with my clients to get there.
How do you approach advising reapplicants? [18:49]
The advice I have for reapplicants is, first, to be open to feedback. I’m going to read your application, I’m going to see what you submitted to the school, and I am going to find what’s missing in that mosaic that they want to see from you. That’s where we have to fill in the blanks. It’s interesting for reapplicants because there might not be a lot of time. Let’s say you applied in Round 2 and you want to apply in Round 1, that really means you only have about six months to show the admissions committee the things that you’ve tried to improve about your application. If you applied in Round 3, it really shortens that period. Sometimes we can fix what’s missing because you didn’t quite tell your story right. Your goals weren’t really well-defined. You didn’t really convince the school about why that program is just so great for you. But they always want to know what you’re trying to do to improve yourself. So think about that as you are applying.
This is a time to think, “Okay, how can I have an impact at my job where I can update the admissions committee on a milestone that I’ve reached?” This can be both professionally or personally. You want to make sure that if you have an issue you’re trying to make a difference in, that you volunteer in that. Keep trying to make something happen within that sphere so you can update the admissions committee. If you think that your GMAT score was a little low, enroll yourself in a quant course that you can show that you’re working to improve that aspect of your application. It is a constant process that you need to be thinking about. We want to have things that we can periodically update the admissions committee so they know you’re still trying, it still means a lot to you.
Every so often I’ll talk to somebody who says, “Well, my test score was low last time. I’ve retaken it and raised it but I thought my essays were pretty good so I’m not going to change them.” What would you say to that person? [21:03]
There is a great New Yorker article I read not too long ago, and it was written by a surgeon. And he said, “I decided that even though I’m at the top of my field, I still wanted a coach to see what I can improve.” So he hired a retired surgeon to come in and observe him while he was doing the surgery, and that surgeon gave him some really useful tips because he was an expert he could observe, and the author of the article trusted him because he knew he was experienced.
That’s what I would say. We are skilled surgeons who are just going to make you better. All of us can use a little bit of coaching. That’s what we bring to you. We just want to help you and make you shine. We’re experts in this. We’re not trying to tear you down, we’re trying to make you the very best you can be. So absolutely, we can always do some revision and receive coaching.
Also, if you basically submit the same essays with just an improved test score, you’re not really showing any growth. [22:50]
No, you’re not. That’s what you do when you’re on the waitlist. That’s when you show, “Oh, I have retaken the GMAT and I got a better score. I just got a promotion.” Those are little updates when you already kind of have a foot in the door.
It is a new application when you’re a reapplicant. You are still competing against people who are submitting something fresh against other reapplicants too, so think about that. You have to be the very best of the reapplicants, and that includes showing advancement. It includes showing introspection and maturation.
As a very experienced journalist, how do you recommend applicants approach telling their story via essays? [24:15]
What I often do when I’m first brainstorming with my clients is that I tell them, “You know, the moments of growth usually come to us at some of the hardest moments in our lives. I want you to think back to some of those moments and write them down, and then think about what you learned from that experience and how it changed the way you see the world.” That often leads to stories that we will include in our essays, because often when we achieve something we have to overcome hurdles to get there. If we experience something that’s difficult, we learn what’s most important to ourselves and our lives and it changes how we live our lives and the choices we make for our future.
I generally say, let’s come up with about five stories. See if you can find five hard moments in your life or five things that were hard to do. They can be a mixture of professional or personal, and then let’s talk them through. We find out deeper what was learned and how that has influenced the person to be more effective in the roles they take on.
What tips do you have for applicants who need to submit a short video response or video essay as part of their application? [26:24]
First, let’s talk about showing it. We think of the rule of thirds. There should be one-third of the screen that is blank space, your head should be in the second third, and then your body is down below. And then I’m centered. I’m right in the middle and I’m looking straight ahead. I’m not looking to the side, I’m not looking to another side. I’m looking straight ahead, so it’s like the audience sees me and I’m talking to them. It’s so important, and it shows care and consideration when you think about your background and you try and make it attractive. It’s the first thing people notice on video. Having a good frame is half the battle done. That’s my first tip. I think also because I’m a video journalist it bugs me when it’s not quite right.
The second thing I would say is you don’t have a lot of time to attract a person’s attention. Most of these video essays are about a minute long. It’s good to have in your head, “I’m going to say three things.” Have a topic sentence, say something to support it, and then move on to the next idea, say something short, and then the next idea. You will know that you’ve got this right because you’re going to practice, and you’re going to practice a lot. I’m saying maybe 10 times a day leading up to when you’re going to record your video. Practice makes perfect. It’s exposure therapy, almost.
And another tip I have is to put a sticker right next to that little green light on your computer so you’re looking at that, and you’re not looking down or to the side, because people might think you’re reading notes and that looks really bad on an MBA application essay. You do not want to read from notes. It just looks bad. Practice being able to speak spontaneously. If you mess up, own it. Say, “Oops. That’s not what I meant to say but let’s keep going.” Show you can get over trying to be perfect and show that you’ve got a good attitude and you can manage the hurdles that are thrown at you.
A format I like to try and do and give to my clients is S-O-A-R. So if you’re asked a question, think of the Situation, what the Obstacles were, what the Actions you took, and what the Results were. If you have time, you can mention what you learned. That’s a great way to answer any question that might be thrown at you because it tells a story, it tells a process, and it allows you to give a little brag about yourself but also show how you achieved what you have achieved.
What should applicants planning for a summer or fall application be doing right now? [32:01]
I would say they need to be having conversations with their network. Reach out to people you know who have attended business school. Ask them questions about the program so you can learn as much as you can so that you can talk authoritatively about how it matches your aspirations. If you don’t know anyone in your network, get on LinkedIn. Start trying to connect with people. See if you can say, “Hey, can I have five minutes during your coffee hour? Or, “Do you mind answering these questions via email or WhatsApp?” Do what you can, be creative, to get to know an insider perspective of the programs that you’re interested in. That is a great use of your time leading up to the application period.
And also, think about your goals. Thinking about, “If I was on the stage in a TED Talk, what would I say is the future of the industry that I want to get into that is so cool?” Learn something about it so that you can wow me in your application so I say, “Wow, that’s such a cool idea. That’s an exciting thing that I want to help you be a part of.” Do some deep thinking, have lots of conversations, build your network.
What would you have liked me to ask you that I haven’t asked? [34:05]
What’s lingering in my mind is one of the most delightful applicants I was able to work with who was accepted to Berkeley and that process of settling in on his goals. He had really high aspirations for himself. He had an entrepreneurial mindset, and he came up with a goal that unfortunately I picked holes in right from the start. I said, “Well, how are you going to do that. This doesn’t seem convincing.” We went through several iterations until he got into something that he said, “Yes,” and I said, “Yes.” It made sense, and it was impressive. It linked to his past. He had the expertise for it.
So again, I would say, get out of your own head. Talk these things through with experts, with coaches who can help you express them in an expert way as well. That is going to be one of the best preparations you can have as you approach the application cycle because you will have this wealth of knowledge and experience but only if you’ve done your homework and if you’ve had these conversations. These things will serve you as you sit down to write these essays, which can be a daunting experience, but when you have someone to help you organize those thoughts, and then you have the actual good thoughts, it can be a really pleasurable experience.
I would say one of the most exciting things about working with my clients is that I feel like they learn a lot about themselves. Through this process, they have more clarity as they are moving forward, and I think they are stronger professionals. One of the things that can be rare to find, as you were mentioning in some of these more technical fields, is the ability to express your ideas. It’s so powerful when you can do that. Really, it makes you a leader when you are skilled at doing that. If I can help someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience doing that in learning the tools to do that, I feel like I’m setting them up not only to get into the MBA program that they want to attend but for a long successful professional career.
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