First of all, let me emphasize that what follows is written for Canadians applying to US or European B-schools—because if you’re applying to Canadian B-schools, most of what I say here won’t be relevant! Essentially, I’m focusing on how your application will be received by non-Canadian readers, and what you can do to make sure they get the message you’re trying to send.
There are a few main areas that all MBA applicants (not just the international ones) need to address, of course. You need to show academic competency. You need to highlight some professional achievements that showcase your potential as a manager and leader. You need to show what you are going to contribute—what you bring to the table that is different than what others bring. So, how should you approach this, as a Canadian applicant in particular?
The 3 C’s for Canadian applicants are: context, context, context.
Well, on the surface, there probably isn’t a lot of difference between a “high academic achiever” in Toronto and one in New York or LA. That said, since Canada’s top universities don’t have the international “brand recognition” of schools like Harvard or Stanford, you may have to clarify some details about your undergraduate education in your application. Canada has some terrific large public universities AND some pretty amazing small liberal arts colleges, but you’ll need to assume that your reader may not really get the subtle differences (academic or geographic!) between Queens, University of Toronto, Acadia University, and University of Lethbridge! This means you may have to work a little harder to clarify the relative strength of your academic credentials.
Also, some Canadian universities don’t calculate GPAs on a four-point scale, so you may have some converting to do. There are actually a LOT of discussions in online forums about exactly how Canadian GPAs convert, especially from programs that are legendary for their difficulty (Queens Commerce, for example). If at all possible, find out your class rank as well as your GPA and include both in your application. Your class rank gives context to your grades.
If you’re applying to business schools this year, you probably have strong work experience and a solid resume that gives your reader a clear understanding of what you’ve achieved. For these purposes, you may have to establish a clear sense of context as well, since Canada’s population is so small relative to the US. Sales or revenue figures that are impressive in Calgary may look like “small potatoes” in New York, so you really need to make sure that whoever is reviewing your essays and resume will be able to understand the relative scale of the environment in which you’re working.
You may also need to come up with a couple of helpful analogies to help your readers get past unfamiliar company names. If you’re in retail, for example, remember that it will be much easier for a US-based reader to understand what Holt Renfrew is if you compare it to Nordstrom! And if you’re in banking, you may need to clarify how CIBC and Scotiabank fit into Canada’s financial landscape by comparing them to a couple of well-known US banks. The usual rules of good writing apply: focus on providing relevant, well-chosen details about what you’ve achieved and how you did it, rather than just giving a generic overview—these details should help your reader understand, quite literally, where you’re coming from.
I’m beginning to dislike the word “diversity”… although it’s not the word’s fault that it is so desperately over-used in B-school applications. Anyway, while I discourage my clients from relying too much on the word itself, I always encourage them to address the concept—to show how they stand out, either culturally or personally, and of course to show that they are open-minded, sensitive and (hopefully!) well-informed when it comes to cultures other than their own.
Canadian applicants actually tend to be pretty strong in the “cultural sensitivity” department, perhaps because over the past hundred years or so, multi-culturalism has been handled rather differently in Canada than in the US. In Canada, we’re more a “mosaic” than a “melting pot”—immigrant groups tend to maintain a strong connection to their cultures of origin, while also participating in “mainstream” Canadian culture. The end goal—and result—is not assimilation, but something rather more inclusive and collaborative.
If you’re like most Canadian school children, no matter what your ethnic background, you probably know something about Chinese New Year and Diwali as well as Chanukah and Christmas, and—especially if you’re from an urban area—you’ve almost certainly spent significant time interacting with classmates and friends from many different cultures. You also speak enough French to get yourself out of a tight spot in Paris or Montreal, and (again, depending on your own cultural background) you may even have a decent command of one or two other languages as well as English. Thus the Canadian context definitely heightens your potential contribution to an ethnically diverse (I said it!) MBA classroom and your comfort level in a “mosaic” environment. Unless you have extensive international experience, make the most of your Canadian multicultural exposure in your application essays!
Once you’ve clarified these elements of your application, the rest is… perhaps not easy, but at least fairly straightforward! Context established, you can move on to showcase the individual strengths and achievements that will—if all goes well—get you accepted.
Stay tuned for part 2: staying away from the stereotypes (Igloos! Poutine! Polar Bears!).