One of my favorite times of the year when I worked at London Business School was the applicant recruiting and interview season. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel across Asia, meeting prospective candidates and interviewing applicants. In addition to thoroughly enjoying exploring India and Greater China over the years, I found these trips educational; I was able to gain a deeper insight into the motivations driving candidates across these countries, as well as the challenges they faced in applying to business school. This insight continues to develop through my work as an admissions consultant with Accepted.
These applicants’ challenges, while not unique and certainly also applicable to other applicant groups, can understandably be demotivating. There’s no denying that applicants hailing from overrepresented nations face stiff competition. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for anyone to throw in the towel and put off or cancel their b-school dream. What it does mean, however, is that as an applicant, you need to take time to consider possible pitfalls, along with the positives that can help you stand out.
Challenge #1: Bigger pipeline of Indian and Chinese applicants
The bad news
The bad news for Chinese and Indian applicants to business school is that the overall number of applicants from these countries is much greater than the number from other international regions, particularly for top U.S. business schools. As a result, candidates from these countries compete against a larger applicant pool, and acceptance rates tend to be lower for these demographics.
The good news
But the good news is that business schools value diversity. Diversity of opinion and experience (not just professional, but life experience, too) adds value and depth to classroom discussions. The b-school classroom requires students to consider perspectives different from their own and to understand how to work with people from different cultural and professional backgrounds. The business world isn’t homogenous, and neither is the b-school environment that prepares students for work in a diverse and increasingly interconnected world.
So, you might be an Indian engineer, but that doesn’t mean you are a carbon copy of the next Indian engineer. Think about your unique attributes and about how you’ve used your skills to lead projects, teams, clients, and/or organizations to success. Rather than just telling the adcom about the “what” (for example, designing and developing a software system), explain the “how” and the outcome. Think about answering questions such as “What did you do, and how did your actions directly improve your business, department, team, or project?” And beyond outlining technical skills, illustrate when you’ve employed b-school relevant skills (e.g., leadership and team skills, a creative mind-set, problem-solving abilities, innovative approach, analytical ability) to solve a problem or develop a solution. This will help show the adcom that you have the capabilities to make an impact both inside and outside the classroom.
You can also stand out by highlighting your nonprofessional side. Adcoms don’t expect applicants to live and breathe their work. They want to learn about what makes you tick. They want to hear about the interests you have pursued and how you have been enriched by those interests – and importantly, how those pursuits have helped your personal growth (which could certainly extend to professional growth, as well). By showcasing your involvement in extracurricular activities and the fact that you have not only passions but also the drive to pursue those passions, you are giving the admissions committee a sense of your “fit” and the student you might be on campus. Showing off this other side to you will help demonstrate your potential to contribute and your unique proposition.
Challenge #2: Lack of international experience
Do top b-school programs like applicants with experience collaborating with others from different backgrounds (cultural and professional)? Yes. Do adcoms like applicants who have put themselves in situations outside their comfort zone (to use an overused phrase)? Yes. Do they require applicants to have done so in countries outside of their own? No. While applicants need not have lived in a foreign country, they must show a global mind-set, an awareness of the world around them and an understanding of how to collaborate with people who hold different perspectives. As an applicant, think about the diversity you’ve encountered in your home country and how this has developed your world view, values, aims, and understanding of how to work with individuals from backgrounds different from yours.
Taking India and China as examples, both are vast countries with incredibly diverse populations – from languages to ethnicities to customs. Don’t be shy about introducing the adcom to the multicultural environment you are either from or have lived in and discussing how you intend to share that perspective with your classmates. It all comes back to providing an understanding of how you will add value to your b-school community.
Beyond the diversity of your community, think about when you’ve worked with diverse teams more locally. If you’re stuck, think about when you have worked with peers or colleagues who have held different points of view. This could have been in a club at college, or perhaps you studied abroad. Maybe you worked with a cross-functional team at work or on a community service project. Think about how those interactions affected you – for example, did working with colleagues from a different department change how you approach problem-solving? Did it force you to think about how you communicate information? This is all to say that you don’t have to have international experience to show your interest in exceling within a diverse environment and your ability to do so.
Challenge #3: Variations in communication styles
Cultural differences can often affect the essay part of a candidate’s application. Indian applicants, for example, can be more verbose in their writing than Americans. These patterns can frustrate the admissions reader who might be assigned applications geographically and is stuck reading essay after essay with the same repetition and verbosity. You (as the applicant) can turn this pattern to your advantage by focusing on concision and precision in your essays. Write with a clear theme and structure. Don’t go off on a tangent that doesn’t support the overall theme of your essay. Avoid repetition and the use of multiple synonyms. The word count allowance for many essays is tight. Essays about career goals or community contribution shouldn’t be approached like pieces of literary fiction, but rather with consideration and focus.
At the interview stage, other differences arise. Americans, for example, tend to maintain eye contact in conversation. Furthermore, eye contact in combination with a firm handshake, confident (but not arrogant) presentation, and the right body language often signal character and trustworthiness in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast, in some Asian cultures, eye contact is considered less appropriate, and greetings often include a bow as a gesture of respect. Be aware of your interview style and how that might affect your rapport with your interviewer and even the outcome of the interview, whether it is in-person or virtual.
What do these challenges mean for you?
- Your application must stand out from those of a larger number of competitors, and specifically from those of your competitors from your country or region, your direct peer group.
- You can’t rely just on a high GMAT or GRE score to gain admission to a top MBA program. There needs to be more to your story.
- Your essays must be authentic and present a convincing narrative. You’re more than just your academic and employment stats; you’re a person, and the admissions committee wants to know whether you’re the right person for them. It’s your job to convince them that you are. Tell your story and do it well!
- Apply early, if you can.
- Ace the interview. There are many cultural traps that can trip up even highly qualified Asian candidates. Practice, practice, practice. Even better, hire someone who knows what they are doing to practice with you.
A word about MBA admissions consultants – if you opt to work with a consultant, do your due diligence, and hire one who understands what admissions offices are looking for in the countries you’re applying to and how to overcome the challenges you might face in your candidate pool. Although it might be more comfortable and possibly cheaper for you to hire a local consultant, the easiest option isn’t often the best one. And a “cheap” consultant can prove very expensive in the long run.
Jamie Wright has more than eight years of recruitment and admissions experience at London Business School (LBS) and is the former admissions director for Early Career Programmes at LBS. Originally from the United States, Jamie is now based in London. Want Jamie to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch with Jamie Wright.