The Five Worst Mistakes Made by International Applicants to U.S. MBA Programs

May 6 2014, 12:12pm CDT | by

Last year, the Stratus Prep MBA Admissions team and I helped hundreds of international applicants from 32 countries gain admissions to the top U.S. business schools, including Stanford, HBS, Wharton, Columbia, Kellogg, MIT and Booth. In the process we saw (and

helped our applicants avoid) the five fatal pitfalls that I am excited to share with you here.

1. Focusing Too Much and For Too Long on the GMAT. There is no doubt that the GMAT is an important component of your MBA application, but it is most definitively NOT the most important component. Since many international students hail from cultures where acceptance to elite academic institutions is determined solely by standardized test scores, they make the mistake of assuming that the same is true in the US. It is not. For example, the Stratus Prep team and I had students admitted to HBS with GMAT scores as low as 590 last year, and we had four over-represented males from finance (perhaps one of the most competitive applicants pools) admitted to HBS with GMATs of 680 or less. Think of the GMAT as a threshold. To be competitive at the top schools, you ideally want to be in the 680-730 range. After 730, your chances of admissions improve only marginally, if at all, by further increasing your GMAT score. Focus on the other aspects of your application.

2. Make Your Essays Personal, Not Simply a Regurgitation of Your Resume. As a result of very understandable cultural differences, many international applicants are hesitant to share information about the personal or family background in their MBA essays, either because they believe this information is irrelevant or they are simply uncomfortable sharing it with strangers. American admissions readers, however, seek to get to know your inner motivations and core values through your essays; these are very difficult to understand if you are not willing to be open personally. One of our most successful applicants at Stratus Prep was an Indian male engineer who, at our insistence, wrote about persuading his in-laws to accept him as the groom of their daughter. This essay demonstrated empathy, communications skills and the ability to forge compromise (all core business skills illustrated through the lens of a personal narrative). He was admitted to MIT Sloan notwithstanding a GPA far below the school’s mean.

3. Coach Your Recommenders Regarding American Expectations. In many parts of the world, from Europe to Asia, recommendations are expected to be very realistic and even humble in their assessment of you. To do otherwise would alienate the reader of the reference letter and may even be laughable. However, American application readers expect grandiose statements, such as “Joao is the most capable analyst I have worked with during my 20 years at McKinsey,” and they expect this evaluation to be reinforced with powerful, demonstrative examples. For example, we had an Asian client this year who previously had not been admitted to any of his top ten choices. After my colleagues at Stratus Prep and I worked with him on his essays and educating his recommenders, he was admitted to numerous top 7 schools, including Kellogg, his top choice school.

4. Volunteer Work is Not Just About Helping the Poor. When most applicants start their work at Stratus Prep they erroneously believe that schools want to see community service to know that they care about the poor. While service to those less fortunate is certainly laudable in and of itself, the schools really want to see leadership through your community work. It will be far more impressive if you are on the junior or young professional board of an organization and/or help spearhead an impactful initiative than if you simply directly serve the poor weekly or even daily. Remember getting into a top business school is about demonstrating that you are a future globally-minded leader. Be sure to demonstrate that in your extracurricular work as well.

5. Create a 1-Page, U.S.-Style Resume. So many of the resumes that I receive from prospective Stratus Prep clients are far too verbose and include significant information MBA admissions readers do not care to see. Cut out your personal details (including date and place of birth, marital status, etc – leave only you phone, email and address) as well as your photo. Eliminate all high school awards and grades (no one cares anymore). If you are a technical applicant, remember that you are applying to a generalist program so remove all the technical jargon and certifications, as these will only confuse the reader. Whenever possible, clearly state you impact with quantitative evidence.

These are just the five most common and most egregious mistakes that my fellow admissions counselors at Stratus Prep and I have witnessed over the last MBA admissions cycle. Getting into a top American MBA program as an international applicant is becoming increasingly difficult as the pool of talented applicants rapidly grows, which may explain why almost 60% of MBA applicants now seek professional admissions advisors.

 
 

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