International candidates submit more than half of MBA applications, yet the international student population across the top 20 US MBA programs is roughly 35%. Do the math—it is super competitive. If you are an international candidate, here are nine things to consider as you prepare to submit your MBA applications:
Most top MBA programs have three admissions rounds. Many require that international applicants submit in one of the first two rounds. This will allow you sufficient time to process visa paperwork before starting the program. (You may want to read this article on programs with a STEM designation, which gives international students with F-1 visas the eligibility to extend the optional practical training [OPT] period to work in the United States from 12 to 36 months.)
Do yourself a favor and don’t wait until Round 3 to apply. If you can, submit your application in Round 1, when none of the seats in the class have been filled. Get started in the spring so you have plenty of time to reflect, research, and write before the September deadlines.
GMAT or GRE? Most MBA programs are test agnostic, so play to your own strengths. Take a practice exam for both the GMAT and the GRE and see which suits you. Next, create a plan for studying and set a date to take the exam.
Give yourself time to retake the test at least once so you can present your very best score. Depending on what country you are from, your competition could have average test scores well above the program averages—plan accordingly.
A few years ago, a client who was a non-native English speaker made me promise to advise others who didn’t grow up speaking English to avoid the GRE. Apparently, the verbal section is very vocabulary heavy, and this client had difficulty preparing for it.
3. TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
Many international MBA applicants will need to take the TOEFL or another standardized test that evaluates their English language abilities. Some MBA programs (most notably, HBS) have a minimum required TOEFL score. Check the requirements for each program to which you are applying. Indian applicants whose undergraduate education was conducted in English might be surprised to discover that Berkeley Haas and UCLA Anderson require them to take the TOEFL.
If you are not required to take the TOEFL, don’t. I’ve seen otherwise outstanding international applicants ruin their chances of being accepted by highlighting their inability to understand spoken English with a low Listening Comprehension (LC) score.
Admissions committees at top US MBA programs are intimately familiar with grading scales around the world. They know that a 76% from an Indian university is outstanding. They also know that a lower GPA is better in Germany. And they know that a “D” in Australia actually means “Distinction,” not practically failing. Unless you are from one of the smallest dozen or so countries in the world, don’t waste your time or money getting World Education Services (WES) to convert your transcript to a 4.0 scale.
If your transcripts were not issued in English, get them translated by a certified translator. You will need to submit both the original version in your native language and the English translation. This is just busy work, so get it done early! In the weeks leading up to your application submission, you don’t want to discover that you lack the appropriate transcripts.
If your recommenders are not strong English writers, ask the admissions committee about requirements for submitting letters of support in their native language accompanied by an official translation. This is outside the scope of most online MBA applications, but it’s worth asking about!
Although many newly minted MBAs go into management consulting and investment banking, there are other post-MBA career paths to consider. Leverage your existing industry or functional knowledge to establish a post-MBA goal that aligns with what you have accomplished to date. Assess what skills you have at this time and what areas you might develop through an MBA program. I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications from IT engineers who want an MBA to go into investment banking but failed to connect the dots. Most of them were not accepted—even if they had a 770+ GMAT.
Yes, talking! To identify the MBA programs that are the right fit for you, you need to connect with individuals who are familiar with school-specific resources. Attend information sessions and tour events. Speak to admissions representatives. After reading blogs, ask meaningful questions to get a sense of the feel of the program. Connect with students who are involved in activities that interest you. Identify alumni in your local area and reach out to learn about their experiences.
Think about it: MBA programs want to create diverse classes to enable their student bodies to learn as much as possible. What value will you add to classroom discussions, team projects, and outside activities? Do you have a perspective that differs from that of other applicants? Highlight how your unique life experiences will enable you to be an integral part of the program during your two years on campus and as an alum.
If your profile is similar to that of many other candidates from your geography, you might consider expanding your list of schools to include those where you will stand out and bring a unique perspective.
9. Thank You
Be respectful and humble when engaging with students, alumni, admissions committee members, and office staff. Your cultural norms for expressing appreciation, such as the Japanese practice of offering a small gift like a snack or a trinket as a thank you, may allow you to make a memorable impression on someone who hasn’t had much interaction with individuals from your country or region. A little gratitude can go a long way.