Chinese Students Flock to U.S. B-schools

Scarlett Wu of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business

When Scarlett Wu’s mother taught her to use chopsticks, she always reminded her daughter to keep the three fingers low. That grip offers better leverage, but to Scarlett it reflected her mother’s wish that she stay close to home. In the central-Chinese village of Wuzhu, everyone grips their chopsticks low. None of the 2,000 residents have gone to China’s big cities for college, and Scarlett’s entire extended family lives locally, two hours from Shiyan, a city of three million with no airport.

So it seems especially adventurous for Wu, now 27, to have ventured to the U.S. to become an MBA student in, of all places, Bloomington, Indiana. She’s among a growing number of young Chinese with an aspiration for business that has come to the U.S. to learn from the founders of capitalism. In the past five years, the number of Chinese taking the GMAT—the requisite exam for entrance into a business school—has tripled to 30,000 from 10,000 in the 2005-06 school year. The number of U.S. schools receiving GMAT scores from Chinese test-takers has risen to 80,669 this year, from 25,525 in 2006.

The China Invasion is only beginning. Chinese applications to New York University’s Stern School increased by 30% to the Class of 2012 from the previous year. Nearly 10% of next year’s graduating MBA class at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business will be Chinese, a new record. And the number of Chinese students (14) in the Class of 2012 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management is twice as many as those in the Class of 2011.

Three decades ago, the journey to the U.S. for a degree in capitalism might have been viewed as an act of treason in China. Now, the MBA is a badge of honor, a signal of your smarts and your ambitions, even in China. Nonetheless, Chinese students coming to the U.S. to get the degree face an array of cultural shocks. Even those arriving from highly modern cities like Shanghai and Beijing must struggle with the nuances of the American language and cultural slang. It takes a bit longer for branding lessons to resonate when you’ve never heard of Grey Goose or Dr. Pepper or confuse Lucky Charms with a Chinese pendant. From cultural dress codes to the aggressive nature of American B-schools, new students from China often find it hard to adapt.

For Scarlett and other Chinese studying for their MBAs at top U.S. schools, it’s worth it. “Everybody knows the US is pretty advanced in this area,” says Lewis Yao, 27, a student at the University of Michigan’s Ross School. His friends tell him, “Just go there and tell me what it’s like!”

Lewis Yao is a MBA student at the University of Michigan's Ross School

Lewis will tell them he’s a bit shocked by what he considered aggressive classmates. Students sliced in front of him at job fairs to chat with recruiters, looked past him at team meetings, and dismissed his arguments offhand during group debates. Communication was a hard slog for the first year until he got used to the different rules of engagement. Now Lewis realizes that the more he opens up, the more attention he commands, especially when negotiating with students from, say, Goldman Sachs. “Maybe that’s the style of business school,” he deadpans. It was a tough lesson for the No. 1 graduate of China Foreign Affairs University, a Beijing school founded after World War II to groom diplomats. There, he was imbued with the old-school lessons of East Asia: Keep your mouth closed, your ears open, the flag up, and you’ll go far. Coming from this background, he couldn’t help but be shocked when his corporate strategy professor at Ross told him that the most important goal is to maximize shareholder profit.

  • Greg Spielberg

    Seems like if that were the case there wouldn’t be so many students coming to the States because when they returned to China they’d be outcast by their peers who feel the US is an enemy. 

  • sasa

    “Now, the MBA is a badge of honor, a signal of your smarts and your ambitions, even in China.” This is wrong. Most Chinese MBA students are still gen-y, so depends on their primary education background, they still believe USA is the no. 1 enemy of China. So there are only two reasons that they fly miles away from home: money and greencard.

  • soy

    Nice piece, interesting to see the parallels as I was once a foreign student myself.

  • Hi, just wanted to mention to readers that Shiyan is more like five hours from Wuzhu as Scarlett pointed out to me recently. Thanks, Scarlett!

  • Scarlett Wu

    Hi John, thank you for the comment. I understand your reasoning. I worked in Louisville Kentucky from 2005 to 2006 when I got to eat several times in a local Chinese restaurant called Jumbo Buffet where I learned what fortune cookies are. Indeed, it is an American thing. Somehow I really have fun reading whatever in it. For example, two weeks ago, I got a note saying “You will become very rich in a short term because of your careful nature”. One hour later, I lost my purse in front of a coffeehouse.

  • John

    “She spent one session trying to figure out whether Lucky Charms, the cereal, was a type of fortune cookie or a traditional Chinese threaded pendant.”

    As a Chinese, this part sounds made up to me. Why? We don’t know what fortune cookies are. Surprise – it’s an American thing.