Classic Mistakes By Non-U.S. Applicants


I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous international MBA applicants over the past 11+ years, and they’ve helped me get a better understanding of what’s happening across the globe, picking up where the Economist and my travels have left off. In the process, I’ve noticed that while individual applicants and their respective countries’ cultures vary, there are some common challenges they face when applying to U.S. business schools. These MBA programs are looking for attributes that are valued in American business culture that may not be (or may even be frowned upon) in other cultures. I’d like to elaborate on those below, plus provide a few other tips that may be useful to foreign-born applicants. (Please note that I’m not suggesting one culture is better than another; my job is to point out what American admissions’ committees and schools tend to value, and help my clients highlight those qualities where they exist.)


One of the first things that started to capture my attention when working with international applicants was how frequently they used “we” and how little (if ever) they used “I” when talking about their accomplishments. Here’s a typical example:

“We threw a Sudanese Cultural Fair, during which we offered dance performances, storytelling, traditional Sudanese cuisine and native crafts. We drew one thousand students and it was quite a success.”

I was interviewing Asma* about her background, looking for evidence of initiative and leadership. In this example and in my other attempts to find out how she personally contributed to extracurricular activities and work, I kept running into this “we.” So I really had to work with her to tease out what parts she did on her own. “Oh, I went and got the sponsors, who contributed $3,000; I negotiated to save 25% on the venue rental; and I advertised the event on Facebook, getting 250 people saying they would attend and another 200 saying maybe.” Ah, now we had something with which to work!

Some international clients are very uncomfortable using “I” vs. “we.” In many cases, they come from a culture in which the collective and relationships are more valued over standing out as an individual, and language patterns can reflect that. So I’ll tell them that even though it may make them uncomfortable to sound that egoic, let’s just try on this “I” thing for the purposes of the application, just humor me and the admissions committee.

Speaking of language patterns, I’ve noticed some international applicants (though this is true for some American applicants as well) are passive-voice power users, which may reflect the structure of their native tongue. That means I can’t find an obvious actor (subject of the sentence) or strong verb anywhere! For example, Bashir originally wrote,

“The pipeline project was overseen by me.”

Notice “the pipeline” is the subject, but it isn’t a doer here. Using the active voice (and enhancing the sentence a bit), I’ve rewritten it as follows.

“Using my project-management, analytical, and communication skills, I oversaw the pipeline project.”  

Notice how this brings Bashir into the picture as a vigorous, competent player! So when writing for an American business audience, keep an eye out for sentence constructions lacking an actor as the subject of the sentence who is enacting a strong verb.


I’ve just gone on about “I,” “I,” “I,” which you need to use to demonstrate you can initiate and take action on your own. At the same time, U.S. MBA programs are looking for students who are also good team players. The educational systems in some countries do not support team-based learning and activities; rather, they emphasize rote learning and individual achievement measured via test scores. I’ve encountered some applicants who have top-notch scores on their nation’s qualifying exams but who haven’t participated in group activities such as extracurriculars or volunteer work. In such cases, I try to find some example from their work experience or see if they’ve played a team sport so we can highlight their team skills. If they have time before applying, I suggest getting involved in a volunteer activity. Some clients, for instance those from Saudi Arabia, live in a culture where volunteering isn’t prevalent (it may be that the government provides so much of a safety net that there’s less need for NGOs, but I’m not sure). Even then, with some diligent digging around, we’ve been able to find ways to have them volunteer and get the chance to operate in a team context. (In Saudi Arabia, for example, I’ve discovered a women’s professional-development and networking group called CellA+.)

Along these lines, I’d like to talk a bit about the U.S. business school emphasis on being well rounded. We Americans seem to like our business students and future leaders to be multifaceted, social, and even fun. I don’t think any admissions-committee member would say this (out loud, anyway), but American business culture tends to favor extroverts over introverts. If you’ve been nose to the grindstone, focusing on test scores, you probably haven’t had time to develop any other aspects of yourself. I recently asked an Asian client working in finance what he did for fun, and he said he no longer had that word in his vocabulary.

I think many applicants, foreign born or not, can relate to this, but taking the time to do things you love outside work can be rejuvenating and enriching, and writing about them in your application can be differentiating. For more on the latter, you can read “The Case for Writing about Your Passions.”

knox d no shoulder (202 x 238)Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.