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Global Experience: What Schools Want

globalmanMore and more MBA programs are emphasizing the value of international experience in applicant profiles. Substantial international experience can help candidates distinguish themselves in the applicant pool for any business school, from the M7 to the top programs in Europe and Asia. However for an increasing number of schools, such experience is virtually a requirement. INSEAD, London Business School, IMD, Oxford, Cambridge, and HEC Paris all emphasize the importance of a “global mindset” and “international exposure.”

As Director of Admissions at INSEAD for seven years, I saw some candidates who unfortunately failed to convey the extent of their international exposure, or failed to communicate effectively what they had gained from their experience and how this would translate into a valuable contribution to the MBA community. Capturing and leveraging this experience is an integral part of our work with many of our clients at Fortuna Admissions. So what exactly are schools looking for, and how do you know if you’ve got what it takes?

What counts as international experience?

International experience that may be relevant to your business school application could include:

  • Periods spent studying or working abroad – from a few weeks, to years
  • Growing up in another country or other countries
  • Short-stay business trips abroad for meetings or training
  • Working for a multinational where you are exposed to international business
  • Working with clients in different countries or with cross-cultural teams
  • Vacation trips if there is some element of challenge, learning or community engagement (e.g. 2 weeks helping to build a school in rural India, a month studying Japanese in Tokyo, or even an extended backpacking trip).

Why does international experience matter?

Demonstrating “fit” – Schools want to make sure you will fit into the school culture. European/international schools attract a heavily international student body, as do schools such as Columbia in the heart of New York, and international experience will help you be sensitive to the range of the social norms and tendencies of diverse cultures.  This ability to mesh well socially with international crowds will also serve you well on the recruitment front.  It is increasingly apparent that to be successful in high-level business environments, you need to be able to communicate successfully with people from different countries and cultures.

Building a broader perspective – International experience helps you diversify your skill-set and broaden your perspective.  You’ll have a deeper understanding of how business trends and behaviors vary in different markets. MBA classrooms emphasize the exchange of ideas and the importance of building tight-knit learning communities. Since community-learning experiences are enriched by diverse backgrounds, international experience can bring tremendous value to the classroom.

Developing transferable skills – In addition to a broadened perspective, spending time outside your home country will help you build a spate of useful and transferable skills and traits: maturity, independence, initiative, communication skills, adaptability, and the ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds. These skills will help strengthen your connections and friendships in the business world, whether you’re in your home market or abroad, and will help you operate effectively across different organizations.

How do schools evaluate international experience?

Schools will look at your international experience stats, including the total length of time spent outside your home country, and the range and diversity of countries you’ve spent time in.  For example, as a US citizen, a year spent studying in China will carry much more weight with the admissions office than a year in Canada.

More importantly, beyond the tally of time abroad and countries and continents visited, schools are curious about what you gained from your experiences. You may have extensive exposure to foreign territories, but what wisdom can you impart about your time there?  How will your experience be an asset in the classroom? What insights can you share with your fellow students? You could drop two Americans in New Delhi for a week, and one would come home with tales of terrible traffic and weird foods, and the other would be talking about the juxtaposition of tremendous wealth and grinding poverty, and the impact of the caste system on work place relationships. Schools are evidently interested in candidates who have the most meaningful insights to share.

What if I haven’t spent much time abroad?

While it’s difficult to get accepted into top international schools such as INSEAD and LBS without significant international exposure, the schools also recognize that not everyone has had travel opportunities, and the admissions committees will cut some slack especially for candidates from a modest background or an emerging economy.