Classic Mistakes By Non-U.S. Applicants


This leads me to speak about a hallowed attribute U.S. MBA programs seek: PASSION! Let’s face it, American business schools want excited, energized people who are primed to do big things in the world. For some international clients, I’ve found that being passionate about what they’ve been doing or are going to do isn’t a given, and quite often, it’s a luxury. This is particularly true amongst those coming from developing economies. In many of these cases, my clients have been first- or second-generation university students. Their families have uniformly underscored the importance of education in getting ahead, and they’ve often been directed into “practical” careers like engineering, frequently at a very early age. They rarely have the chance to test out less conventional career options via experimenting with internships. So when working with some of these clients, I find they’re less than enthusiastic or even wooden when talking about what they want to do post-MBA. (Believe me, this happens with some American clients, too!)

What I do in these cases is see if I can connect any dots in their life story that suggest there might be a more rewarding path for them, and if so, we explore it. If not, I try to find something that gets them excited about their proposed goal and bring that forth in the application. So perhaps like Sun, a client originally from China, you can find a way to get more excited about your goal, in her case continuing in private equity. Combining the personal story of her father—who ran a small business and couldn’t get access to capital to grow it—and research on the market and societal trends in China, she proposed doing private equity for small- and medium-sized businesses in China post-MBA. She got very excited about this, and it was apparent in her essays and interviews. So allow yourself to think about what makes you come alive and energizes you, and let that come through in some form in your stated goals.


I want to circle back for a moment to the point I made above about extroverts. While you don’t need to be the life of the party, these schools are looking for students who are comfortable speaking up, even countering authority figures’ opinions, and are able to persuade others. If you choose to go to HBS or want to excel in any case-oriented courses at other schools, these skills are critical. I’ve come to realize that this isn’t acceptable behavior in some cultures, especially for women. With that in mind, some of the strongest client stories have been regarding learning to speak up in front of supervisors and clients, even if what they shared might have been against the grain. This has been easiest for my international clients who have been working for American companies where they’ve been encouraged to do so, and such anecdotes have made for solid responses to the recommender prompt “Tell us about a time when you gave the applicant constructive criticism and how s/he responded.” If you’re applying to a case-heavy program, you’ll want to find a way to convey that you’re comfortable speaking up or at the very least that you’ve been taking measures to improve in this area. With locations worldwide, Toastmasters is one good avenue to explore for improving your speaking ability.


Many of my clients realize that hailing from outside the U.S. is advantageous, particularly if they’re applying from an underrepresented country or region. If you’re from India or China, you’re in a bit of a bind, but if you’re from somewhere like Romania, one of the –stans (I’ve been contacted by a few potential candidates from Kazakhstan), or Niger, you’re in luck! What surprises me is that most international clients simply check off the box for their nationality and/or fill in their address, and that’s the extent to which they showcase their geographical uniqueness. People—in most cases, your nationality is a big differentiator! Don’t miss the opportunity to use it! And be specific.

For example, some schools will ask you about your background or what matters most to you, and these are great opportunities to give some highly textured details about the country in which you grew up. Are there cultural facets or family customs that strongly influenced you that are particularly colorful? Or has history played a hand in your life story? When writing his “what matters most” essay for Stanford, Ajith opened with sitting on the front porch with his grandfather in Sri Lanka.

“ka, kha, ga, ňga”, recited my grandfather patiently, a content look on his face, as I slowly repeated back the Sinhalese letters.

In his culture, passing the alphabet on to a new generation was a venerated tradition. Ajith used this story as a point of departure for talking about valuing self-development and lifelong learning.

Many of my international clients have been just one or two generations from living in poverty, and providing details of their families’ journey can be quite striking, particularly if the clients now embody guiding values as a result. Mei traced her lineage back to her grandmother, once an illiterate, indentured servant who upon gaining her freedom started a farm and raised a family. Her mother, seeking a better future, fled the village to get an education in the city despite objections from family and society. My client seized opportunity by attending and exceling at a university in the U.S., then succeeding in the male-dominated world of investment banking. After providing this backdrop in her essays, she outlined her efforts to open doors for the marginalized. Sharing specifics about her family and cultural heritage, Mei presented herself as part of a lineage of strong, self-confident women willing to take risks to improve their lot and the lots of others.

You can also leverage your background by letting the admissions committee know how knowledgeable you are about doing business in your country, current market conditions, trends, etc. After all, this is the type of stuff they want you sharing in the classroom! One of the most obvious places to do this is through your goals essay if you plan to go back to your country of origin after school.

If you have the connections and the school isn’t already offering a trip or learning trek to your country or region, you might propose organizing one for them. It pays to come up with a theme, say high-tech manufacturing in Tiger Cubs Malaysia and Thailand.

You could also write about creating an innovative event for the school’s relevant national or regional club, e.g., the China, India, or MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Club. I always urge my clients to contact leaders of clubs they might want to join and run some ideas for events or activities they have in mind by them to see if they’ve already been done or if they’d be desirable and feasible. You could also propose creating a club for fellow students from your country or region if one doesn’t exist. Remember, the U.S. schools prefer admitting people who are going to get involved outside the classroom and make things happen!

Finally, if you’re from an underrepresented country, have a strong profile, and feel an urgent need to attend school as soon as possible even though it’s late in the admissions cycle, consider applying in Round 3 (or the last round offered if there are more than three rounds). As you may have heard, by this time, the admissions-committee members have selected the vast majority of the class. At this point, like alchemists, they’re tweaking the class mix to get just the right combination—ooh perfect, a stellar candidate from Botswana! Or Laos! Or Chile! (Note that many schools award financial aid only in earlier rounds, and in some cases applying that late might not be viable in terms of having time to get a student visa before classes start in August or September.)


You may have seen this throughout what I’ve written above, but to make it plain, U.S. business schools really want to know who you are personally. So while performance (test scores, work experience, and recommendations) matters, who you are—your values, your quirks, your perspectives, your life details—also matters. Admissions-committee members are taking a whole-person look at you, as an individual and as part of an entire class. This may not be how you were evaluated when you applied to university if you attended it in your home country, and it may even feel a bit uncomfortable to show that much of yourself. That said, I’ve found most of my international clients have ultimately been thrilled to have had a chance to share more of who they are and they’ve appreciated knowing that the admissions-committee members care.

*I’ve changed all of my clients’ names and some of their details to protect their anonymity.

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.

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