How we present ourselves and others is influenced by our culture, and these differences invariably impact your MBA candidacy. For example, a British applicant whose understated style makes her reluctant to boast in the MBA essays, versus an Indian – for whom tenacious self-promotion was frankly critical to his success, but whose tone could be perceived as arrogant. Or a Japanese candidate who cites ‘we’ whenever describing an accomplishment, versus the Westerner’s ease of claiming ‘I’. Then there’s the German recommender who writes in a very neutral, factual style, versus the American who gushes in delight about the candidate they are recommending. Sweeping generalizations aside, I’ve had countless encounters throughout the MBA admissions process that require sensitivity and awareness of cross-cultural differences to help candidates put their best foot forward.
For me, the issue of communicating across cultures is close to home (and work): I’m a Brit married to a Mexican, who directed MBA Admissions based at INSEAD’s campus in France for seven years, before living in India and settling down (for now at least) in San Francisco, California. Like me, much of the Fortuna Admissions team has lived and worked in multiple countries, and we always advise our clients to keep cultural differences front of mind throughout the MBA admissions process.
You can expect MBA admissions reviewers to be savvy in discerning cultural differences and accounting for them throughout the evaluation process. At the same time, it’s your responsibility as a candidate to bring both self and situational awareness to the process. If you do, you stand to deliver a more persuasive case for your candidacy as well as avoid unfortunate misperceptions that may undermine it.
7 tips for navigating cross-cultural differences in your MBA application:
1. Know your audience & your school’s “home culture.”
First, as any experienced marketer will tell you, it’s vital to keep your audience in mind – in this case, the MBA Admissions committee – when you’re trying to capture attention in a crowded marketplace. For the throngs of fast-track overachievers competing for a coveted seat at one of the world’s top business schools, this means having a deep and nuanced understanding of your program’s values and priorities. This allows you to focus your message to connect with what they care about to communicate mutual fit.
“Candidates do well to maintain awareness that the school’s location, even among the top global schools, will be influenced by their ‘home’ culture,” says Fortuna’s Michael Malone, former Columbia Business School Associate Dean. “Doing your best to communicate in a genuine manner, but also in a way that takes this home culture into account, can positively influence the connection between you and the school. Research the climate and culture of the school and its students to ensure a good understanding of what the potential is for mutual fit.”
2. Push yourself to get personal.
Authenticity is absolutely key, but depending on your cultural norms, you may need to stretch yourself to get personal or to be more vulnerable in your storytelling. (Or, alternatively, ground your narrative in confident humility to avoid the perception of arrogance.)
“This is a topic I’ve been thinking about as I work with a few overseas clients,” says Fortuna’s Julia Brady, former Kellogg Managing Director. “One East Asian male works in international business. He has competitive academics/GMAT and but did not receive any interview invites after applying in round one. Having reviewed those applications and now his initial essay drafts, it’s clear he’s a very factual communicator and struggling with infusing more personality into his essays. A highlights reel of accomplishments won’t give business schools a sense of the person behind the achievements. It’s vital to consider how your values, personality, and passion will translate – not just success academically, but really contributing to the student community. This is part of the conversation we’re having, and he’s pushing himself into less comfortable territory to create a stronger narrative.”
3. Get introspective to convey a deeper level of insight.
While understanding what’s important to MBA admissions is an essential part of the strategy, the other is doing the deep introspection required to communicate what’s meaningful and important to you. This is when having a seasoned coach who brings awareness to cross-cultural communication can be incredibly helpful.
“Given the huge volume of applications – especially from certain highly competitive pools such as India and China – it’s so important that candidates do the work of reflecting on their motivations and values to really convey that more personal side,” says Fortuna’s Jessica Chung, former UCLA Anderson Associate Director of Admissions. “It can be pretty tough to get this notion through to some candidates, particularly those who come from cultures that are extremely accomplishment-driven and/or who perceive vulnerability as weakness, which oftentimes translates into difficulty writing reflectively in their essays. Thinking back, I’ve really leaned on the coach/client relationship in these instances, because the trust and bond we developed facilitated digging deeper to extract these personal stories to create something memorable.”
4. Understand the MBA interview landscape.
The same holds true for preparing for the MBA interview and the very real differences across the M7 interview landscape. It’s certainly not about fitting a type, but about making sure you maximize the opportunity to make a personal connection, distinguish your uniqueness, and communicate with confident humility.
“I do think interviewing can be potentially challenging given that some top schools rely heavily on alumni interviewers who are trained and strong in their own right but who do not have the background in comparing and contrasting different cultural cues in the same way admissions professionals do,” says Michael. “In a case where a candidate isn’t sure they are connecting with an alumni interviewer, it becomes increasingly important to develop a relationship with an admissions team member.”
5. Know yourself (and your personality type) and prepare accordingly.
Communication styles, of course, aren’t only influenced by geography – which can veer into stereotyping – but by personality and temperament.
“When it comes to interviews and I have clients who are from a more reserved, modest culture – or alternatively, someone who is more of an introvert and struggles to put their thoughts across with energy – I always chat through the fact that they are going up against a pool of candidates who will represent the entire spectrum of cultural and personality nuances,” says Fortuna’s Emma Bond, former London Business School Senior Manager of MBA Admissions. “They need to ensure they aren’t outshone by more forceful personalities who are happy to ‘blow their own trumpet.’ I usually tell them to have a strong coffee and do a bit of exercise jumping round the room or something beforehand! On the flip side, if someone is likely to be overly forceful or energetic, I try and get them used to reining it in a bit. Mock interviews are invaluable for this.”
6. Coach your recommenders.
There are also some elements beyond your control, but careful planning can help you hedge your bets. This means emphasizing to your recommenders, for example, what kind of substance and specificity business schools are seeking in these third-party testimonies of your awesomeness and nudging them to be as descriptive as possible.
“From what I’ve seen, folks in admissions do bring a heightened sense of cultural awareness and understanding that some geographies tend to be either more or less effusive,” says Michael. “This is especially important in reading recommendations since there is little context given for the recommender and yet their description of the candidate carries a great deal of weight.”
Schedule a conversation with your recommenders, walking them through your resume and refreshing them on your accomplishments and successes (don’t assume these will be fresh in their mind). Brainstorm your strengths and weaknesses with them, as they may have a different perspective than you.
“Your recommenders may be accomplished professionals, but don’t make the mistake of assuming they know exactly what they’re supposed to do,” writes Jessica in her article, How to Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation. “Set them up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address your contributions and cite specific situations. This doesn’t mean scripting them on what to write – you want your recommenders’ authentic voices to come through in their responses. But you also don’t want them to dive in without context.”
7. Consider how your differences are a source of strength and uniqueness.
As much as it’s valuable to bring awareness to cultural differences, remember that it’s your differences that also stand to be the greatest source of strength and uniqueness.
“I encourage clients to think about the ways in which their cultural background and upbringing make them unique/who they are – what they see as advantages, not hurdles to surmount,” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal, former member of Wharton’s Admissions team. “I try not to get too far into the whole ‘you must break the stereotype’ zone, because AdComs will think what they think, and can spot a faker a mile away. Also, people tend to not be great at faking, which can get them in trouble in the interview when the essay vibe and the in-person them vibe don’t jibe.”
To underscore Brittany’s point, there’s a fine line between stretching beyond your comfort zone to communicate across cultural differences in a genuine way and trying to project an image of the ‘ideal’ candidate, and admissions reviewers are seasoned at sussing out the difference. “It’s a huge error to style yourself to what you assume a program is searching for,” writes Fortuna’s Curtis Johnson in his how-to article on Storytelling for the MBA, “Beyond introspection, authenticity takes fortitude and commitment. Admissions committees want to see that you maintain the humility and honesty to investigate your authentic self and the confidence to embrace it.”
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