Taking your career across borders can be hard, complex and incredibly rewarding. In addition to the (often substantial) short-term salary bump, international experience positions budding executives to lead the largest possible organizations. An elite MBA can supercharge your advantage, but getting admitted as an international applicant is a tall order. This guide will help you understand what you’re up against, and how to succeed.
The role of MBA program rankings in admissions decisions
Start by putting yourself in the admissions committee’s shoes. What admissions committees care about more than anything else is their ranking and their future endowment (which, of course, are positively correlated). These two variables keep the brand relevant and strong more than anything else. So when deciding whom to admit, Admissions Committees are making a decision at least in part based on how their future admits will affect the stats which inform their rankings. In addition to obvious and well-known metrics like GMAT/GRE score and undergraduate GPA, two extremely important stats for rankings are the percentage of each graduating class employed three months post-graduation and salary averages. Go to any program’s employment data website and you’ll see these statistics showcased front-and-center. Take this careers page from Michigan’s Ross MBA program, for instance.
Most MBA programs ask about future career goals in essay prompts and interviews. In order to have a realistic shot at admission, it must be clear from an applicant’s strategic positioning that they are talking about a career arc that’s simultaneously impressive *and* eminently plausible.
Plausibility must take into account the following reality: if you are an international student (and for the top 10 schools in the U.S., the international student body approaches ~30-40% of student population), you may have a hard time being admitted if you indicate a US-based career path that isn’t correlated with reliable work-authorization sponsorship. This makes sense: admissions committees need to be sure you will be employed three months post-graduation, receiving competitive pay. If you aren’t employed three months after graduation, it will hurt their ranking. Given that the first role post-MBA is predictive of longer-term wealth creation, positive immediately-post-MBA job placement is particularly important from an endowment-maximizing paradigm as well.
Of course, median salary immediately post-MBA isn’t the only important metric, because if it were, schools would want every student going into finance or tech (where the money is at this present moment). Many MBAs do target those industries, but schools also need diversity of representation in the alum pool and in the business school classes themselves. No admissions committee would want all their grads working in tech in the bay area or finance in NYC. Take, for example, Stanford GSB’s scholarship for MBAs committed to work in the U.S. Midwest post-MBA. Schools want alumni in lots of different industries to diversify their potential donor portfolio (who knows… maybe automotive or healthcare services will be booming two decades from now). They also need some degree of representation in government, non-profit, and social impact, too, for PR reasons. But also, diversity among classmates and the prospects to learn more from this set attracts applicants; lack of diversity along these lines may have the opposite effect.
But, all-things-equal, making more money rather than less money post-MBA is better for the institution, and therefore better for you as an applicant. Students who make more money will be, on balance, more willing and able to donate to the school, fueling the self-reinforcing cycle that has powered premier American academia for generations.
Thread the needle of “standing out” without espousing a “pipe dream”
As an international, you hear a lot about the need to stand out from the herd. We talk to many clients and prospective clients who talk about wanting to work for coal companies and heavy industry companies in the U.S., or who want to work for middle market PE-oriented funds or family offices based on prior experience. They think that these sorts of goals are differentiated because applicants from their geographies are all writing about being product managers at FANGs or pursuing investment banking. We like that these applicants are already thinking about “standing out,” but it’s important that they demonstrate an understanding of realistic near-term employment post-MBA and that means taking work authorization limitations into account.
Sometimes it requires a slight repositioning to a firm that AdComs know will reliably sponsor. For instance, instead of saying that you want to repurpose your economic development background in India and economics undergrad into a role as a product manager/marketing manager at XYZ fintech start-up, talk about working instead at the card division of Marcus by Goldman Sachs to understand the payment processing/card space with the aim of moving to an established fintech company in Asia after 3-5 years in a leadership role. With a few more details built-in (why fintech, etc.) this story is believable, ambitious, and eminently achievable given the work authorization restraints that Indian MBAs in the U.S. experience and that AdComs try to avoid.
Feasible immediate post-MBA career paths for international applicants
What firms reliably sponsor internationals?
- Big Tech (FANGs, Microsoft, IBM, Samsung, etc.)
- Bulge-Bracket Banks (JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, etc.)
- MBB (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) Consulting
What firms DON’T sponsor internationals?
Simply put, most U.S. employers recruiting for positions immediately after business school can’t or won’t sponsor international MBAs (this shifts a bit 3-5 years out of business school for Director/VP-level positions when some companies will bear the cost to get the right experienced hire when they wouldn’t do it for a candidate straight out of b-school). Notorious heartbreakers include oil & gas, chemicals, industrial or manufacturing companies, small buy-side firms like middle-market PE and family offices, consumer packaged goods, food/beverage/consumer packaged good companies, and retail/fashion. Unless you can say that you already have some sort of sponsorship lined up for U.S. work or that you want to work outside of the U.S. right out of business school, AdComs will be skeptical of these industries if you talk about wanting a job there in your essays. Startups in general don’t sponsor international work visas, nor do many leadership development programs. (Note: there are great leadership development programs that still sponsor but they are the exception that proves the rule. A few examples – Dow Chemical, some firms in “big auto,” some integrated exploration and production companies. Some VC-owned start-ups have the wherewithal to sponsor with the VC legal/HR infrastructure, but most don’t. Given how competitive these programs are, applicants would ideally have a preexisting connection with the potential post-MBA employer.)
Differentiation through a less-represented niche of a well-represented industry
At this point, you should realize that international MBAs who require work authorization will have limitations in terms of the employers that they can target for post-MBA employment. However, the companies that reliably sponsor internationals are oftentimes beautifully vertically-integrated conglomerates. Companies like Comcast, which reliably sponsor MBAs, could allow an international MBA exposure to theme park management (Universal Studies), sleepy utility-like telecom general management, content creation strategy, and Comcast Ventures would proxy a VC experience within a large company. Similarly, Amazon offers retail product management as well as AWS cloud product management.
Perhaps where we see the most potential for differentiation within an overrepresented industry are with large U.S.-based financial-services companies, which have long reliably sponsored international MBA work visas. What applicants need to know (especially career switchers who are seeking to work in finance after engineering) is that there are lots of great paths to a work visa at a place like JPMorgan or Goldman Sachs that aren’t the well-beaten path of IB M&A.
For example, investment research is a more distinctive niche (and much less represented and generally less competitive) where every top-tier school wants alum representation. It is often more appealing than typical sell-side, deal-based IB M&A work, anyway, because it is associated with fewer hours, better quality of life, and more cerebral, contemplative work. No job is safe in the American financial system, but investment research generally has less turnover than M&A (and therefore, is more likely to give enough time in the role to get a green card – after which an employee could go anywhere). If you are a STEM-y international applicant who is hoping to career-switch into left-brain finance (a big contingency among our clients), do research on sites like Wall Street Oasis and read the vault guides for different areas of finance to get ideas of what non-M&A work you might be most interested in. There are actually lots of great jobs for post-MBA career switchers at a place like JPMorgan that aren’t in typical M&A IB Associate roles. This includes outside of the investment bank like Commercial Banking, Private Banking/Asset Management, card, and their own general management programs. Within Commercial Banking or MidCorp banking, there are great nichey roles in Mezz debt financing that would be a good place to build skills for lower middle-market M&A buy-side work (an area that won’t reliably sponsor immediately post-MBA, but that likely would at the director level with the requisite skills built at a prestigious employer).
Get really smart on opportunities in the industry you want to work in post-MBA if you’ll need work authorization. Listen to podcasts related to your desired field post-MBA to find out about where there may be opportunities that align with your interests. Bonus points if those podcasts are produced or feature faculty from the schools you are interested in, so that you can talk about them in interviews or admissions essays. For example, for finance, you might look at things like Matt Levine’s newsletter, Bloomberg Odd Lots, Seeking Alpha Wallstreet Breakfast, Ritholtz Wealth Management, Real Vision, Barron’s Streetwise, Macro Voices, The Derivative, and Beyond the Markets (Professor Jeremy Seigel from The Wharton School). This kind of industry due diligence is recommended for *any* applicant, but especially for international applicants who will need work authorization. By doing this research, you’ll write convincing essays about where you want to be and *why* post MBA at a firm that you know will sponsor your employment as an international employee.
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