How To Find Success As An International MBA Student In The U.S.: What You Need To Know, From Those Who Have Done It

Master of Business Administration programs at the top business schools in the United States are highly demanding. Many follow their ambitions and aspirations to achieve their long-term career goals by getting into these programs. But for international students, there are added challenges as well.

While everyone focuses on getting into an MBA program, how one finds success within the program and post-MBA is rarely discussed, especially for international students. Wasek Sazzad, a STEM MBA Class of 2025 candidate at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, reached out to successful international Broad MBA alumni and compiled their thoughts regarding how a success plan should look for an international student, and how students can execute accordingly. Let’s dive into the insightful discussion.

Clive Akhalumenyo
Consultant, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Broad MBA 2023 Graduate, Nigeria

Wasek: What sort of challenges did you face as an international student?

Clive: I think there is the culture part; everyone struggles a bit. It takes time for everyone to adjust to the culture, the food, the way of life, how to communicate effectively with your classmates. But I had a good MBA team; they helped me adjust. I also reached out to MSU peers from my home country to learn more about the overall environment and the culture.

Wasek: Are there any specific strategies that can be followed beforehand prior to joining the MBA program?

Clive: There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Apart from fitting into the culture, the MBA program is team-driven, and it is important to understand how to fit in the team. It is also important to understand the dynamics and nuances in both oral and verbal communication. Everyone brings their strengths and weaknesses. But to answer your question, there is no blueprint, however, I did use this strategy.

Firstly, try to understand the culture and how to fit in. You can watch YouTube videos to understand the festival and places to go. Also, try to find some places that may have connections with your home country. Connect with the student resource groups. There are lots of country-based student resource groups at MSU. You can look for a WhatsApp group. Ask local peers who are already at MSU, like, how is the transportation system? or How do I commute around? You can leverage these connections. It came true for me. For example, I reached out to a 2nd year MBA candidate, and he picked me up from the airport on the day of my arrival.

Also, get out of your comfort zone. Tag along with all students, not just those from your home country. Try to go for local events and cuisine. For example, I made good Indian friends. I got to know about their food and Diwali culture. Now I love it. I also made great friends here in the USA and going for tailgates and college football games made pick up American football. Try to expand your viewpoints and horizon; it will help you adjust in the long run and in your career.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for gradually elaborating. It will be very clear for newcomers to understand. Now pivoting to your professional career, whenever an MBA program kicks off, everyone starts talking about the internship hunt. In a new culture, what was your strategy to create an adjustment balance between the U.S. social and professional ecosystems?

Clive: Leveraging my industry lexicon, I will structure ways of getting a good balancing act into buckets. The first bucket will be communication. How do you communicate in both oral and verbal which I harped on earlier especially I start getting interviews. One area to highly leverage is to utilize the career resources your school has. Connect with a peer coach, improve your resume to stand out, reach out to your seniors to learn about their strategies, and genuinely show the passion to learn and grow.

The second bucket will be networking. How to reach out to alumni via social platforms, especially LinkedIn. How to approach alumni and an employee in your preferred firm to set up a coffee chat, and how to ask questions in the coffee chat. The industry in which you want to work, try to connect with alumni from that industry. But don’t limit only connecting with alumni based on your area of interest or industry. You never know where a good referral can come from. Also, it’s not the right approach to connect and ask for a referral right away. Your passion should be top of mind to understand the industry and showcase it through communication with people that work there. Learning from alumni’s experiences is very valuable in the long run. Ask them about their strategies for searching for an internship and tools that they have used. Absorb the learning from all interactions to grow your skillsets.

The last bucket will be to utilize school resources and student resources groups (SRGs). MSU Broad College of Business has a career management center, peer coaches, and informal interview sessions. For international students, it’s true that you have to work much harder, but it’s not impossible. So without losing hope, keep applying, keep reaching out, and keep growing your skillsets. Eventually, utilizing the three buckets, combined with your hard work, will bring a positive result.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for beautifully elaborating on the details. I really appreciate it. If I may ask, many international students think that if you want to go to consulting, then you have to start preparing prior to or just after getting the MBA offer. What was your strategy?

Clive: You know, I would say everyone has a different strategy. For consulting, every firm has its own culture and what they look out when recruiting. Start networking early and you could and reach out to alumni working in consulting, learn from their experience, and be very passionate about consulting if you want to pursue it.

Also, get into the habit to start practicing cases; try to understand how it is structured. Lastly, there is the mock case interview which can be done with classmates and 2nd year student that interned in consulting, learn what the key details are, and start your preparation around them. You will need to put in time and effort. It gets better every time, so don’t panic initially, practice consistently. Leverage the school’s consulting club, like MSU’s Broad Consulting Club. Learn from your seniors who have done internships and got full-time offers. A combined strategy with enhanced passion and preparation will surely provide good results.

Wasek: Lastly, given the scarcity of opportunities and increased competition, should those interested in consulting only focus on that or should they apply to other industry-specific roles as well?

Clive: That’s a great question. I would say, given the current macro-economic condition and labor market, don’t put your eggs in one basket. If you are passionate about the consulting industry, there are so many factors beyond your control. Some firms might not come to your campus to recruit, and you must give extra effort to network with those firms and showcase your interests and skillsets. Now, if you are not at the target school, that doesn’t mean that you can’t join that firm. You can prepare for case interviews and network extensively based on my previous suggestions. But you need to work five times harder than an MBA candidate who is studying at the consulting firm’s target school.

Then again, don’t be disheartened if you don’t get an internship offer. The skills you learn will help you in any industry-specific job. It will enhance you as professional and provide you with essential skills such as problem solving. You can use that skillset for any internship and apply again for full-time. Hence, the possibilities are there. You must strategize and be flexible, stay determined, be willing to tackle headwinds and stay focused to attain success.

Jose Naime G.
Pathways Operations Manager, Amazon
Broad MBA 2023 Graduate, Mexico

Wasek: Thanks a lot Jose, for giving the time. To begin the conversation, can you kindly share what the biggest challenges are that you think international MBA students struggle with?

Jose: I think the number one challenge will be to get through the mental battle. For international students’ recruiting is going to be way harder. But I would say that diversity, equity,  and inclusion are highly prioritized by USA companies. As an international student, you bring different ways to solve problems and address issues, which overall enriches the company. Hence, there is an added value to being an international student.

But if I break it down for international students, think of the journey as a gradual progression, like building a house. The foundation will be building a strong resume. Ensure your resume showcases your skills, backed up by data. Once your resume is good, start applying, but remember that resume improvement is a continuous process. So keep modifying based on the feedback of your peer coach, career management center, and industry alumni, but keep applying at the same time.

Then think about mock interviews. How to prepare accordingly. For example, if you are thinking about tech, learn about the interview process, reach out to alumni, find resources within your business school, seek help from seniors, and then start preparing. As you go through the process, you will become more refined. Personally, I wrote down the questions as short notes when recruiters asked, and within that time, I configured the answer. It helps you structure the thoughts and makes it easy for the interviewer to understand your response.

Also, as you apply, you have some target industries in mind. For me, it was consulting and tech. Once a few companies picked up my resume, I knew it was in good shape. But then again, I customized it every time as per the job description. Then I focused on preparing for the interview as well. Once you get the interview, try to align your answers with the company culture; it will make your responses relevant.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for elaborating on the details. But as an international student, many say they have to be resilient. How can one become more resilient?

Jose: Ok, I will answer this question in two parts. Some people are naturally resilient, but failure is demotivating. That’s true. But I will say, get comfortable with rejections; don’t panic if you get rejections after rejections. It will strengthen your nerves for professional life. But after getting rejected, don’t give up. Every alumni you will talk with has many instances of rejection, so rejection is common and you are not the only one getting it. So be comfortable with it, but don’t give up. Keep pushing through, and then you can have success. Because the path to success starts with lots of rejection.

But I also had some other plans. These are not backups for internships, but as you get rejected, you will crave success, so those plans can ensure happiness with small successes. For example, apart from applying, I loved our Assistant Finance Professor Morad Zekhnini’s class. I learned about how to diversify a portfolio and the details of investment banking. But you don’t have to do the same; do something that will add value to your portfolio. You can do certified courses, and after completing them, you will feel the joy of success. These small joy’s, will help to push forward.

Wasek: Amazing mindset to follow. I am sure students will find this thought-provoking. Lastly, I would like to ask: what should be considered a success for an MBA student? Is it getting good grades, an internship, or a full-time job, or is there something else?

Jose: For me, success is being content with the journey. If you look back at your MBA, ask: did I utilize the possibilities, and am I content with it? If the answer is yes, then that’s a success. But success differs from person to person and changes for the same person as life progresses.

Also, think from another perspective: before the MBA, ask yourself what’s your purpose for getting the MBA, and at the end of it, if you feel you have unlocked the milestones you wanted to, then it’s a success. For me, I worked very hard for two years and am now working at Amazon. At the beginning, the transition felt like success, and now I am working for greater success. But going back to the MBA purpose, if you feel MBA is not going to add any value or hasn’t added any value, then you can consider it not the right program for you.

Personally, I would say that the Broad MBA enhanced me as a person, and through this journey, I have learned many things. My vision of life and success widened. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Interim Dean of Broad College of Business Judith Whipple; Assistant Professor of Finance Morad Zekhnini; and Broad alumnus Louise DuRussel (Pathways Operations Manager, Amazon) for guiding me.

I would say don’t conceal yourself with only tangible success but try to grow yourself as a human being. It will help you, as an international student, create a sense of belonging, and that will inspire you to push forward during your hard times.

Naman Rungta
Associate, McKinsey & Company
Broad MBA 2021 Graduate, India

Wasek: Many international students look forward to going into consulting. Why is there a higher demand for choosing this career track?

Naman: I would highlight three key aspects that I personally believe. The first one will be, you can work on diverse roles not bound within industry. That expands your horizons for learning.

The second thing will be career growth. Like, at McKinsey, if you work hard to ensure the success of the projects, every 2-3 years you can expect recognition for your hard work through promotion, and if everything goes well within 7-9 years, there might be a possibility to become a partner, which is the highest role.  There are senior partners, but I will say partners are one of the most senior positions in a consulting firm. But if you look into other industries, it will take 20-25 years to reach the role of senior management.

The third thing would be that you get to travel, meet new people, network, and expand yourself as a human being. I love traveling, and I love the overall working pattern as the consultant, so it can be the same for others as well.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for elaborating. Before going into consulting, how did you mentally prepare yourself to learn about the specific industry culture, working patterns and prepare accordingly?

Naman: I will say the working pattern of McKinsey as a global consulting firm is similar. I came from India, but here in the USA, I feel you get more ownership of the work you do, which gives you a better chance to showcase your strengths and achievements. Also, to get accustomed to the working pattern of the U.S., I did my internship in the U.S. and worked as a graduate assistant at MSU; those two helped me grow my skills accordingly.

Wasek: So if someone joins Broad MBA or any other MBA program and wants to go for the consulting industry, what sort of action plans will you suggest for them?

Naman: You need to have a good resume, get the interview, and crack the interview. Starting with the resume, whatever job you are applying to, go through and customize your resume so that it reflects those required skills. Have it checked by your peer coach at the career management center.

To get the interview, I did two things. I tried to network as much as possible and put in a relentless effort to apply. For applying as an international student, there are resources you can get from the Broad Career Management Center; you can also apply through LinkedIn. But consulting firms’ target specific business schools, and if you find your target firm not coming into campus for recruiting, then make the extra effort to reach out to them and build the connection.

Be agile and passionate about networking. Like, I always wanted to go to McKinsey. I reached out to more than 150 alumni working there; five of them responded, and from there, I had a coffee chat with one. Although it was a long-awaited coffee chat, I got to learn a lot. These lessons are so valuable that they add great value to your internship/job interview.

The third will be converting the interview. For consulting firms’ interview patterns, they are standardized.

Every interview has two portions: behavioral (we call it personal experience interview) and case. You can search the company website to learn more about behavioral question patterns. Make it concise and impactful. For casing, you always get better with practice. There is no specific number that says that after doing this many times, you will become good at it, but the more you practice, your rhythm and logical progression will improve. Also, prepare with a real person. Because in an interview, you have to walk your interviewer through the process. So at Broad, you have a consulting peer coaches, also reach out to industry seniors and practice. It will make you comfortable with the process, and it will feel more natural on the day of the interview.

Wasek: The last question: When people think about joining consulting, they start with higher enthusiasm, and then down the line, if they get the opportunity, they may feel burned out. So before entering this industry, how can one mentally prepare themselves for ensuring success in the long run?

Naman: I think it’s a very relevant question. I would say try to have a work-life balance, which will help in the long run. For example, set the priorities right. If you are starting your day at 8, you can always communicate with your team members to show respect and schedule meetings accordingly. Also, you need to ensure the same for them. Try to build a good relationship with the team, which will help in the process.

Then, if you wake up at 6, work out and spend some time to start your day fresh. Also, some who might want to spend time with kids in the evening can allocate time accordingly. It’s really important to set boundaries.

The second thing is to be disciplined. If you like to work out for an hour, but one day you do it and the other day you feel tired and give up, then it breaks the routine. So start with smaller goals, if you can’t do 1 hour; do 10 minutes or 20 minutes, but be consistent about it. It will help you stay on track.

The third and most important will be saying no where appropriate. Like at McKinsey, apart from my regular work, I coordinate extracurricular activities. Although people are enthusiastic about contributing more, define when to say no. In that way, you can be consistent with your energy and perform. It will prevent the burnout.

I will say that if you aspire to be successful, this is a consistent process. As an international student, you can compartmentalize your tasks and then have a strategy to execute. It will ensure success in the long run.

Edilio Gennari
Senior Business Strategy Manager, Verizon
Broad MBA 2020 Graduate, Italy

Wasek: As an international MBA student, is it hard to get into the professional field of tech?

Edilio: I would say it’s not impossible to get into tech, but then again, one must work hard. Like consulting, investment banking, many international students are interested in joining this industry. Tech industry hires talents, so if you have the skillset and passion, no matter if you are domestic or international, you can get an internship or full-time offer in the field of tech. Also, if you have a STEM background as an international student, that’s a preferable quality, but then again, people with STEM backgrounds sometimes don’t feel like opening up and engaging with others. So if you don’t feel like interacting and engaging, you won’t be able to showcase your skills; hence, you need to prioritize the effort in that part as well. Keep practicing and shine through your knowledge and interaction.

But it’s not something you do once that will make the whole process smooth. Be very genuine and passionate about tech; if you truly love it, then all the work you put in won’t make you feel exhausted; you will feel like an enriched person. Through this process, it will help you get to your goal.

Wasek: What are the strategies you will suggest for getting along with the culture and people?

Edilio: I think every culture is unique. In the USA, from the culture, a strong mindset can be built around achieving career goals and excelling in one’s own career. But where I come from, we interact with a lot of people, and others also try to tag alone with friends. But, it’s important to understand that not every interaction will make you feel amazing, but through the interactions with people in the USA, you can learn how to interact, what to say, and how to ask. You can find a pattern, and as you go through more and more interactions, you will eventually find comfort.

If you are doing an MBA, network as much as possible. Through networking, you will find people with whom you can strongly associate; some will become your mentor, and some will become lifelong friends. So it’s important to indulge in such interactions. Be flexible and open to change. But it takes time, it’s 6 years I am in USA. I am still adjusting.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for elaborating in detail. International students are trying to adjust to the new culture, keep up with the pace of study, at the same time also miss their friends and family back home. Is there any strategy to find emotional balance?

Edilio: That’s a tough one. Everyone has a different type of tolerance, and you need to prioritize. Fortunately, we can reach out to family via social communication apps. But as one is trying to figure out the next important step of life, family, of course, will be there for moral support, but try to prioritize the bigger goal. I can vouch for this from my personal experience. Based on personal short- and long-term objectives, try to focus on your career, i.e., the search for an internship, focus on classes, and your grades. Develop a network among alumni. Expand your circle, and then you won’t feel too detached or alone all the time.

Wasek: People talk about practicing to be good at it. Like taking mock interviews or going to the gym to maintain physical fitness. Are there any strategies students can follow to mentally strengthen themselves?

Edilio: Nobody is perfect. So first, don’t be hard on yourself because you are not good. I mean, don’t put mental pressure on yourself. Having said that, focus on pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and remember that strengthening yourself will help you.

For international students, it’s hard, but some international students can engage and network better. Try to reach out to those students and have an open mind to learning. Also, for sure, learn from the domestic students. Find the ones you connect with, and don’t be afraid to share your weaknesses. Everyone has a weakness, so it’s not weird to talk about it. Don’t feel mentally low about having a weakness, but be very agile to solve the issue by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

Wasek: Thanks a lot for beautifully elaborating on this part. The last question: What was your strategy to get into tech?

Edilio: Actually, I am an engineer and have been working previously in the telecommunications industry. Hence, it was an added advantage. For me, the challenge was unique. Broad MBA is widely recognized for supply chain management. Hence, if you want to go into tech, you have to make an extra effort to showcase yourself competent for this field.

But I kept my options open because narrowing them down would have limited my chances, so I was looking into tech roles and also into rotational programs in supply chain-specific industries. The joint effort helped to land an internship eventually. Also, networking is important; the more you connect with alumni, the more you will get to learn. But when you connect, try to be very specific about your area of interest and what you want to learn. Having a good understanding of the tech-specific field you want to go into will help you learn key attributes of that industry. Then, during the interview, when you incorporate that learning, it will help you stand out. That’s how I believe one should strategically prepare.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.