We get no shortage of inquires from international business applicants. (By “international” we mean people based in other countries who apply to U.S. business schools.) In fact, we sell more copies of Your MBA Game Plan internationally than we do in the United States! While we love helping international applicants, we find that there are many themes we hear over and over when talking to them. While many international applicants hold some great assets that make them attractive to U.S. business schools, they sometimes fall into some very common traps that ultimately make it hard for them to stand out vs. the competition.
Here are four things that we tend to see a lot of in international applicants. None of these things is terrible or will certainly keep you out of a top-ranked MBA program, but if you read this list and it sounds a lot like you, then consider this a wake-up call that you may need to work a little harder to get into a top U.S. business school:
Strong GMAT scores and academics, but not much else
For the past decade, we have talked with countless applicants who have, at first, merely introduced themselves with the name of their university, their class rank, and their GMAT score. When it comes to extracurricular activities, hobbies, or anything else that can help admissions officers see them as real, interesting people, they often have very little to talk about. When trying to stand out versus thousands of applicants with 700+ GMAT scores and fancy degrees, you can’t fight fire with fire. In other words, what will help you stand out is not an even higher GMAT score, but something else that helps tell the story of who you are, even if (especially if) it has nothing to do with your job or your academics. And keep in mind that admissions officers are not fooled by a half-hearted attempt to do just enough community service to be able to write about it in your business school application. You need to show passion for something and how you have made an impact. That will help set you apart.
Very similar-sounding career goals
The growth of the markets in India and China has caused many applicants to come to the same conclusion about their career goals: “My goal is to earn my degree and then to return home to launch my own business (or run my family business).” To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this career goal. It’s realistic and specific, which are both very im- portant. But be aware that hundreds of other people from your country who are applying to the same school may have the same goal in mind, which will make it even harder for you to stand out. If this is truly your goal, then don’t change it for the sake of being different—but realize that something else in your application will need to help set you apart from other applicants.
Unrealistic career goals
For some international applicants, this is a function of not having enough information about graduate business school and the opportunities it can provide. For others, though, the problem is that they don’t want to have common-sounding career goals, so they write things such as “My goal is to start a multinational telecommunications firm and conduct an initial public offering worth $1 billion within five years.” An impressive goal, to be sure, but one that will make admissions officers wonder about how realistic or well-researched your career goals are, which, in turn, may make them wonder if you are a good fit for business school.
A background in technology
Again, there is nothing wrong with this. But be realistic about the fact that so many other applicants will have the same type of professional background. Why should admissions officers want you over 20 other similar-sounding engineers? (And don’t answer that your GMAT score is higher!) One way to overcome this weakness is if you can demonstrate leadership abilities on the job. Maybe you haven’t managed your own employees, but have you led a project or gone out of your way to make a positive impact on your organization? If so, be sure to emphasize that in your application. The key point: Admissions officers are much more interested in your leadership potential than in your technical proficiency. Remember that extracurricular experiences, community service, and hobbies can help you here, too.