If you are applying to one of the best business schools in the world, a great way to differentiate yourself is through global work experience. Most candidates I have worked with who have had meaningful international experience get a lot of attention from top-ranked MBA schools.
Now I want to emphasize that the key point is meaningful global experience. That means a two-week trip to Costa Rica doesn’t count. I mean something more like a year-long (or more) stint in a country with a completely different language and culture from your own. This isn’t just my idea. According to Sweeny Chhabra, a recent Forté Fellow and 2013 graduate of INSEAD, the experience represents to others (admissions committees and future employers) both leadership and risk-taking. As a Connecticut Yankee who lived ended up in greater China for 10 years, I feel compelled to add another key characteristic: flexibility.
MBA Programs Look for Leadership Talent
It shouldn’t be any secret by now that business schools seek out those who have demonstrated leadership. They are not looking at the narrow definition of a fancy title or a huge team of direct reports. MBA admissions committees favor candidates have a pattern of behaviors of demonstrating leadership in a more emotionally intelligent way. They are looking for a pattern of taking on responsibility as well as influencing in more subtle ways. They are also looking for an ability to cut across cultures – as can be seen by Sweeny Chhabra’s experience. She rapidly boosted her international I.Q. by transferring from Canada to Singapore,
“My interactions with individuals from … Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and Japan have provided me with tremendous opportunity to learn country-specific business practices. I have also learned that… reactions could be as a result of different cultural norms, their emotions, their personality or just their communication style.”
If you hail from the U.S. (or some other developed English-speaking nation) you may be find some real challenges if you choose to work in a developing economy. Even if you know the language, you may be in for a surprise. I recently worked with a pre-MBA candidate who was born and spent her childhood in Poland. She decided to go to her native country for a few start-up and marketing consulting gigs. Despite being perfectly fluent, and having spent her summers in Poland, she had never worked in business in Poland, finding that the post-Communist regime made for some huge challenges with business trust. It meant that she had to rethink and rework an entire proposal for providing services to local Polish businesses.
Business schools also want to know that you are willing to go outside your comfort zone and take some risks, says Meeghan Keedy of Chicago Booth Admissions in an April 2013 blog post: “We are looking for people who are creative, collaborative and willing to take risks.” That’s because you’ll be taking risks during your MBA career and afterwards, and the admissions committee wants verifiable evidence that you are willing to challenge yourself.
Anyone Can Do It
Crossing borders and cultures is risky; but that’s part of the fun and part of the challenge. And you really do push yourself, especially in the area of flexibility and adaptability.
I began my own overseas career in Taiwan, not knowing anything about the language or Chinese culture. Taipei was nowhere near as international or as “grown up” as it is now. I was constantly stumbling my way around and learning each day. From walking through a live poultry market on my way to work, to using my get-around Mandarin to get myself home by taxi, to reading street signs, to working for an all-Taiwanese investment firm. The highlight of it all was being able to convince my landlord to replace a broken window in the middle of a fierce typhoon.
It’s a challenge to live and work overseas, but that’s all part of the beauty of the experience. You really push yourself and learn about what you are capable of. Kind of like business school.
By Betsy Massar, Master Admissions
Tags: MBA admissions, best business schools in the world, pre-MBA experience, Betsy Massar, Master Admissions, boutique admissions consulting