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Adapting Your Admissions Profile
For The Elite B-Schools
By Dominic Basulto

In the aftermath of the August 1998 financial crisis, the leading B-schools of Europe and the USA witnessed a marked upsurge in the number of candidates from Russia who wanted to gain entrée to a prestigious Western business school education. Based on anecdotal evidence as well as quantitative analysis, it has become clear that highly-qualified candidates from Russia with top academic credentials and sterling professional experience with, say, a large Western multinational in Moscow, are no longer guaranteed admission to schools such as INSEAD, IMD, or London Business School. The talent pool in Russia and the former Soviet Union is simply too deep and the number of applicants is too great.

What does this mean for the upwardly-mobile Russian professional with aspirations of entering a top-ranked business school program? Simply put, the admissions process to the top business schools in Western Europe and the USA should be approached as part of a highly focused strategic marketing plan. The development of this plan is rarely something that can be achieved over cappuccino and croissants at a local café; after all, the marketing plan needs to distill the essence of a university education, anywhere from 4 — 10 years of professional experience, and that special je ne sais quoi into a cogent, well-articulated argument for admission. Below are three key steps in the creation of a strategic marketing plan to improve the odds of admission to an elite B-school.


Too many applicants devote an inordinate amount of time trying to convince the respective admissions committees how they are like every other candidate. Candidates assume that business schools have a preconceived notion of what the ideal candidate should be and then try to conform their application package to fit this notion. This "cookie-cutter approach" is inherently flawed, since it ignores how a typical admissions committee reviews the personal files of applicants. While all schools publish details of factors such as average GMAT score, average number of years of work experience, etc. for each entering class of students, it is not the case that a B-school such as Yale would like to admit a class of 220 identical people, all with the same GMAT score and professional background. Rather, each of the elite business schools wants to admit individuals with a wide range of backgrounds and professional qualifications and demonstrated teamwork, leadership, and client skills.

Most importantly, each candidate must have a "unique selling proposition." By this, it is meant that there should be at least one key factor that separates you from all the other candidates. This is harder than it sounds, since a school such as Harvard receives approximately 10,000 applications each year. Bear in mind that B-schools would like to know each candidate as a person, not merely as a summation of test scores, GPA, and positions at prestigious firms. Would you rather be known to an admissions committee as the "Moscow banker who arranged a Eurobond offering for Gazprom" or as the "Moscow banker who founded a charity for orphan children in Western Siberia"? The second choice is obviously preferable since it establishes you as a high-achiever with enormous energy, leadership skills and well, a "big heart." Moreover, it separates you immediately from the average candidate from Russia who has attained professional success, but without the concomitant display of a complex character.


In business school jargon, leveragable personal assets are those elements of your personal background which constitute your "value added." These personal assets can be comprised of any of the following: experiences and accomplishments; specific knowledge or functional skills; distinctions and achievements; and interests/ passions. Of these, probably only the last "asset" requires further elucidation. Non-business related interests and passions are the one part of the application strategy that can demonstrate why a candidate would be a dynamic member of an entering business school class. Elite B-schools looking to assemble a diverse class would rather accept a candidate who demonstrates a real interest in paintings of Russian Futurism than a candidate who can explain in detail how Russian accounting standards differ from U.S. GAAP.

Moreover, these leveragable personal assets should fit thematically within the broader unique selling proposition. The key is to isolate those assets that allow the meshing of seemingly disparate parts into an easily understandable composite. An example of this strategy would be a candidate who combines hard-core financial experience on Wall Street with a real passion for the outdoors in order to fulfill a desire to manage an outdoor expedition/outfitting company such as Patagonia, Marmot or LL Bean. In this case, two personal assets (finance skills, a passion for nature) are combined into a unique story that can be easily packaged for any admissions committee.


Like it or not, a Russian applicant must understand that an admissions committee will most probably be biased against the candidate perceived as fleeing post-financial crisis Russia to make big bucks in the West. The concerns of the admissions committee can be assuaged, however, by presenting the decision to attend business school as a well-planned professional decision which makes sense at this point in one’s career. In doing so, one must define both short-term and long-term strategic goals that clearly fit within the framework of past accomplishments and delineate some understanding of one’s role and contribution to the emerging Russian capitalism of the 1991 — 1998 era.

Furthermore, an applicant from Russia must compete head-to-head with a peer group comprised of fellow high-achievers from Russia and Eastern Europe, not candidates from Western Europe or the USA. This obviously makes the two above steps more difficult since the simple strategy of marketing oneself as the "high-flying candidate from Russia" is no longer a winning strategy, because it fails to differentiate oneself from everyone else applying from Moscow. It does mean, however, that there is no need to feel insecure that applicants from Europe or America are working for multinational corporations in New York, London or Paris; Russian candidates will not be expected to possess the same degree of Western business knowledge only the same degree of motivation, potential and desire for excellence.

Thus, a well-crafted strategic marketing plan presents one’s benefits and features as well as defines personal value-added for prospective B-schools. This plan can be approached as a three-step process that comprises (1) establishing your unique selling proposition (2) determining your leveragable personal assets and (3) understanding how to use the Russian angle. While the creation of such a marketing plan does not guarantee success in the application process, it does tilt the odds in your favor and may mean the difference between studying at INSEAD or merely reading about INSEAD.


Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale School of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles ABLE (American Business & Legal Education) in Moscow. Pericles offers a full MBA advising program. For contact information, please call: 292-5188/6463.

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