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
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
STEP#1: ESTABLISH YOUR "UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION"
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.
STEP#2: DETERMINE YOUR LEVERAGABLE PERSONAL ASSETS
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.
STEP#3: UNDERSTAND HOW TO USE THE "RUSSIAN ANGLE"
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 ones 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 ones
role and contribution to the emerging Russian capitalism of the 1991
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
ones 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.