HOW TO THINK LIKE A BUSINESS SCHOOL
By Dominic Basulto
After selecting the appropriate business school (see
The Career Forum February 13-26), it becomes important to develop a
strategy for gaining admission to the school of your choice. Those students
who blindly fill out the application forms and submit workmanlike, but
not stellar, application essays can be assured of receiving a very polite
letter from the admissions office thanking them for their time, congratulating
them on their past accomplishments, and, well, nothing more. The bottom
line is that it is simply not sufficient to rely on a high GMAT score,
solid academic credentials, and respectable work experience.
Those fortunate applicants who receive acceptance
letters from a leading Western business school such as Harvard, Stanford
or INSEAD understand the nature of the competitive game and have convinced
the admissions staff of their ability to succeed in a rigorous business
school education as well as to succeed in a demanding corporate career.
The key step is "thinking like an MBA admissions officer."
At the leading business schools, the application process
becomes intensely personal. The typical well-known barometers - GMAT,
grade point average, years of work experience- only provide a "first
cut" necessary to weed through the thousands of applications received
every year. Since most schools reserve places for approximately 200-300
students (schools such as Harvard - 880, Wharton - 790, INSEAD - 600
are exceptions to the rule), the admissions office needs to be assured
that a highly-coveted spot in the entering class is not squandered on
a high-flying young professional with a dubious ethical code and/or
unsettled career goals. The goal of a business school is to educate
the future business leaders of the global business world- those leaders
who demonstrate the requisite personal characteristics and vision in
order to succeed in this rapidly-changing environment.
What does "thinking like a business school admissions
First, UNDERSTANDING THE APPLICANT POOL.
A Russian candidate applying to a Western MBA program
will be competing not against, say, a New York banker with a degree
from Princeton, but rather, against other Russian candidates also applying
to the school. Each school has unofficial targets for the number of
spots which are allocated to the Eastern European/Russian region. INSEAD,
for instance, limits the number of entrants from any one country to
15% of the entering class. Do the math, and it's clear that as a maximum,
only 90 Russians have the privilege of studying in Fontainebleau each
year. However, even this number dramatically overstates the number of
Russians who will be admitted to INSEAD. The current composition of
the class at INSEAD only includes 6% from Eastern Europe and Russia,
or 36 students. Those schools with large Russian candidate pools (e.g.
schools participating in the ABN-AMRO financing program) will be more
competitive than those schools in Europe and America which do not provide
financing for Russian applicants.
Second, EMPHASIZING WESTERN BUSINESS SKILLS.
Since the Russian business experience is not as standardized
as the American business experience, the admissions staff will likely
feel more comfortable accepting a Russian candidate with a traditional
background at a multinational firm with a Moscow or St. Petersburg office.
The admissions office is well-acquainted with the business skills learned
at a leading Western firm, such as McKinsey, Coca-Cola, or Credit Suisse
First Boston. The office is only remotely acquainted with the skills
learned at a small Moscow brokerage or an advertising firm in Ekaterinburg.
As a result, it is precisely these candidates with experience only at
Russian firms who need to take more effort in convincing the admissions
office of their skills and ability to succeed in a Western business
Third, EXPLAINING THE PERSONAL SIDE.
This is probably the most neglected part of the application
process. It is the rare candidate who can write a series of personal
application essays which offer real insights into his or her motivations
and thought processes. A typical application essay asks, "Why are
you applying to (X) school?" It is simply not enough to write the
typical, "Well, (X) school is one of the leading business schools
and offers a top-rate general management education in a global business
environment." The admissions office would like to see an understanding
of how its particular program provides the correct cultural fit for
the candidate, and how the business school experience will be leveraged
in order to accomplish stated career goals. Moreover, the admissions
office would like to understand the rationale for previous choices,
such as university education and employment within a particular industry
Fourth, HIGHLIGHTING INDIVIDUALITY.
This notion is closely linked to the PERSONAL SIDE
above. Consider the following example: most top business schools with
strong finance programs (Columbia, Yale, London Business School) can
easily fill an entering class with financiers from Wall Street and other
leading financial centers. Young professionals from leading Wall Street
investment banks typically flood the leading business schools with applications.
From the Russian perspective, how does a corporate finance professional
at MFK Renaissance differentiate an application from that of a Troika-Dialog
equity trader? The key is stressing those accomplishments or aspects
of your personality that may not be readily discerned from a standard,
vanilla application package. The application may offer plenty of opportunity
to discuss recent professional and academic experiences, but it is only
in the essay portion of the application that a candidate can discuss
unique experiences such as exhibiting paintings at a Moscow art gallery,
starting a new political party during the early Perestroika years, or
playing on a top Russian athletic team.
In conclusion, the best recommendation to Russian
candidates seeking admission to a competitive Western business school
is to 1) "Get in the front door" by obtaining the target GMAT
score for the desired school 2) Make the admissions office comfortable
with your Western business competency and then 3) Highlight the individual
aspects of your application that can differentiate your application
from the mass of other Russian applications.
Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale School
of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles ABLE
(American Business and Legal Education) in Moscow. Pericles offers a
full MBA advising program.