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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 officer" entail?


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.


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 environment.


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 sector.


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.

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