Pericles American Business and Legal Education
    MBA Advising TOEFL GMAT GRE LL.M. Program Legal Writing Legal English

By Dominic Basulto

Russian applicants to the leading Western business schools inevitably encounter a breathtaking amount of jargon and a number of inscrutable words such as leadership, teamwork, and diversity-words which do not easily lend themselves to analysis. Admissions directors and marketing materials from the respective B-school programs consistently tout these virtues, lending them an otherworldly meaning. Indeed, INSEAD mentions "managerial potential," "international outlook," and "ability to contribute to the INSEAD experience," while Harvard mentions "demonstrated potential for leadership," "orientation to purposeful action," and "diversity" as among the leading factors for successful applicants in their promotional materials. It is up to the aspiring MBA graduate to decipher such key notions as leadership, teamwork and diversity and then successfully leverage them as part of the overall application strategy.


Leadership is probably the easiest of the three terms to apprehend. After all, it makes sense that the leading business schools would expect leadership characteristics in the individuals who will be the future presidents, CEOs, and hot-shot entrepreneurs of the next decade. More problematic, however, is offering examples of leadership that will attract the attention of the respective admissions committees and separate one's candidacy from that of other Russian applicants.

Obviously, the task becomes easier of one is already the managing director of a department of the head of a division within a respected company. However, keep in mind that the admissions committee is not as concerned about job title (or salary) and number of subordinates, as the underlying ambitions and skill sets of the applicant. In the minds of the admissions committee, merely possessing a certain role within a corporation is not a signifier of real leadership ability - the B-schools would like to see sustained career progression, continual personal growth, and an overarching vision. From the perspective of more junior corporate professionals without significant managerial experience, it is more important to focus on additional responsibilities assumed, evidence that senior management considers one a future member of management ranks, and key roles played in milestone deals or projects. Keep in mind that the typical 26-year-old American applicant to Wharton has most likely not managed a corporation - or even a department. Instead, this applicant has demonstrated the ability to play an ever-increasing role within a firm, such as by participating in strategic planning sessions or making presentations to upper management.

The most overlooked means to evince the leadership trait, though, is through non-professional activities. Admissions committees are particularly favorably disposed to captains of athletic teams, military officers, organizers of political campaigns, and grass-roots coordinators of charitable causes. In fact, leadership in these arenas is viewed as more difficult (and thus, more worthy of consideration) than in the corporate sphere - the motivation to play a leadership role is more "pure" in the sense that it is ostensibly not motivated by greed and personal advancement; additionally the elements of charisma must be present to persuade others to follow when the twin clubs of title & rank can not be brandished over subordinates.


It is the rare business school which does not expatiate at great length on the virtues of teamwork. Merely stating that "I am a team player" in the application package, though, wins no kudos from the admissions committee. Being a team player is not something that can be stated outright - it is something much more subtle. Only a third-party (i.e. a recommendor) can really evaluate one's potential as a team player. After reading through the application essays, the overall impression of the admissions committee should be that of someone who would fit in well within any team composition.

Within the application package, all distinctions or achievements should be stated within the broader context of a team. For instance, a corporate finance professional sounds inordinately self-focused if only size and numbers of deals or glamorous client names are mentions. A more effective strategy would be to offer an insight how the corporate finance team interacts with the research department to add value to the sales & trading desk. In doing so, one immediately shows an intuitive sense of how various departments interact together within the overall umbrella of the corporation while also evidencing a more sophisticated view of one's work. In the era of the flat (not vertical) corporation and matrix reporting, it is important to show awareness of this corporate reality.

Keep in mind that the elite business schools expect their graduates to spend up to 8 hours per day outside of the classroom in close cooperation with their classmates. In an MBA program, more learning occurs out of the classroom than in the classroom. A B-school such as INSEAD expects that a Russian member of the entering class would be able to explain, say, a marketing case to a finance professional or elucidate the finer points of Russian business to a Brazilian or Japanese student. Grades on case studies and presentations are often assigned only on the basis of the group - not on individual contribution, meaning that the slacker can pick up the same marks as the most gung ho "corporate tool." As well, some professors require the members of a group to give self-assessment or group assessments of other case members. In such an environment, the arrogant professional who does not recognize the value of teamwork will neither thrive nor add value to an MBA program.


An understanding of what the business schools consider diversity can be found in two places: in the numerical breakdown of the class (usually via aesthetically-pleasing pie charts) and in the photogenic profiles of existing students. Business schools employ a marketing effort just as formidable as that of any multinational, often outsourcing design and photography to PR professionals. The students profiled within any brochure will be the paradigm models form prospective students. Consider the Yale School of Management, where the profiled students represent a wide spectrum of careers and backgrounds: the McKinsey consultant with a background in museum management; a former CNN reporter in Hong Kong who now works for Goldman Sachs; and the army officer who ran the Boston Marathon before landing an offer on Wall Street. In the Harvard Business School admissions brochure, students can be found rowing on the Charles River and participating in charity fund-raisers as well as preparing rigorous case studies. It is the same story at the other leading B-school, so it is key to envision one's own application in terms of these mini-profiles.

The overriding lesson should be that a diverse student body does not just encompass nationality, gender, and race. That is a broad surface representation of diversity which may make easy reading in the form of charts and graphical breakdowns, but which does not encapsulate what makes a truly "diverse" applicant. True, business schools do seek a balanced mix of applicants from Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the USA, so in that sense, being from Russia does contribute to class diversity. However, diversity implies the young corporate professional who plays in the city orchestra at night or the former ballet dancer who intends to use the MBA to manage a theater dance troupe. Keep in mind that a top B-school can stuff itself to the gills with narrow-minded Wall Street types who read stock charts for thrills.

Thus, it is important to understand that notions such as leadership, teamwork, and diversity are not merely bandied about by the admissions committee to make the entire application process more abstruse. Instead, these key words from the admissions lexicon are part and parcel of what the elite business schools demand from their prospective applicants, current students, and even alumni. Understanding the "value-laden" meaning of theses words and then applying this knowledge to the application package will guarantee a more sympathetic ear by the admissions directors of the elite Western B-schools.

Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale School of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles ABLE. He represents Pericles in America and does MBA Advising through the internet. For more in formation please write to or call us at 292-6463/5188

© ANO Pericles, Moscow, 2000. ANO Pericles, American Business & Legal Education Project, 1st Miusskaya str 22/3 office 310 tel. (495) 649-22-73, You may freely print or photocopy this article for any non-commercial purposes provided you do not delete the name of the author and the name and contact information of Pericles American Business & Legal Education Project. If you use this article for your own web site, please link to our site rather than stealing it and reposting it on your own. For any other uses of this article, please contact us for permission. Your comments on this article are welcome.