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Three Challenges Asian Applicants Must Overcome When Applying to Business School

Three Challenges Asian Applicants Must Overcome When Applying to Business School

The article Three Challenges Asian Applicants Must Overcome When Applying to Business School was originally posted on Accepted.

One of my favorite times of the year when working at LBS was the recruitment and interview season. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend time traveling across Asia meeting prospective candidates and interviewing applicants. Aside from thoroughly enjoying my time exploring India, China, and Hong Kong over the years, I found these visits educational; I was able to gain a deeper insight into the motivations driving candidates across these countries, as well as the challenges they faced in applying to business school. 

There’s no denying that those applicants hailing from overrepresented nations face stiff competition. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to throw in the towel and put off or cancel your b-school dream. What it does mean is that, as an applicant, you need to take time to consider possible pitfalls, along with the positives that can help you stand out.

Challenge #1: Bigger pipeline of Indian and Chinese applicants

The bad news

One of the challenges that Chinese and Indian applicants face when applying to business school is that the overall number of applicants from these countries is much larger relative to many other applicant pools and other international regions, particularly for top U.S. business schools. As a result, candidates from these countries compete against a larger pool, and acceptance rates tend to be lower for these demographics.


The good news

Whether an MBA or a MiM, business schools value diversity. Diversity of opinion and experience (not just professional, but life experience, too) adds value to the depth of classroom discussions. It also requires students to consider perspectives different from their own and to understand how to work with those from different cultural and professional backgrounds. The business world isn’t homogenous, and neither is the b-school environment that prepares students for work in the global world. 

Challenge #2: Higher GMAT scores

According to GMAC’s Geographic Trend Report (2018), GMAT scores of 700+ amongst citizens of East and Southeast Asian countries had a growth rate of 6.4% over a five-year period. And while mean scores out of China, India, South Korea, and Japan aren’t the highest (in 2019 that prize went to New Zealand and Australia), these scores (on average) tend to be higher than for their counterparts from other countries, such as America. What does that mean for you as an applicant? In order to stand out among your “peer applicants,” your GMAT (or GRE) score has to be on par or higher than your competition.

Challenge #3: Lack of international experience

Do top MBA programs like applicants with experience of collaborating with others from different cultures? Yes. Do adcoms like applicants who have put themselves in situations outside of their comfort zone (to use an overused phrase)? Yes. Do they require applicants to have done so in countries outside of their own? No. While applicants need not have studied abroad or worked in a foreign country, they must show a global mindset and awareness of the world around them. As an applicant, think about the diversity you’ve encountered in your home country and how this has developed your worldview and values, and understanding of how to work with others with different backgrounds. 


Here are a few considerations:

  • Asian cultures tend to have a greater sense of modesty than other cultures, such as Americans. By incorporating achievements that are meaningful and show business impact, you (as the applicant) can take the first step in distinguishing yourself from the crowd. The most important advice in this context is to write bullet points that are as specific as possible. Think about answering questions such as: What did you do and how did your actions directly improve your business, department, team, or project?

  • Cultural differences often impact the essay part of the application, as well. Indian applicants, for example, tend to be more verbose in their writing style than Americans. These patterns can frustrate the admissions reader who may be assigned geographically and is stuck reading essay after essay with the same repetition and verbosity. You (as the applicant) can turn this pattern to your advantage by focusing on concision and precision in your essays. Write with a clear theme and structure. Don’t go off on a tangent that doesn’t support the overall theme of your essay. Avoid repetition and use of multiple synonyms.

  • At the interview stage: Americans, for example, tend to maintain eye contact in conversation. Furthermore, eye contact in combination with a firm handshake, confident (but not arrogant) presentation, and the right body language often signal character and trustworthiness in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast, in some Asian cultures, eye contact is considered less appropriate and greetings often include a bow as a gesture of respect. Be aware of your interview style and how that might affect rapport with your interviewer and even the outcome of interviews, whether in-person or virtual.


What do these suggestions mean for you?

  • Your application needs to stand out among a larger number of competitors, but specifically the competitors from your country or region, your direct peer group.
  • You can’t just rely on a high GMAT or GRE score to gain admission to a top MBA program. There needs to be more to your story.
  • Your essays need to be authentic and tell a convincing story. You’re more than just your GMAT/GRE, education and employment stats; you’re a person, and the admissions committee wants to know if you’re the right person for them. It’s your job to convince them that you are. Tell your story and do it well!
  • Apply early, if you can.
  • If you snag an interview, it is crucial to ace it. There are many cultural traps that can trip up highly qualified Asian candidates. Practice, practice, practice. Even better, hire someone who knows what they are doing to practice with you.

A word about MBA admissions consultants: If you opt to work with a consultant, do your due diligence and hire a consultant who understands what admissions offices are looking for in the countries you’re applying to and how to overcome these (and other) challenges. While it might be more comfortable and possibly cheaper for you to hire a local consultant, the easiest option isn’t often the best one. And a “cheap” one, can be very expensive in the long run.


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