Get that global edge

Some pointers on what to look out for while applying to top international business institutes.

Updated - October 18, 2016 12:46 pm IST

Published - September 11, 2016 05:00 pm IST

International experience matters more than mere exposure. Photo: AP

International experience matters more than mere exposure. Photo: AP

“The world is flat,” said famed economist Thomas Friedman in his seminal book on global economics, over a decade back. Since then, the world has become flatter, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the hundreds of Indian students who aspire for the best global education today. MBA is one such programme that attracts some of the best talent from India. Yet, top MBA programmes are extremely selective. Only 13 per cent of students applying to the MBA programme at Harvard Business School are selected, while the figure for Stanford is even lower — six per cent. What are the key factors that these institutions look for while selecting students?

Here are a few to lookout for.

Leadership To most people, ‘leadership’ is an abstract term. Some look at it merely by way of designation, while others, through the size of teams one leads. In reality, leadership, at least the way that top B-schools look at it, goes well beyond this. It includes the ability to take up difficult challenges, work collaboratively to accomplish tough shared goals, and provide new ideas and solutions (thought leadership). Importantly, leadership need not be a quality limited to top executives in the C-suite — an operations engineer leading a team of workers on a government infrastructure project in a rural area can be a great leader too. It is the situation and the impact that matters, more than the designation. Further, B-schools also evaluate leadership potential — how likely are you to be a leader in the future, based on past experiences?

Strong scores Most Indian professionals are aware that academic history and test scores play a role in top B-school admissions, but they are unaware of exactly how good their performance needs to be. At MIT Sloan, the average college GPA (on a 4-point scale) of incoming MBA students is 3.58, while it is 3.60 at Wharton and at Kellogg, and a whopping 3.74 at Stanford. Students with poor grades are bound to be at a disadvantage. Planning for a top global MBA should therefore start when you are still in college. Just as academic scores are important, so too are test scores. A 700 on the GMAT used to be considered a great score just a decade back. Today, it is below par for top schools.

Communication skills This one comes as a surprise to many applicants. After all, they reason, they have been working in a professional environment for a few years, and surely, their communication skills would pass muster in any situation. Not quite, as the standards expected are high, and often, Indian applicants who are strong on paper, are unable to translate the same ability to success in interviews. In fact, top B-school admissions officers state that inadequate communication skills are one of the biggest limitations of Indian candidates. This emphasis on communication skills can be seen in some admissions parameters as well. While most B-schools will excuse applicants from taking the TOEFL, the TOEFL requirements are quite high for those that do need to take it — 109 (~90th percentile) for Harvard, and 105 (~83rd percentile) for INSEAD. They are lower for some other top schools, but the point still remains — if your communication skills are weak, you are going to be at a significant disadvantage.

Experience Today, international exposure is passé. Almost everyone works with global colleagues and in global teams. It is international experience — spending significant time working in a foreign county — that counts. Some top schools, such as INSEAD and IMD, will state international experience as an important criterion for applicants explicitly, while others will state it more subtly, in the form of ‘global experience’. International experience can help when applying to top schools, as they value candidates who can excel in diverse and global teams, on campus, and after. While a handful of candidates can make it on stellar profiles without it, those with it have a definite edge. If you are contemplating taking up that foreign assignment or onsite project before you apply for an MBA, do not hesitate. To add a further cherry on top, you could also try and visit the schools you are applying to. Learning a foreign language and travelling abroad for personal reasons are other things you could do. After all, in an ever flattening world, creating your own competitive advantage really matters.

The writer is a partner and a consultant at GyanOne Universal.

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