Global Experience: What Schools Want

May 19, 2016 | by Matt Symonds

The following is adapted from our original article, Global Experience: What Schools Want in Poets and Quants.  

More and more MBA programs are emphasizing the value of international experience in applicant profiles. Extensive international experience can help their application stand out to any business school, from M7 to the top programs in Europe and Asia. However, for a growing number of schools, such experience is virtually a requirement. INSEAD, London Business School, IMD, Oxford, Cambridge, and HEC Paris all espouse the virtues of a “global mindset” and “international exposure.”

As Director of Admissions at INSEAD for seven years, I saw a great number of candidates who undersold their international experience. They failed to adequately convey the extent of their international exposure, or to describe how their experience would be an asset to the MBA community. At Fortuna Admissions, we can help you capture and leverage this experience.

So what exactly are schools looking for, and how do you know if you make the cut? What counts as international experience?

International experience relevant to your application could include:

  • Periods spent studying or working abroad – from a few weeks, to years
  • Growing up in another country or other countries
  • Short-stay business trips abroad for meetings or training
  • Working for a multinational where you are exposed to international business
  • Working with clients in different countries or with cross-cultural teams
  • Vacation trips, if there is some element of challenge, learning or community engagement

Why does international experience matter?

Demonstrating “fit” Schools want to make sure you will fit into the school culture. European/international schools attract a heavy international student body, as do schools such as Columbia in New York, and international experience will help you be sensitive to diverse cultures.  Your international experience will also serve you well on the recruitment front.  To be successful in high-level business environments, you need to be able to communicate effectively with people from different countries and cultures.

Building a broader perspective – International experience helps you diversify your skill-set and broaden your perspective.  You’ll have a deeper understanding of how business trends and behaviors vary in different markets. MBA classrooms emphasize the exchange of ideas and the importance of building tight-knit learning communities.

Developing transferable skills – In addition to a broadened perspective, spending time outside your home country will help you build useful and transferable skills and traits: maturity, independence, initiative, communication skills, adaptability, and the ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds. These skills will help strengthen your connections in the business world, and will help you operate effectively across different organizations.

How do schools evaluate international experience?

Schools will look at your international experience stats, including the total length of time spent outside your home country, and the range and diversity of countries you’ve spent time in.  For example, as a US citizen, a year spent studying in China will carry much more weight than a year in Canada.

More importantly, schools are curious about what you gained from your experiences. What wisdom can you impart about your time abroad?  How will your experience be an asset in the classroom? Schools are interested in candidates who have meaningful insights to share.

What if I haven’t spent much time abroad?

While it’s difficult to get accepted into top international schools such as INSEAD and LBS without significant international exposure, schools recognize that not everyone is given the same opportunities for travel; they tend to be particularly forgiving of candidates from a modest background or an emerging economy.

If your international experience is lacking, there are other ways to get your application noticed.

Highlight international teamwork – Emphasize the diversity within your office and organization. If you work on an international team, with international colleagues or you work virtually with colleagues or clients abroad, describe how these experiences helped shift and enhance your perspective.

Highlight depth of experience – If you’ve spent even minimal time abroad, convey the depth of this experience. Sometimes, even short experiences can significantly deepen your knowledge about and insight into another culture. Show that you have the qualities that will make you competitive in international markets: adaptability, flexibility, curiosity and the ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds.

Highlight cumulative experience –Try to quantify your total time spent abroad, and don’t underestimate the value of the international exposure you may have accumulated over the years.

Show international ambition – Remember to show that you are excited and motivated to further your understanding of international business. When expressing your career goals, incorporate an international element. Lastly, detail how being a part of a very international alumni network will be relevant to you.

While having an international perspective may be valuable for candidates applying to international schools, it can also be a great asset for candidates applying to less international MBA programs. (See also How to Stand Out in the Application Pile). Top schools such as HBS and GSB emphasize the value of diversity and bringing a unique and innovative perspective to the classroom.

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