Advice for European Applicants to the Top U.S. MBA Programs

Since moving to Switzerland for what my family and I are calling an “extended business trip”, I’ve had the opportunity to interview MBA applicants from several countries as an alumni interviewer for Kellogg. Through this experience, as well as consulting to clients from Europe over the years, I’ve compiled a list of advice and considerations that may be helpful for European applicants who are looking at the U.S. schools.

Honestly, the biggest mistake that I see European candidates (and many candidates in general) make is not knowing enough detail about the MBA programs, the types of jobs that are realistic coming out of them, and the locations as well as culture of the schools and why that matters. What I mean is that often when I interview European candidates, their reasons for wanting to go to the school are 99% focused on the classes and professors (that they read about on the website), when in fact a very large portion of the value from a top MBA program comes from the things you do outside of the classroom and with your peers (mini consulting projects for local companies, case competitions, travel projects, travel just for fun, internships, networking events, club events and interactions with business leaders, club leadership, events in the city where you live, etc). The classes and professors are important but the schools truly consider themselves “programs”, not just a series of classes that lead to a degree. And I very much agree as I would say that well over 50% of the value that I got out of my MBA had to do with the people I worked with on projects, case competitions, conferences and other experiences outside of the classroom. For me to say that, it means that the culture of Kellogg (my alma mater) was very much a good fit for me. So, the schools want to see that the same will be true for you. And of course the cultures vary significantly between schools (some more than others). If you don’t agree, then I urge you to do more research. For example, Wharton has a very different culture than Stanford. Part of that is driven by the locations of those schools, so knowing something about northeast culture vs. west coast culture could help.

I know tht you can’t just pop over to the U.S. whenever you want and that it’s unfair for you to be expected to explain the key ingredient for Texas BBQ or why Chicago being the “Second City” does NOT mean it’s second to New York (you’re going abroad for school tolearna new location afterall!) But, consider that U.S. applicants do a TON of research on these school-specific / location-specific points, and they likely don’t live that far away. The advantage U.S. applicants have in this realm is of course location but also the mere fact that they often know many alums, whereas the typical U.S.-type MBA is still not quite as common in many European companies and industries (eg. we know it’s not as easy for you to get the level of detail that we expect to hear).
So, what does this mean? You have a real opportunity to differentiate yourself from other European applicants by finding alums to talk to, visiting if you can, talking to current students (many schools facilitate this), and truly getting a sense for the look and feel of the program well beyond what’s stated on the internet. You know it’s vitally important to the adcom, but challenging from afar, so consider this an area where you can set yourself apart!
Alright, so that’s the big piece of advice. There are a few smaller items too, so I’ve just laid it all out below in a summary that you can start to think about as you start pulling your applications together.
Here’s your To Do List:
  • Get Detailed: Be able to talk about specific events that a club or organization did that aligns with your interests and why it would be interesting to you as well as what you’d contribute. Typically, organizations have an open website somewhere that you can check out, but you’ll have to search for it. Also, find out about the most popular events or projects at the school that demonstrate your knowledge of the culture and focus of the students. At Kellogg this would be things like KWEST, GIM, student-led conferences and competitions, and of course ski trip. Don’t know those acronyms and planning to apply to Kellogg? Please learn them asap.
  • Know the Location. Be able to talk about the city you’ll be living in and what you’re looking forward to learning more about as well as what you look forward to sharing (because they are excited for what you bring to the table too!)
  • Reformat your Resume. The multiple pages of short bullets style is not typical in the U.S., and although everyone understands that it’s the norm in Europe, consider that your reader is skimming and has to read many, many of these per day. Put it in the format they’re used to in order to ensure that you’re maximizing your chances of being heard.
  • Explain Your Education. Explain how your undergrad and work experience “worked”. For example, here in CH often people work while in school, and university for certain undergraduate programs is only 3 years, etc. This is different than many typical U.S. programs, and although the adcom is well-versed in international programs, I like to err on the side of caution and not assume that they know your country or program (again, they are reading many, many application per day in peak times so make it easier on them and just give them the info). You’ll likely have to explain / translate your GPA anyway, so please also take the time to describe your program, how competitive it was, how you ranked (if available), maybe the ranking of the program you participated in, etc. Don’t leave anything up to assumptions!
  • Be Specific About Your Post-MBA Goals. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I interview European candidates, they often aren’t as specific about what they want to do with the MBA and why the MBA is essential to their career goals. I’m assuming this comes from the fact that the typical US-type MBA is still not as popular here in Europe as it is in the U.S. and some other regions. The schools have limited available spots, so they are looking for people who will truly maximize the value of the MBA; and the best way you can demonstrate that you will do this is by describing a clear plan and rationale.
  • Jump on the American Bandwagon of Being Busy all the Time! (Kidding…sort of). But if you really want to differentiate yourself from other European candidates, having a good amount of extracurriculars helps. I know the U.S. has a different system around this, particularly in college, and the adcom knows that it’s unique to the U.S. as well. But if you can show extracurriculars and/or hobbies where you are very passionate, quality often trumps quantity. I say this because I often don’t see much in this area for European candidates initially, yet when I ask the question, I find out that they do a lot outside of work but chose to de-emphasize that aspect on their applications. Note that extracurriculars don’t have to be only volunteering work. They are likely things you already do but maybe don’t consider extracurriculars. Examples could be a local finance / investment club that you work with, describing a start-up you’re helping with, describing what you do socially (eg. sports, ski team, book club, travel if consistent, etc). The goal is simply to show other aspects of your personality to the adcom, which is hard to do outside of showing what else you “do”. You want them to see that you are a dynamic person with varied interests who will be a great contributor to the “culture” that hopefully I’ve convinced you to become well -versed in for your target schools!
More questions? Always feel free to reach out!

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