Confessions of an International Applicant

Vantage Point recently had the chance to catch up with Katrin, a recent Columbia Business School grad and busy management consultant based in New York City. We asked her a few questions about her experience applying to business school as an international applicant and all the unique challenges that brings. Read below for her candid and insightful answers that will help shed some light on the often daunting MBA application process for international candidates.

What city/country are you from?
I am from Germany, and lived in Cologne before business school.

What was your profession and number of years of work experience when you applied to business school?
I worked in various Talent Management functions (e.g. Performance Management, Succession Planning, Change Management) for about 6 years. So I had a rather non-traditional background and was above the average work experience for most programs.

How did you decide which schools were right for you?
There are plenty of virtual resources available to start your research, e.g. schools websites, rankings, sites like Poets and Quants with a ton of information on MBA programs. I also went to several MBA conferences and attended info sessions for U.S. schools in Europe. Once I narrowed it down to a few schools, I visited these schools in person to get a better feeling for the campus, culture to see if they were a good fit for me. And of course, talking to a lot of alumni of the different schools was also a very important step in my research.

What challenges or hurdles do you think you faced as an international candidate applying to U.S. business schools?
A big challenge was definitely taking the GMAT as a non-native English speaker and someone who had not studied algebra in almost 10 years. Another challenge was learning how to tell a compelling story in my essays about why I wanted to get an MBA as well as why I would be a great candidate for a particular program. Fortunately, my admissions consultant who coached me through developing and refining that story so that by the time I submitted my applications, I was very buttoned-up.

What strategy(ies) did you utilize in your applications to overcome those challenges?
It is important to do your research and really understand what each program is looking for (and which schools are not a good fit for you). I think this is particularly important for international applicants who will be dealing with two layers of adjustment when they arrive on campus – American culture and that school’s unique culture and composition. I focused my efforts on the schools that were looking for diverse, global candidates with more work experience – and valued my unique experiences. I was lucky enough to be accepted by three top schools (that looked for similar qualifications in applicants), and ultimately decided that Columbia was the best fit for me.

Were there any specific resources that you leveraged while applying that were exceptionally helpful?
As I mentioned, I worked with an admissions consultant who helped me to craft my unique personal story, be more concise, and highlight accomplishments (in 250 words or less). Once I was actively applying, I generally got away from the big MBA forums because I found them overwhelming. However, I know a lot of people who found them to be really helpful and informative. I think that’s up to personal preference.

Once enrolled, how did being an international student impact your experience on campus?
During my few months in school, most of my closest friends were also international (literally from all other the world). We bonded over the same struggles in acclimating to living in a foreign country, away from family and friends… reading tons of material in English, case discussions in class, trying to make sense out of the madness of orientation etc. In my second year I served as a peer adviser so that I could share my experiences with other international students during orientation and as a mentor during their first year. While this group of international friends was an incredible support network, I also wanted to get to know my American classmates as part of my global MBA experience. Thankfully, there were plenty of opportunities at school to meet people – within my cluster, student clubs and social activities I was able to form lifelong friendships.

Similarly, how did being an international student impact internship & full-time recruiting for you?
Recruiting can be quite overwhelming, especially since you are constantly competing with your eloquent, native English speaking classmates. Like many of my international friends, I had to become comfortable talking about myself and my accomplishments in front of other people to navigate through networking events and interviews. It is one thing to write about it in an essay, but actually saying it out loud takes some courage and practice.

Do you have any advice for international applicants that are considering business school in the U.S.?
I can’t say this enough, but talk to international students and alumni about their experiences, especially if you have never lived abroad before. Most admissions offices will happily provide you with current students or alumni from your home country if you don’t know anyone in your current network. Everyone’s story is different, but there are similar challenges, e.g. finding an apartment, opening a bank account, recruiting, preparing for class discussions. Lastly, get help with your application! It’s a totally different process than what I was used to in Germany – and I can only imagine that’s the case for all international candidates.

The MBA application process can seem intimidating no matter who you are and where you’re from. Starting early, talking to as many people as you can, and asking for help from those who have successfully navigated the process before you are just a few steps you can take to help you approach your applications with more ease and confidence.

Do you have more questions about your specific situation or profile? Contact the team at Vantage Point MBA Admissions Consulting ( today to schedule a free consultation and learn more about how we can help guide you through the MBA application process.

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