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3 Tips for International Applicants to U.S. M.B.A. Programs

With global interest in U.S. business schools up, make sure you have your bases covered.

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While a report released Sept. 13 shows falling interest in attending graduate business school, more international students are pursuing M.B.A.s in the United States this year than last. 

For the 2011-2012 school year, about two thirds of U.S. graduate business programs reported receiving fewer full-time M.B.A. applicants to their two year programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council's 2011 Application Trends Survey. But about 45 percent of those applicants were international students, up from 39 percent last year.

[Read more about findings in the GMAC 2011 report.] 

In April, a separate study by the Council of Graduate Schools found that 4 percent more international applicants applied to business school in 2011 than in 2010. 

[See which MBA programs received the most applications.] 

Applying to business school, a detailed process that incorporates proven testing skills and a solid track record, is tough enough for most American students. The complicated process can seem even more exacerbated for international applicants who are trying to complete the task from overseas. 

[Understand terms with the U.S. News Higher Education Glossary.] 

"The most common question is simply, 'What do I have to do?'" says Huijia Phua, a Yale University graduate student from Singapore who cofounded UNIcq, an international peer resource network for prospective Ivy League applicants. "For graduate students coming from other countries, they might not have a guidance counselor. They're literally doing this on their own." 

The application process will vary by school, so it's always best to check with the admissions office of the school you're interested in before you apply. Still, there are a few universal notes international students who hope to study business in the United States should keep in mind: 

1. Prioritize your testing weaknesses. For Jeff Liu, the GMAT and TOEFL exams posed challenges he had never faced in China, where he was educated. 

"We think in a different system," Liu explains. "I practiced a lot to try to get used to the American way to take a test." 

Make sure to allocate enough study time to master the GMAT. (This study timeline might help.) Put yourself in time sensitive situations, recommends Wilson Chan, cofounder of UNIcq, and take each practice test as seriously as you would the real exam. 

If you're really struggling, consider a new alternative: the GRE, the U.S. screening exam used for most other graduate degree programs. 

More than half of all business schools now accept GRE scores as an alternative, according to a recent study by Kaplan Test Prep. It's a shorter exam that more heavily tests vocabulary than logic—though this could pose a different challenge to non-native English speakers. 

[Read more about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT.] 

Like the GMAT, the GRE may require a lot of practice. 

"Prepare way in advance, and do it every day consistently," recommends UNIcq's Phua, who, after much practice, scored a 790 out of 800 on her verbal GREs. "You can't just say, 'I'm going to take the GRE tomorrow.'" 

Keep in mind that, depending on English proficiency, applicants may also be required to take the TOEFL examination. 

2. Seek out peer resources. Though the increasing number of graduate students may seem daunting, international M.B.A. applicants can take comfort in the fact that most likely there have been foreign students who have already forged paths at the prospective school and who may be able to offer support. Connecting with them, however, can be challenging. 

"One key issue that many students face is finding a credible person, preferably someone who's international and has been through the same process that can share his or her experiences," says Unicq's Phua. "It's difficult to find, because you go on forums; you try to stalk people on Facebook; and it's a tough process." 

Such was the impetus for UNIcq, which Phua founded with partner Chan in June. The organization aims to provide support to prospective international students who hope to attain any level of education in the United States Currently, the network provides guidance for applicants to Cornell University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California—Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylania, though it hopes to expand its base of mentors.