Carrie Zhang never thought she could hack it in an American business school given her limited fluency in English. But when her husband's schooling took them from China to the United States, she decided to brush up on her speech at the local community college in San Diego and give the application process a shot.
Carrie, now an M.B.A. student at the University of California—San Diego, is one of nearly 158,000 Chinese students studying in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education's "Open Doors 2011" report. China, the report states, sends more students to the United States than any other country, with 27.5 percent studying business, the most popular field of study.
Moving to a new country for school can be daunting, as Carrie attests to, but there a few things Chinese students can do to help give themselves a leg up during the M.B.A. application process.
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Here are three tips from Chinese students who have been through this before and an American b-school official who works with prospective students every day.
1. Brush up on conversational English, along with reading and writing: For many Chinese students looking to study in the United States, the language barrier is often one of the more overwhelming challenges when applying.
While mastering the language will get you far, it's not necessary to have a perfect handle of English right from the get-go, says Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor's Ross School of Business.
"Don't worry about writing essays that are flawless and eloquent," Koh says. "If they are flawless and eloquent, that often sends a red flag."
Yichi Zhang, an undergraduate business student at the University of Richmond hoping to obtain his M.B.A. in the United States, says the key to improving your speech is to break out of your comfort zone and practice speaking English at every opportunity.
"I love to joke with people," Yichi says, "that I learned English because I never shut up."
Business classes in China, while they do contain some discussion, are much more lecture-based than U.S. business classes, says David Cheung, who attended Columbia University for a semester. Class participation, he says, is both a big part of the experience and, sometimes, a part of your grade in American business programs—so you can't be afraid to speak up.
Oftentimes, Yichi says, Chinese students are afraid to make mistakes because that is part of the culture. But when learning to speak another language, making mistakes and learning from them, he adds, is a critical part of the process.
2. Focus on developing interpersonal and leadership skills: Cheung, now a senior manager at an American insurance company based in Hong Kong, says knowing how to lead is an invaluable skill in business school. He received his M.B.A. from Hong Kong University, but spent a semester at Columbia where his classmates elected him class representative because of his superior English and prior leadership roles.
"A lot of Chinese students have pretty high GMAT scores," Cheung says. "But a lot are lacking things they can talk about in interviews, like leadership experiences."
High test scores are something of a given with Chinese students, Cheung says, so that alone won't get a student into a good U.S. business school. But if a student lists other activities he or she participates in on a résumé, or mentions them in the interview, it will help indicate to admissions officers that the student is a well-rounded individual.
Koh, Michigan's business school admissions director, agrees that American business schools are looking for students who are more than just good test takers. "They want students who will engage and work well with others," she notes.
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3. Be authentic: Business schools do want to see that applicants are dynamic and participate in activities outside of school, but only if they are ones the student genuinely takes an interest in, Koh says.