Business school admissions interviews can be especially intimidating for non-native English speakers. Candidates from abroad face at least two hurdles that U.S. students often don't: an unfamiliar language and cultural differences.
"In some cultures, it's just close to impossible to speak up and talk about your accomplishments. It's considered very, very rude to do that. Yet in a U.S.-style interview, it's expected that you sell yourself," says Marci Armstrong, associate dean for graduate programs at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.
"There are other cultures that come across to a U.S. interviewer as being very, very arrogant. They just won't stop talking about themselves."
Candidates can gauge how much or how little to talk by understanding the basic format of these interviews. They usually last about 30 minutes and allow prospective students to discuss why they are interested in a particular school, career plans and other related topics. Someone from the admissions staff or an alumnus living in the candidate's country may conduct it.
Having this conversation in a foreign language or as a part of another culture can be difficult, but it's an obstacle that many overcome. Here are five recommendations from experts on how to successfully sell yourself as an international candidate for a U.S. MBA program.
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1. Practice listening: The first step in alleviating concerns about speaking in English is to, well, start speaking in English, experts say. But it's important to spend just as much time listening as you do talking.
"You can tape-record yourself, and listen to yourself and how it sounds to another person," says Katherine Alford, assistant director of admissions at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.
2. Get familiar with Skype: In-person interviews are best, but they can sometimes be expensive or impractical for international students, admissions officers say. Speaking with candidates through Skype, an Internet phone service that allows users to see each other, is the second best option for this often-required part of the MBA admissions process.
Candidates should make sure they test out Skype before the interview, Alford says.
"If you haven't used it before, it can throw you off," she says. "You don't want concerns about technology to get in the way of your interview."
[Get more tips for international applicants to MBA programs.]
Some international students will peek at note cards that have talking points during a Skype session. This is a bad choice, says Alford. Reading from a note card can make students appear rehearsed and unnatural.
"The interview is more of a conversation," says Alford. "You want to see someone's ability to present themselves in the moment."
3. Focus on delivery: Some candidates become so worried about their English that they think too much about using the right words to express themselves. Too little thought is given to how they are speaking.
"They become very monotone and give equal weight to every part of the sentence and every sentence," says Alex Leventhal, a Harvard Business School graduate and founder of Prep MBA Inc. "Their delivery becomes kind of flat."
Candidates should experiment with different levels of energy, eye contact and changing the length of their sentences, he says.
"You're communicating something about your character if there's not a certain amount of energy and confidence," says Leventhal.
[Consider MBA programs with the most international students.]
4. Show you're a team player: Group admissions interviews are rare in business school. If candidates are applying to a school that offers this kind of interview, it's important to show they can be assertive, Leventhal says.
In many cultures outside of the U.S., aggressive behavior may not be encouraged, he says. But in a group interview candidates shouldn't hesitate to speak up if they have something to say. Though talking too much is not advised.
"Don't be afraid to be assertive with your ideas but not at the detriment of other people's," he cautions.
Learning how to communicate with potential classmates can also have long-lasting benefits. MBA programs are collaborative and often involve group projects, Leventhal says.
5. Ask thoughtful questions: When the interview is coming to a close, it's common for the interviewer to ask if the candidate has any questions. Prospective international students sometimes make the mistake of asking how much scholarship money they would qualify for. This question can seem presumptuous to admissions officers.
"We haven't even decided if you're going to be admitted yet," says Armstrong from the Cox School of Business.
"How did I do?" is also a bad question. The interview is only one part of the admissions process and admissions officers don't want to discuss how a candidate did at this point, she says.
Candidates should instead focus questions on specific aspects of the business school. Asking two or three questions that clarify something about the MBA program, for example, would be fitting, Armstrong says.
"It shows us that you've done some preparation," she says.
Prospective students have few reasons not to prepare for such an important step in the admissions cycle. Most interviews are by invitation only after candidates have submitted an application. Those that receive an invite are encouraged not to squander the opportunity.
It's an indication that you've made it through the first hurdle, Armstrong says. "This is your opportunity to really indicate to us why we should admit you to this program."
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