Jump 3 Common Hurdles for International MBA Applicants

International MBA applicants without strong extracurriculars can describe life experiences off campus.

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Highlighting personal experiences such as travel and fundraising will help MBA programs better evaluate your international student application.

Nearly a third of students in some of the top MBA programs are international, which offers great professional and cultural diversity and enriches the classroom experience.

Applying from abroad involves certain expected obstacles, such as the logistics of campus visits, securing visas and financial aid and demonstrating language proficiency, but students share other challenges as well.

Here are three specific client cases – and their challenges – I've encountered while working with international MBA applicants that may help you with your applications.

[See the MBA programs with the most international students.]

1. Explaining your international GPA: Our client Naveen wanted to work in technology management and felt that the MBA program at Stanford Graduate School of Business would be a great fit for him. He had attended the College of Engineering at University of Delhi, where he received marks of distinction in almost every class. However, due to the difficulty level of the courses at his college in particular, those marks usually resulted in percentage scores in the 70s.

Naveen was shocked when he translated his overall grade percentage as 73 – the equivalent of a C average in the U.S. He was convinced his academic record would stand out negatively when compared to applicants from American schools grading on a 4.0 GPA scale.

Looking at grade conversion calculators available online, we found that for some transcripts, a 75 percent would be the equivalent of an American A-plus, and at other, more difficult programs, a percentage as low as 60 would translate to an A grade.

We felt that the Stanford admissions committee would likely be familiar with the rigorous engineering program at University of Delhi and would know that marks in the 50-60 range would be the equivalent of a 3.5 GPA in the U.S.

Naveen insisted on describing his degree as "First Class with Distinction," and we agreed, so long as he used his actual scores without any conversion. This straightforward strategy worked, and Naveen ultimately landed a seat at Stanford.

[Follow these tips to raise a low GMAT score.]

2. Distinguishing yourself from other applicants: Another client, Abhi, desperately wanted to attend a top MBA program and had his sights set on University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. After earning his undergraduate degree in India, he had come to the U.S. to earn a master's degree in engineering and spent three years in a technical position within a financial services company.

Unfortunately, Abhi's academic and professional profile was nearly identical to a thousand other applicants. His handful of extracurricular activities were similar to ones we had seen from other applicants.

In addition, Abhi's GPA and GMAT score were merely average, so we had a difficult conversation about the reality of this highly competitive situation and encouraged him to apply to a portfolio of schools in order to maximize his chances. He did agree to apply to four programs: Tepper School of Business, Darden School of Business, NYU Stern School of Business and Wharton – with Wharton being by far the most competitive.

We mentioned his long track record of service, but really highlighted his organizing a large group to train for a marathon and raise money for a six-year-old girl with leukemia. Abhi discussed his own training process, recruiting and engaging others, planning multiple fundraising events and the leadership ups and downs that he encountered throughout the process.

For Wharton, Abhi put in an extra push. He visited the campus more than once, and came to know the school extremely well, which was made clear in his essays. He also asked a good friend, a current student and someone who could legitimately add insight into his candidacy, to submit a letter on his behalf.

The final package showcased how truly passionate he was about the program and what a good fit he was in terms of culture and goals. Despite having a profile that on the surface mirrored countless others, by digging deeper to find and highlight the compelling aspects of Abhi's background, he was offered a seat at both Wharton and Tepper.

[Find out how extracurriculars can enhance your b-school experience.]

3. Balancing out zero community involvement: Schools outside the U.S. often place far less emphasis on an applicant's extracurricular or volunteering involvement when making admissions decisions. When Italian national Aldo came to us for help with his applications, his problem wasn't quantitative. His balanced GMAT with an overall 720 and a 3.8 GPA presented a very strong academic profile in addition to three years of investment banking experience.

Aldo's main issue was that extracurriculars and volunteering were not a part of his undergraduate experience, nor was it a priority for his peers in banking in Italy or London. He had no real way to demonstrate the community engagement that American MBA programs like to see.

Although it didn't seem immediately relevant to Aldo, we helped him see the value of his passion for travel, which had spurred him to visit all seven continents and study abroad in Singapore.

Aldo referenced some of the lessons he learned while traveling and living in Singapore and London to demonstrate his cultural awareness and a sustained focus on international interactions. Ultimately Aldo was admitted to Wharton and NYU Stern.

Each of these applicants benefitted from taking a fresh approach to their particular situation. Often, the steps necessary to strengthening your business school application become apparent once you spend some time in self-reflection.