6 Must Have Characteristics For International MBA Applicants

Top business schools want to see breadth of spirit and activity.


The MBA class of 2017 is shaping up to be pretty darn competitive, and extremely diverse. According to a recent article by Poets&Quants, a little over 36% of the class will “hail from overseas.”

As the already competitive landscape for International applicants grows increasingly more so each year, our team finds itself fielding many variations of the same pressing question: “How do I GET IN as an International applicant?”

And though there’s no magic formula, there are a few things that REALLY increase an International applicant’s chance of getting into a Top 10 business school like HBS, Wharton or MIT Sloan, to name a few.

Here are our team’s 6 must-have characteristics for International applicants.

  1. Being either the BEST or UNIQUE
  2. Graduating from one of the top institutions in your country
  3. Having a top GPA
  4. The ability to work globally; better yet if in the West (Europe, US)
  5. Volunteer work
  6. Other peripherals

Okay… so, that’s all easy to decipher, right? Some of it, yes, and some of it, probably not as much so. Here’s a quick breakdown to help shed some light on each list item.

1. Be either the BEST or UNIQUE

Being the best means, well, that you are literally the best, most superior candidate. Here are a few examples of things that help define “best” in the eyes of the admissions committees.

  • You were the in the top 5% at your undergraduate school.
  • You were in the same percentile at work
  • You held a higher, better position than your peers.
  • You were younger than all of your peers. Or maybe, all of your peers already had an MBA.
  • You won awards, which prove that you are the best in comparison to your peers.

Being unique also means, you guessed it, that you stand out in a major way. Here are a couple examples of what it doesn’t mean.

  • That you’re a good (or even great) finance guy/girl.
  • That you have a tech startup.

On the flip side, if you’re starting the world’s largest crocodile farm, setting up a lunar mining company or were a military sniper (you get the picture), you, my friend, are unique!

2. Graduating from one of the top institutions in your country

You probably know what they are, but the best way to check is to look at where top 10 schools have recruited from in the past. If they’ve never before recruited a graduate from your school, it’s not a good sign.

3. Having a top GPA

Quite simply, your GPA should be above the average GPA of the last year’s incoming class.

4. The ability to work globally

If you have worked for all of your life in India or China, many schools might worry about your employability and your adjustment time. If you can prove your capacity to work globally (with people from other cultures and backgrounds), you will make their decision to accept you MUCH easier.

5. Volunteer work

Too many students (especially from China) have little to no volunteer work.

  • The more volunteer work you have, the better.
  • The longer you have done it, the better.
  • The more hours you have done it, the better.
  • The more impressive the results you have gotten, the better.

Take note that charity is not volunteer work. And sadly, neither is tutoring your little brother in mathematics. One-offs like “helping out in an earthquake,” are of limited help unless you took weeks off work to do that.

6. Other peripherals

Especially in countries like India and China, but also Latin America, we see too many students who have little else besides work and school on their resume. That’s not a good thing. It’s all about extra-curricular activities and well-roundedness!

  • Leadership activities
  • Community involvement
  • Sports

Top business schools want to see breadth of spirit and activity. Yes, its great that you are ambitious and hardworking and successful. No argument there. But it’s important to realize that these schools don’t want drones. They want intelligent, cultured, worldly people – people with charm and spirit. Why? Because those are the people who will not only bring something awesome to the campus community but, more importantly, really succeed in life.

  • sam

    Thank you very Much for this post i will clearly add this page on my bookmark list so as to Know what to expect every time i think about increasing my strategic allocation in front of the Admission Process.



  • Deepak Dhanavel Kumar

    Great article!
    You mentioned that charity work is NOT volunteer work. What would be considered volunteer work then?

    • Jeff Chenoweth

      Great question Deepak,

      Well, as nice as it is to give money, what the B-Schools are really looking for is what you can DO. So if you are RUNNING a fundraiser, LEADING people, SELECTING a team, MOTIVATING them, things like that that will make a much more relevant and interesting story than “I gave some guy 1000$” 😉 future MBA.

    • Deepak.. think of volunteer work as something you do to help your community on a consistent basis. Charity is usually considered as giving money to an institution. Schools like candidates who are actively participating in a role where they are placed in tough situations and can use their leadership and teamwork abilities in various scenarios.

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