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Diversifying diversity: Why now is a great time to apply for business school from a smaller market

February 20, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

Last season we had an extraordinary success story here at Admissionado. A client got in to every school he applied to: Harvard, Wharton, Booth—a clean sweep, all the top programs. Not uncommon for us, except… this client didn’t initially seem strong enough.

Let’s talk profile: male, late twenties, middling test scores, decent undergraduate GPA, technical background, low-level manager in a regional office of a multinational, with a small retail enterprise on the side. His verbal English was okay, his writing had a certain poetic flair, but he was entirely educated in his hometown, at an obscure university that the adcom would almost certainly have to look up. His international experience measured in months (a training program in Europe), otherwise he had lived his entire life in his small home country in Central Asia. His goals involved a post-graduation technical consulting stint in the West, followed by a return home to found a tech startup. In sum, a solid client, but not the kind of man who gets into every program he applies to. So how’d he do it?

To find the answer, we need to consider some history. International students have always been a substantial part of the U.S. MBA student body, but the mix of national origins is continually in flux. In the late 90s, Japanese students would have been the largest international demographic in a typical classroom, but still less than 10% of the total international student population.  Today Chinese (30%) and Indian (20%) students together form a rough majority of international students, with every other nationality taking a small single-digit slice of the pie. This demographic upheaval is key to our Central Asian client’s success.

Twenty years ago, this same client would almost certainly have been rejected from the highest tier of U.S. business schools. He would be a decent but not mind-blowing candidate, with his existing network in a comparatively poor part of the world, largely closed to western investment. Adcom members would wonder what our candidate had to offer his classmates, and might question the plausibility of a tech startup in such an underdeveloped region. They might also treat his undergraduate education with suspicion and, if the institution didn’t have a website or email address, might have difficult assuaging those concerns.

Today, the situation is very different. To understand the difference, pull up your favorite news site and think like the director of an admissions department at a U.S. business school. The headlines should feel disconcerting. A huge portion of your business is educating young people from India and China’s rapidly growing middle classes, but the international relationships that facilitated that business model seems to be hurting after trade wars, currency fluctuations, media narratives about gun violence and political posturing. You suspect and hope these relationships will recover, and you’ll continue to accept many Indian and Chinese students. But… could the “business” part of your business school survive if a big country suddenly pulled all their students home? It’s not an academic question: just ask the your Canadian colleagues, who recently lost 16,000 students to a diplomatic row.

The obvious solution is to diversify your portfolio of international students. MBA programs are trying to achieve this today by rapidly building up their alumni networks in new emerging markets, places like Africa, Southeast Asia, and…. Central Asia. Our candidate looks a lot better in this context than he would have 20 years ago. His county is wealthier and more connected. His undergraduate institution is much easier to research. But, most importantly, by accepting him, top level MBA programs can establish a beachhead in new market… just in case. If the adcom suddenly needs a huge influx of Central Asian applicants at some point in the future, well, they’ll have a guy on the ground who has been singing their praises for year, ready and willing to interview local candidates.

Our client’s story is a compelling example of how the recent political tension makes now a great time to apply for business school from an underrepresented region. Adcoms are actively seeking applicants from high potential emerging markets like Nigeria and Indonesia, but people from wealthier countries in Europe and Latin America can also benefit. The push to diversify the applicant pool is good for pretty much everyone. Even applicants from India and China are benefiting, because adcoms are coming to the game a bit late. Applications from China and India are already down, and as fewer of their peers apply, acceptance rates for previously daunting demographics (e.g. male Indian engineer) are on the rise.

One person who seems mostly satisfied with these trends? Our client, currently enjoying his first year at a top-ranked business school.


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