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Must-Have Characteristics For International MBA Applicants

March 10, 2024 :: Admissionado Team


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.

Chinese and Indian Applicants

Fact: The number of MBA applicants coming from China and India is up. 

Fact: The number of MBA admissions for applicants coming from China and India is down. 

According to application and acceptance data, many schools every year are reporting that although international students make up a large percentage of their total applicants, most of them are getting rejected. Not the best news, eh? Even more alarming, the data also showed that Chinese and Indian applicants were 4-5 times more likely to be turned down compared to applicants from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the rest of the world. This disparity raises important questions about the admissions process and what international applicants can do to improve their chances.

So, what now? Should Indian and Chinese applicants give up? Forget about an MBA? Absolutely not. The facts aren’t fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel. Instead, use this information to your advantage and step up your game. Be smart and do what you have to do to show the admissions committee why you deserve to be part of that selective few. Start by honing your English language skills. International applicants must overcome the language barrier and convince admissions that they can read, write, and speak English as well as any domestic applicant. Brush up on your writing skills, send your essays to native English speakers for review, and practice your spoken English. Your goal is to ensure admissions reps can understand and communicate with you effectively.

Another critical strategy is to make your essays stand out. This is something we tell our clients every day: don’t just answer the essay prompts; do so in a way that lures the reader in, holds their attention, and gets them excited about you. Approach them like you’re writing stories, not just answering essay questions. Do you know how many generic “This is what matters most to me and why” essays those adcoms will read? A lot. And you don’t want to be just another boring, generic essay. If you want to stand out from the crowd, pack some major punch into your essays with impressive statistics, vivid imagery, and well-thought-out plans for your future.

How to Stand Out As an International Applicant

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 the 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 a breadth of spirit and activity. Yes, it’s great that you are ambitious, 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.

Common Pitfalls for International Applicants To Avoid

When answering the standard MBA application “Goals Essay,” many international applicants discuss their long-term plans, often with dreams of making a significant impact in their home countries. These essays are often very compelling, with applicants envisioning improvements in various sectors, helping small businesses, and giving back to the communities that helped them succeed. These plans often have a sound business case behind them. With predictions of economic growth in emerging markets like India, where internet connectivity and digitization are increasing exponentially, these goals are well-founded. Given the increasingly limited number of working visas in the US and political instability, returning home to pursue these goals is looking like a promising idea.

While these long-term goals can be compelling, several common mistakes can hinder applicants from effectively communicating their plans to admissions committees (adcoms). Below, we outline two of the most common pitfalls we encounter.

Failure to Differentiate

One of the most common goals we hear from applicants is a plan to return to their home country to start a consultancy, work in a specific industry, or implement innovative projects. These applicants often have firsthand experience with the issues they want to address and great ideas for solutions. However, where these applicants struggle is in communicating how their future endeavors will differentiate themselves from existing solutions or competitors. For instance, if your goal is to start a consultancy, you need to articulate how your firm will stand out from established players like McKinsey, Bain, or BCG.

To overcome this challenge, applicants need to present creative and unique approaches to finding a niche that cannot be or won’t be filled by the time they start. This requires introspection, creative thinking, and extensive research. Clearly outlining how your specific skills, experiences, and insights will enable you to offer something unique will make your goals more compelling to the adcoms.

Training Mismatch

Another common mistake is failing to identify resources at their target school that will translate across countries and cultures. For example, learning to navigate American financial regulations may not help if your goal is to operate a Fintech startup in China. Similarly, studying generic management practices may not be as beneficial if your focus is on implementing these practices in a vastly different cultural or economic environment.

Applicants should highlight how they plan to utilize the specific resources at their target schools that align with their goals. For instance, if you aim to start a renewable energy company in Africa, you might write about your plans to take specific courses on renewable energy strategies in emerging markets or to intern at a successful renewable startup. Demonstrating a clear understanding of how the school’s resources will help you achieve your goals will show the adcoms that you have a practical, well-thought-out plan for your MBA.

Avoiding these common pitfalls and focusing on the unique aspects of your goals and how the resources at your target school will help you achieve them will communicate to adcoms that you have a forward-looking approach. This is an essential skill for any successful business leader. By clearly differentiating your goals and aligning your training with them, you can make a compelling case for your MBA candidacy, whether your aspirations lie in entrepreneurship, industry leadership, or any other field.


Navigating the competitive landscape of international MBA applications can be challenging, but with the right approach and characteristics, you can significantly improve your chances. Focus on honing your English language skills, differentiating your goals, and leveraging the unique resources of your target schools. By demonstrating your best qualities and clearly outlining how you will contribute to the MBA program, you can make a compelling case for your admission. Remember, it’s not just about being a good candidate; it’s about being an unforgettable one.