One of the best ways to differentiate yourself as an MBA application is through global work experience. Many of the students I have mentored who have worked for at least a year in a country other than their own with a different culture and language have been able to get into one of their choice from among top-ranked business schools.
Leadership, Risk-Taking and Flexibility
Of course, this international work experience has to be meaningful. So if you can get yourself transferred in your own company to a location across the world from where you are now, that will help you stand out. Why? According to Forté Fellow and 2013 INSEAD graduate Sweeny Chhabra, global experience signifies leadership and risk-taking. And, as a Connecticut Yankee who lived in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, over a 10-year period, I would offer one relevant characteristic: flexibility.
All business schools, and admissions committees for those schools, search in the applications for ways that you demonstrate leadership – especially beyond the obvious measures of a manager-like title or a number of subordinates. Admissions committee members are looking for behaviors and patterns in your work history. They are also trying to find tangible evidence that you can lead cross-cultural teams. According to Ms. Chhabra, who transferred to Singapore from Toronto,
“My interactions with individuals from … Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and Japan have provided me with tremendous opportunity to learn country-specific business practices," she explains. "I have also learned that…[their] reactions could be as a result of different cultural norms, their emotions, their personality or just their communication style.”
Moreover, if you are from an English-speaking country like the US, Canada, or the UK, the challenges of working in a vastly different economic environment can be shocking. You think you are prepared, but... I know one pre-MBA who went back to Poland, (where she spent her childhood) to consult with several companies trying to break into that market. Despite her fluency and knowledge of land and the local populace (she had visited every summer for the past 20 years to stay with her extended family), she found local difficulties with business trust as a result of the former communist regime. This meant she had to rethink her various proposals, but she certainly learned a lot.
Business schools also want to know that you are willing to go outside your comfort zone and take risks. Just ask any current student, or check out what admissions directors are writing on their own websites: "We are looking for people who are creative, collaborative and willing to take risks," wrote Meeghan Keedy of Chicago Booth Admissions wrote in April 2013 blog post.
You’ll certainly be taking risks during your MBA career and afterwards in business. To set you up for success in these situations, the admissions committee seeks out evidence that you already have been willing challenge yourself.
I've got my own reasons for admitting that flexibility is a critical characteristic. I learned it only too well when I was living in Taipei, a world where few spoke English, where I had terrible Chinese, and virtually no prior understanding of the local culture. In those days it was nowhere near as advanced as it is now. I had my own “aha!” moments daily, from accidentally walking in the middle of a funeral procession, not knowing that mourners wore white, to suffering through taxi drivers personal questions, or to figuring out a way to replace a blown-out window in the middle of a fierce typhoon.
It was frustrating, comical, embarrassing, eye-opening, and about the biggest set of challenges I had EVER seen under any other circumstances up to that point.
So if you can, go global. Take that risk. You'll not only get "foreign" experience, but you'll be able to stretch yourself in ways you had never imagined. You'll definitely add to the conversation at business school. It’s more than just checking a box.