Applying to a U.S.-based MBA program as an international student—what to know

BY Nick RollJuly 12, 2021, 10:00 PM
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Applying to an MBA program is hard enough on its own: Studying for the GMAT, securing letters of recommendation, crafting a personal statement, and sifting through rankings could be a job in itself. For international students applying to MBA programs in the United States, there’s the added twist of doing all that across borders and time zones, with additional application requirements, plus the added logistical hurdle of eventually hopping on a plane and moving to the States.

Luckily, much of the international student application process—including what MBA admissions officers are looking for—is similar to that of domestic students, says Ruthie Pyles Stiffler, associate dean of graduate enrollment management at Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. Students, whether domestic or international, should take a holistic approach when seeking out schools, she says, considering things like: “Do you want a small community or a large community? What kind of curriculum do you want? Are there particular industries you want to be prepared for?”

Pyles Stiffler and other admissions officers say that international students should expect a few differences in their application journey, from the open house and interview process to proving their English proficiency. 

Carlos Mejia is pursuing an MBA for one simple reason: “I want to career switch, and I think that’s an important [rationale] that a lot of people, especially international students, might not know about.” Mejia, who currently works in human resources in Bogotá, will enroll at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business later this year.

After evaluating some programs in Europe, Mejia decided a two-year program in the U.S. was best suited for helping him transition to consulting work, and the hoops he’s had to jump through—like applying for a visa, and taking the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam—were worth it and manageable, he adds.

English, the language of the American MBA

Mejia started out by taking the GMAT and the IELTS, and then figuring out which schools might be a best fit from there, scores in hand. That allowed him to approach MBA programs realistically, and not worry that something like a low score would get in the way of his admission. 

Marshall, like many schools, accepts two types of English proficiency tests—the IELTS or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam—for students who are from countries where English is not the national language or who attended undergraduate programs where English wasn’t the primary language of instruction. But Mejia points out that by only electing to take the IELTS—it was cheaper, he says—he limited some of his options: At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, for example, only the TOEFL and the Pearson Test of English Academic exam are accepted. 

In addition to standardized tests, Mejia says, personal essays and résumés—written in English—should express the candidate’s goals and background clearly and without errors.

From there, Mejia furnished letters of recommendation. These weren’t necessary at Marshall but were required for other programs he was considering. His references were able to write them in English, but he says applicants should look at what schools prefer. Some offer to read them in whatever language they’re written in, while others, like Stanford, suggest getting them translated. Transcripts are another area where MBA programs will have translation guidelines and requirements.

Schools can be a resource to guide international students through the letters of recommendation process, Pyles Stiffler says. Olin attracts a lot of international students who work at family businesses—and a letter of recommendation from Mom or Dad isn’t exactly what admissions officers want. “We’re happy to work with a candidate to identify someone that might be a better fit,” she says. “What about a vendor you’ve worked with?”

From informal networking to securing a visa

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed a lot of international open houses, informal interviews, networking events, and official admissions interviews onto Zoom and other videoconferencing services, says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid for Indiana University’s full-time MBA program at the Kelley School of Business. And there were some advantages that came with that, which will probably stick around going forward.

“Like everyone else, all of our admissions recruitment was 100% virtual this year,” says Holmen. That leveled the playing field in a way, he says, and shifted the center of gravity away from traditional countries—or big cities in those countries—that were focal points for international recruitment, like Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Shanghai. 

“Because of all the virtual recruitment options and opportunities to meet with us individually, by Skype or by Zoom, we had a much more diverse pool of international applicants,” Holmen says, noting that students in the fall 2021 incoming class hail from almost twice as many countries (30) as in a typical year in the past (about 13 to 15). “Virtual recruitment isn’t going to go away.”

And the virtual application process also benefited applicants. 

“I joined many coffee chats and whatnot. Everything was virtual,” says Mejia, adding that the lack of pressure to travel “has been a good thing of the pandemic.”

When it comes to visas, that process starts after admission. For Mejia, Marshall has served as his focal point, guiding him through the process. But he notes that the timing of the visa process—it often takes months, and doesn’t start until after admission is granted—can put international students who are wait-listed at a disadvantage.

While it might be inconvenient or stressful, a U.S. student receiving a call that they’ve been taken off the wait list and granted admission could, in theory, get themselves to class on short notice—sometimes with only a few weeks’ heads-up. That’s not an option for international students, Mejia says. “They have to do the visa process.”

During the visa application, students will have to prove they can afford to live and study in the U.S. That typically involves submitting documentation such as bank statements, scholarships, and student loans. Once again, Mejia says Marshall helped him sort a lot of that out, since universities are the ones responsible for coming up with those financial estimates that students need to meet for their visas. He was able to secure a loan through Prodigy Finance, which specializes in student loans for international students. 

At Kelley, for example, an international student can get a good sense of finances by looking at the out-of-state tuition, which is what they’ll pay ($51,454 for the 2020–21 school year, not counting estimated fees or costs of living). International students are considered for scholarships the same way domestic applicants are, Holmen says.

Once Mejia starts classes, his visa will allow him to intern over the summer, as well as work in the U.S. for at least one year after graduation, under a program called Optional Practical Training.

After that first year, MBA grads who want to continue working in the U.S. can apply for an H-1B visa to extend their time here, Holmen says.

At Marshall, international students make up 12% of the class set to graduate in spring 2022, though it notes that number is usually around 33%, and has dropped as a result of the pandemic. At Olin and Kelley, international student numbers are also typically around the 33% mark, if not a bit higher. For some international students, this might be a draw, while for others it might not factor into their decision. Regardless, it’s beneficial for all involved, both domestic and international students, says Holmen.

“We’re preparing students to work in an increasingly smaller world, preparing them to work in a business environment where an understanding of global business decisions and impacts makes a difference,” he says. “So having international students is really valuable.”