American Business Schools have long held a rather vaunted place in the realm of global business school rankings as well as recruitment by Fortune 500 companies – not to mention – a place rather cherished in the imagination of business students and professionals young and old.
Hollywood movies and TV shows on Wall Street have increasingly caught on among corporate circles in Bangladesh. The names of the top US Business Schools are more ubiquitous among young Bangladeshi bankers, entrepreneurs, stock market professionals, marketers, etc., than they were even 10 years ago. So nowadays, I often find myself discussing business school applications, cracking the GMAT Verbal and Quant, recommendations, and the all-important Personal Statement.
To start with the personal statement, since this is one area where I increasingly think Bangladeshi students get mixed advice, and an area where I have informally developed a reasonable amount of experience, there is no one size fits all approach. However, it is important to know that business school admissions are competitive and even if you are a highly regarded young banker, entrepreneur or marketer, you will have to find ways to showcase your uniqueness.
So how do you stand out among the crowd, viz-à-viz your personal statement, especially if you are vying for the top schools, e.g., Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Northwestern, Wharton, Columbia, or MIT?
First and foremost, I find from second-hand experience (coaching others), that a macro- or meta perspective almost always helps. You want to be able to picture the forest and not just the trees, whether it is in terms of how you talk about your current role as a banker or entrepreneur in Bangladesh, or how you intend to use the business school learning and networking for your career aspirations.
So for instance, if you are a banker working on syndicated loans, or let’s say servicing large corporates with industrial and term loans, you want to be able to think about and speak about the credit market in Bangladesh at large, how it fares with western counterparts, how it contributes to the overall growth of the country, what sort of credit products and policy changes are in the offing in the long run, and generally show yourself to be the thoughtful candidate that you are.
Say you are a banker working with large RMG companies. You want to be able to think through, succinctly, how your day-to-day work in servicing RMG companies’ credit needs fits into the larger edifice of RMG companies’ financing requirements and their contribution to the overall national and even global story. If you understand the dynamics of the global manufacturing industry and how it trickles down to Bangladesh and to your role, talk about it! This is important for international applicants as Admissions Offices want to see if you can take what you do situate it in a larger (often global) context. The reason is that emerging markets, whether BRIC or the lesser known Frontier Economies like ours, will continue to be the markets that push global growth in the longer run.
Now let’s say you are a marketing professional applying to b-schools, you could do well to situate your day-to-day activities in the larger context of the demographic, cultural and historical particularities of Bangladesh that drive and inform how products and services are marketed to Bangladeshis. How you understand consumer behavior in the cultural context and in effect your intellectual nimbleness will matter much, almost as much as whether you work at a Unilever or a lesser-known firm.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs at the helm of start-ups or mid-stage companies may want to think through and speak about their experiences with navigating the complex landscape of seed funding, doing market assessments, creating demand, courting angel investors and VCs, in the context of the fledgling yet promising start-up scene that exists in our country. This is an angle I personally think will be quite interesting for US Business School Admissions Offices. Courses on entrepreneurship, venture capital and the “new economy” are increasingly popular at business schools.
Other than that, if you are serious about cracking the top schools, you have to consider your undergraduate GPA, the quality of your undergraduate education, the quality and sometimes, diversity of your work experience, demonstrable leadership skills, recommendations, and of course, the GMAT score. The GMAT score cannot be emphasized enough and whilst many applicants wonder why it is considered such an important barometer for business school success, studies do indicate that applicants who score higher on GMAT, not just in Quant but also in Verbal, fare much better in terms of deductive thinking, analytical abilities, and overall, a certain ability to make decisions when confronted with complex and contradictory information.
Your undergraduate GPA will not make or break your chances, but if you are unsure about your GPA, you will do well to compensate in terms of quality and number of years of work experience. Although I am aware of successful Bangladeshi applicants with less than 5 years of experience, you will have higher chances of getting in if you have 7 or more, as long as you have interesting experiences in business operations and leadership. Your recommendations will matter and it is usually advisable to seek recommendations from a diverse set of recommenders. The position or authority they hold will matter as well as how well they know you. So if you get a recommendation from the MD of your bank, it would make more sense if he or she can also write about your candidacy from a reasonable level of acquaintance. Also encourage recommenders to use anecdotes wherever possible.
Lastly, say you are not an entrepreneur, financial services professional, or marketer, i.e., you do not fit into the stereotypical profile of a business school applicant, e.g., you work at an NGO, and are wondering whether a US Business School is the way to go. It can be and often is! Class profiles in recent years at top business schools indicate a greater preference for diversity of professional experiences. In the case of Bangladesh, if you are a development-sector professional and work at a local or international NGO, you should certainly consider applying if you are interested. As the Bangladesh economy continues to grow, bilateral and multilateral funding will lessen, as a result of which, development sector programs will inexorably head towards market-based approaches. Hence, there is a solid argument to be made for the relevance of a global business education to NGO professionals.
Sajid Amit is Director, CES, University of Liberal Arts (ULAB). He is an alumnus of Dartmouth College, SOAS University of London, and Columbia University.