How do cultural differences impact admissions?

I don’t often write about admissions geared towards specific cultural groups, since the admissions criteria for business schools transcend any nationality or occupation — an applicant needs to have a combination of strong leadership potential (career progression and extracurriculars that over time suggest greater responsibility for teams of people), exceptional communication/interpersonal skills, and analytical aptitude (with GMAT, GPA, and other quantitative-oriented responsibilities in the workplace).

However, after seeing the same sorts of questions and recurring themes particularly from Indian and other Asian applicants, this subjective process to admissions seems to be a particular blind spot, due to cultural differences (note here that I mean those whose were raised in and attended high school in Asia). This may be a sensitive topic, but it needs to be said rather than whispered behind closed doors, after seeing so many applicants and MBA students over the years from many backgrounds.

Why would knowing this blind spot be useful? If you are an Indian or Asian applicant, even being aware of such a blind spot may at least help you avoid some huge pitfalls in the application process, the business school classroom, recruiting and your post-MBA career. (But then again, the irony is if you’re reading this article and you “get it”, then I’m preaching to the converted, to those who are already aware of it and may not have such a blind spot; and those that really need to be made aware of it are the ones who may not understand what I’m saying here).

Frankly speaking, while there are still a lot of Indians and Asians in business school, as a whole it seems that they are having a harder time getting in — in spite of the fact that they have reasonable to even high GMAT scores, solid work experience and so forth.

For many Indians and Asians, they’ve spent their entire lives being bench marked almost exclusively on their academic and analytical abilities. In plain English, its one big math competition with exams and certificates being the arena of competition from a very early age. And with an almost exclusive focus on math and sciences (especially for the boys) where there is often a “right” or “wrong” answer, there is little opportunity to develop that ability to voice interpretive (or subjective) viewpoints that are often the focus of humanities and liberal arts subjects – subjects which are simply taught to a greater degree in the West.

So it would seemingly make sense for Indians and Asians to come into the b-school admissions process expecting to be judged in the same way. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably think the same way too because that is all I would know or all that I have been judged and evaluated on to date – by schools, employers (for technical jobs), peers, etc and maybe even by friends and family.

For many Indian and Asian applicants, business school admissions is a completely different (and perhaps entirely new) world. It will likely be a bigger re-orientation in terms of mentality, perspective and approach for many Indian and Asian applicants compared to those who have grown up in Western countries.

B-school admissions isn’t a math competition. The technical stuff – your GMAT scores, your GPA, etc. matter only up to a certain point — and once you’ve reached that threshhold (which is actually not very high), no exceptional GMAT, GPA or academic/technical/analytical achievement will compensate for mediocre or even poor interpersonal and critical thinking (i.e. imagination, lateral thinking, etc.) skills.
Being able to communicate and articulate a *subjective* point of view in a compelling, engaging and persuasive manner is what it’s about — not just for the business school application, but also in a case method class (and all schools use it to some degree, and even lecture-based classes have that collaborative, discussion-oriented ethos ingrained in the learning experience). Moreover, it’s likely THE most important skill to have for one’s business career – it’s how you convince the Board to approve a merger. It’s how you get a key customer to commit to your new beta product.

On the surface, “being able to convince someone of my opinions where there is no clear right or wrong – just opinions” may then appear to be a personality contest, a test of one’s creativity or imagination — when to others who grew up in the West who are more accustomed to this in their lives would see this simply as “having my own opinion” without the validation of right or wrong. Being conditioned to cram for exams from an early age can certainly create a blind spot to this sort of frame of mind.

Now, one may say “well why does all this personality, interpersonal stuff matter?!?!” — because b-schools are looking for future managers. Future bosses. And a great boss to work for isn’t necessarily the smartest (academically speaking) person in the room. But they have ‘street smarts’ – the ability to influence people’s behavior. Managing people isn’t a math competition – it’s about your people skills. Your ability to settle people down when they are in a pissy mood. Getting them riled up and motivated to do something where the chances of success aren’t high, but are still worth a shot. In essence, influencing other people’s behavior. The curricula you learn in b-school is really there to support you in that — when you learn all the technical things in accounting, finance, operations, etc. it’s not for the purposes of you actually having to do that analysis in the real world, but to help you *understand* and *interpret* this sort of analytical work that your subordinates do so that you as a manager can make more judicious and informed decisions where there often is no “right” or “wrong” answer.

So it’s this entire aspect of yourself that you have to be able to portray effectively and compellingly to an adcom, professor/classmate, recruiter, and hopefully as you up in your career – a Board member, politician, or other leader. That is what will make or break you – and not all the computational and analytical skills you may have focused on all your life.

In a sea of other exam- and academically-obsessed Asian applicants who simply don’t “get it”, the best chance you as an Indian or Asian applicant have (regardless of your “test scores” in college, high school, on your GMAT/GREs, etc) is this:

Dare to be different. Dare to stand out. Chances are, you’re simply not going to win the “my grades/GMAT is better than yours” competition against a lot of other applicants (and again in an admissions process that doesn’t care as much about academics beyond a certain basic threshhold). Be able to convey that you’re better with people than numbers – because ultimately in business your ability to lead, manage and supervise people is what will make or break your career — not your ability to do math.

Here’s another way to put it in economic terms.

With a continent that is highly focused on analytical skills, Asia is creating a labor force that is effectively making such analytical skills a commodity. There is simply a much greater supply of this than there are those with strong leadership, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills (“right brain” activities) in *any* country.

For many of you, I assume you’re applying to business school so that you can get to a point in your career *soon* where other people are doing the math for you (and unfortunately get paid next to nothing for it because their math skills are a commodity), so you can focus on being the “decider”. Math skills gets you to middle management, but people skills gets you into the executive suite.