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Going Places: Applying to Business School in the United States

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If you want to pursue an MBA in the U.S. as an international student, do yourself a favor: Get started on the application process as early as possible, say admissions officers.

During the past several years, international students have been flocking in ever larger numbers to U.S. business schools, where they're greeted with open arms by admissions officers. Schools have been making a conscious effort to secure global perspectives for their classrooms by diversifying their student body. "We try to enroll at least 30 percent of our class from overseas," says Kate Coffman, associate director of admissions at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. Indiana is in good company: MIT Sloan admits upwards of 40 percent of its class from outside the United States, and Purdue's Krannert, around 44 percent.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, however, prompted the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to revisit its policies on foreign students. Notably, the INS is implementing the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which, according to Danielle Sheahan, a spokeswoman for the government agency, essentially "enables us to make sure students who apply to school in our country are attending all their classes on a full-time basis." American business schools will be required to use SEVIS by January 30, 2003, or else forfeit the right to enroll international applicants.

Liz Reisberg, executive director of The MBA Tour -- a company that helps U.S. business schools reach out to overseas applicants by arranging and promoting recruitment fairs in their respective countries -- is skeptical about the new service. "I fear that SEVIS might make our country a less welcoming destination," she says. "Some of these precautions seem a bit unnecessary, considering that of everyone in the United States on a visa, students represent only around 1 percent. Many of the schools we work with were disappointed that we canceled our tour to the Middle East this year."

As a result, many admissions offices are taking the initiative to make sure students from foreign countries-especially those where U.S. embassies and consulates have been more hesitant to hand out visas-feel welcome to apply. The University of Michigan Business School's Kris Nebel, director of school admissions, and Jim Hayes, director of academic services, say, "We've been more proactive in reaching out to the embassies in China and India" -- two countries singled out by several admissions officers as having the most problems with students' obtaining visas.

Although the transition to SEVIS might make it more difficult to get the necessary documentation, applicants shouldn't be too worried. Most schools say there will be no change in the admissions policy for international students, and that their presence in the classroom is as important as ever. So if you're considering an MBA in the United States, here are a few tips.

Speak (and write) the language
According to several school officials, class participation and interaction are becoming ever more important in order to excel in business school. For this reason, all international applicants must be fluent in English. Those with another native language must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (visit for more information). Note that if you were schooled in an English-speaking institution or country, or have work experience in the United States, you might be eligible to have the TOEFL requirement waived.

If you do have to take it, don't stress. Recent Wharton graduate Marcio Boruchowski, who hails from Brazil, says, "The TOEFL really isn't difficult if you know the language. The more arduous tasks are writing your essays in English and studying for the GMAT -- which is a much harder test." Indeed, mastering the language is a must for both of these since they require you to think in -- not just translate into -- English.

Don't expect admissions officers to be too lenient on this point. "We admit our international students much as we do our domestic ones," says Tammy Greco, assistant director of admissions at the University of Texas-Austin's McCombs School of Business. "We expect to see all parts of the application in correlation with one another." In other words, besides an equivalent to a four-year U.S. bachelor's degree (a three-year degree will suffice in only some cases), you need to make a serious effort to write and revise your essays and study for the GMAT, especially the verbal section. Keep in mind that GMAT scores are usually required to be no more than five years old, while TOEFL scores are valid for no more than two years.

Make sure you can pay
To get the green light for entry, you'll have to prove that you can pay tuition for one -- and sometimes two -- years. Grant-based financial aid is not plentiful at American business schools, and admissions and aid officers alike often maintain that most of their international students pay their own way. Ann Richards, director of financial aid and associate director of admissions at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management, offers this advice: "Students often get loans or sponsors in their own country and pay for themselves." If these options aren't available, Cornell and a few other schools offer loans that can be used toward your financial statement, provided you have verifiable resources to pay them off. Cornell's loan - administered in conjunction with Citibank -- doesn't require a U.S. co-signer, unlike some others. International students often find it easier to get extra funding after they've established a credit history in the U.S. But if you do try to borrow money for the first year, make sure you give yourself the time to find a co-signer who will assume the risk.

Apply as early as possible
Johnson's associate director of international admissions, Kim Killingsworth, explains why this is necessary. "Because schools will be functioning with a new data collection system in SEVIS for the first time, processing the necessary documentation will take longer this year… so we strongly encourage our international applicants to apply no later than our second round (of three). ” Every school we spoke to echoes her advice: Apply early, not only so you can get your visa in time, but also to be considered for any merit-based financial aid.

“By our last round, we don’t have as much money to give to our students,” notes one financial aid representative. Additionally, students typically need this extra time to find a co-signer, since they’re notified about most loans when they find out they’ve been admitted.

Certain schools require their admits to attend special summer programs that emphasize improvement in English and communication. In such cases, it's even more crucial to give yourself plenty of time. So when researching schools, find out all of the requirements well in advance -- and be sure to put your hat in the ring as early as possible.

Try not to worry
A native of China, Wharton graduate Florence Hu recalls, “I spent the most time on my application. There’s really not much I could do after that.” Of course, the INS holds the cards, since it determines whether you get to enter the U.S. or not. On the whole, however, U.S. embassies and consulates have been efficient in distributing the necessary permits. “Our students are pretty much getting their visas,” says Maria Graham, the director of public affairs for Columbia Business School.

Michigan’s Nebel agrees: “Aside from more background checks in India and China, things have been running pretty smoothly.” And although the implementation of SEVIS might make the process of obtaining a visa a little longer, U.S. business schools are still determined to enroll a substantial part of their class from overseas. So after you’ve applied early, been accepted, and followed the instructions of the schools, U.S. embassy, and INS, you can savor your extra fifteen minutes of spare time, relishing the fact that you’ll get to work even harder next year.
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