Why Starting a Company in Southeast Asia Can Help You Get a Harvard MBA

Whether you’re trying to get into Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or INSEAD, these expert tips can help you get into the world’s most selective business schools

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BY Cristina Morales - 07 Aug 2017

Harvard MBA

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It’s no secret that graduating from a top-tier business school can do wonders for your career. On the average, MBA graduates of a top-20 program can earn at least $130,000 straight out the gate. Unlike other graduate programs that hone specializations in a specific field, an MBA is a multifaceted program designed to equip people with the tools they need not only to manage an enterprise, but also make it thrive.

Entrepreneurs, in particular, have higher chances of getting admitted to a top business school. “Entrepreneurship is a non-traditional background for an MBA applicant to have, so it is a big plus right there,” says Lawrence Linker, founder and CEO of MBA Link, an admissions coaching company based in Singapore. “Compared to other non-traditional backgrounds, such as someone being from the military or the arts, for example, an entrepreneur is coming in with real business experience and a demonstrated interest in business.”

He adds, “Additionally, many MBAs wish to be entrepreneurs, so to have a classmate with an entrepreneurship background is a great resource for them.”

The world’s top business schools get thousands of applicants for only a few hundred slots. What can Southeast Asians do to gain a place? Linker shares a few tips.

1. Don’t look too needy

Though MBA applicants from every region and background often fall into the trap of appearing too needy in their applications, Asians, in particular, are more susceptible to this behavior. “Most Asian countries are what we MBAs would call ‘high power distance’ cultures,” explains Linker. “That means that regardless of their qualifications, many young Asian professionals are susceptible to taking on an overly-obsequious tone in both their essays and interviews.”

This doesn’t usually work. Though there are a few exceptions, the most competitive schools in the world tend to accept people who don’t need them. However, you also shouldn’t overcompensate and risk coming across as arrogant or immature. The best way to go is to present yourself as someone with lots of attractive career options, clearly articulating why you want an MBA.

2. Be meticulous

Each part of your application is vital to your admission to a top business school. “You will never get into business school purely based on a great interview or a killer GMAT score, but you can be denied for any reason,” says Linker.

Linker and his team observe that applicants tend to drop the ball when it comes to letters of reference. Managers would often tell an applicant to go ahead and write the recommendation themselves. “While this may sidestep the ethical consideration to some degree since the manager is essentially endorsing what has been written, the fact remains that these applicant-written referral letters are extremely easy to spot,” says Linker. Though your desired business school’s admissions committee may never be sure if you wrote your own reference letter, if they suspect that it was, that could spell the end for your application.

3. Apply as early as you can

The average age for a Harvard MBA is 26, which means that the average Harvard Business School applicant is 24 or 25. “If you’re not ready, you’re not ready,” says Linker. “But there’s nothing wrong with letting the schools make that decision for you.” The younger you get your MBA, the earlier you’ll get a jumpstart on your career, letting you reap more benefits later on.

When applying to a program that typically caters to students 5 or even 10 years younger than yourself, articulating the reason for that should increase your chances for success. If you’re older, you could also consider applying to a 1-year program which has a significantly higher average age compared to most 2-year programs. There are also Executive MBAs and other programs that specifically target seasoned professionals.

“Business schools don’t care so much about your age per se, but more about where you are at in your career and what you will both gain and give to the program,” says Linker.

4. Ask: Do Asians have an edge?

What business schools are looking for is diversity, so international experience is a big plus. Asians who come from underrepresented countries like Cambodia or Laos wouldn’t have to worry too much about getting international experience. But if you’re from countries with more applicants—like China, India, or Singapore—international experience will give you a more competitive advantage. “We see much higher rates of admission to top programs among applicants from these countries who have significant overseas work or academic experience,” says Linker.

5. Stand out

When you’re part of a more competitive application pool—like in Singapore—you’re bound to have some commonalities with your fellow applicants. Getting noticed means you have to make an effort to set yourself apart from everyone else. “Singaporean applicants will tend to be strong in their technical skills and, frankly, a little lacking in the soft skills department,” says Linker. “If you’re a Singaporean applicant, you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself by showcasing your leadership experience and your fun, artistic, or creative side. MBA admissions committees love this stuff!”

Some of MBA Link’s clients have talked about their experience in dance, improvisational comedy, amateur filmmaking, and even rap. “We find it often takes a little digging to get Singaporean applicants to talk about these activities because they face a lot of pressure to focus on their jobs and more ‘serious’ activities,” says Linker. “But in the world of top-ranked MBA programs, these kinds of fun activities can be a real differentiator.”

6. Be authentic

Applicants from every background feel the pressure of looking and sounding like an MBA, says Linker. “One of the funniest things I find is how often an applicant from a traditional business background will come into our office and express concern that they have an unattractive profile because schools are more interested in the non-traditional applicants,” he says. “Then a non-traditional applicant will walk in and express deep concern that their application is weak because they don't have traditional business experience. The reality is that as an MBA applicant, you are in your strongest position if you can truly be yourself.”