Fighting Korean Stereotypes in the MBA Admissions Process


In this article, I would like to discuss how to fight three stereotypes of Korean applicants in the MBA admissions process in order to greatly improve your chances of admission. The stereotypes are:

  • Placing too much emphasis on testing and ignoring the personal side of the application;
  • The belief that it is best to express what you think admissions officer wants to hear versus conveying who you really are;
  • The unwillingness to engage

There is no question that MBA applicants from Korea often have strong test scores and academic backgrounds. However, one of the biggest misconceptions Korean applicants face is that achieving high test scores alone is enough to get students into a top-ranked business school. Scores are valuable, but they are not the only aspect of the application. Frequently, students spend tremendous resources and time to achieve these high scores at the expense of time spent on self-reflection, where to apply, and essays. The GMAT is a threshold matter. Once you reach a certain score, it is far more valuable to focus on developing a compelling application than trying to improve your GMAT score from a 710 to a 740.

The second stereotype – expressing what you think admissions officers want to hear versus showing who you truly are - is also a result of misplaced energy and focus. Far too many applicants try to answer the essay questions in a way that they think will please the admissions officer. These essays tend to be written at arms-length, are impersonal, and are clearly written without the soul-searching exercise required to produce outstanding personal essays. This practice can often lead to essays that have been scrubbed of any unique contributions or differentiating factors and that sound far too familiar. Business school essays require fairly deep introspection. Not taking the time to self-reflect and think deeply about what makes you unique is doing yourself a disservice.

An example of this stereotype can be seen when students overemphasize a relatively minor experience in their career in an attempt to demonstrate their outstanding leadership skills. In this case, the story will not feel genuine and most certainly will not be verified in the letter of recommendation. Better essays come from thoroughly examining a significant mistake or error, addressing what you learned from it, and what you did or will do to prevent this error from happening again. It’s important to realize that admissions officers will see through or recognize false or exaggerated stories. You must be true to yourself when writing your essays.

The final stereotype - unwillingness to engage or share your thoughts and ideas - is often related to fear.  Though business school programs expect solid English language proficiency, they do not necessarily expect you to have the same level of English skills as a native English speaker. Concerns about fluency can often result in candidates choosing not to join a discussion, raise a relevant point, or fully express themselves or their idea.

Throughout your application and your interviews, you cannot let your fear of not being able to speak perfect English prohibit you from showing the admissions office exactly who you are and what you will contribute to their MBA class, campus, and eventually, the alumni association. Admissions officers will judge your ability to join the conversation and to contribute to your eventual MBA classes and classmates.

The best way to feel comfortable speaking up is to practice in your essays. By thoroughly developing your personal essay and orally expressing your ideas, you will feel more comfortable and confident in your candidacy. The more at ease you are about speaking and writing about your aspirations, the easier it will be for you to discuss them with your eventual interviewer. If you are unable to overcome this hurdle in an admissions interview, your chances of acceptance drop dramatically…so be sure to speak up! To quote a colleague, boldness in effort of expression can compensate for a lack of flawless fluency.

When applying to US business schools, it’s important to be aware of how top-ranked admissions offices view Korean applicants. In the end, you are not being compared to American applicants; you are being compared to other Korean applicants. It’s crucial that you do everything possible to develop your persona, tell your unique story, and to get heard.



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