Hitting the Ground Running: Is a High TOEFL Score a Guarantee of Success in an MBA Program?

Ask any international student in a competitive MBA program (Is there any other kind?) how he is doing in his classes and chances are he will tell you that his quantitative skills are definitely a match for those of his native-English-speaking peers, but when it comes to classes where communications skills count, he is frequently at a disadvantage. It is one thing to run numbers but quite another to present a persuasive case analysis against an experienced member of the Harvard debating team. Passing the Test of Written English with a five-paragraph essay is not the same as writing a cogent marketing strategy in one thousand words or less. How is the international MBA candidate to compete?

Admissions officers in MBA programs know that their international candidates arrive with a quantitative edge but a linguistic disadvantage. They take these differences into account when weighing the merits of one applicant over another. They believe that capable students will "survive" and, of course, most do. Yet the experience of playing communications catch-up can be grueling for international students, and not just the first semester. Before beginning an MBA program abroad, students need to evaluate their language skills--both spoken and written--much more realistically if they are to sail through their programs.

Just how good are your listening and speaking skills in English?

International students often arrive on American campuses with fairly fluent English and the self-assurance that goes with it. Their confidence may be misplaced, however. Unless those speaking skills have been finely honed in an English-speaking academic setting, these students may find that the language they use one-on-one, even in a business setting, may be insufficient when trying to make productive contributions to class discussions in a top-notch business school where such participation frequently constitutes 15 percent of their grade in a course. As Fumito Ito, a Japanese executive studying at George Washington University in Alexandria, Virginia, puts it, "Catching the right moment with the right understanding of the discussion," is often hard and makes it difficult to "make a constructive comment."

How strong is your accent? Do you have experience making presentations in front of large groups?

Many business courses include oral presentations of projects, another area fraught with dangers international students may not anticipate: an accent that is charming in a tête-à-tête can be much less comprehensible when speaking to a large group; a case of nerves at the podium can render a brilliant proposal incomprehensible because of a hurried pace of delivery; a lack of organization that may be tolerated in a written document can make an oral presentation deadly.

How clear is your written English?

Business writing may pose another unexpected hurdle. American writing style is unremittingly direct, a fact that poses both cultural and linguistic problems for international students. What Americans consider concise and to the point may seem shockingly blunt and simplistic to writers with a different language background. Furthermore, sophisticated structures that impress in one language may be less impressive in English; sophisticated vocabulary used incorrectly may obscure an insightful analysis. American professors and executives alike want innovative solutions to tough problems, but they want them explained in clear, succinct language. According to Michel Lagoutte, a French national with an MBA degree from the University of Chicago, "Clear analysis is reflected in clear language. Persuasive reports are eminently readable."

How different is the United States from your country?

Deep differences in culture can also make the first semester of business school a trial. For example, on the surface Americans appear to be friendly and informal. "I was surprised at how social my graduate program is," said Marat Sadykov, of Russia, now studying at Columbia University. Adjusting to this informality can be a challenge for international students, but it is also confusing because the informality masks an extremely competitive environment. It is also an environment in which what you produce counts much more than where you are from. To gain the respect of their peers, international students must plunge into the social activities in their programs, make worthwhile contributions to class discussions, and deal with a host of unfamiliar features of U.S. business schools: team projects, professor’s office hours, grading systems, bidding to join certain classes, etc. The sooner students become aware of the differences in values illustrated by these unfamiliar features, the sooner they can adjust to them and overcome them.

What can you do if your language skills are not up to speed?

Deal with improving your skills before you start! Several universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, have developed business English programs that help incoming international MBA candidates resolve some of their language problems before starting their degree courses.

International students are entering MBA programs in English-speaking countries in greater and greater numbers. They bring diversity to these programs, diligence to their work, and quantitative skills that are frequently superior to those of native English speakers. To take full advantage of their degree programs, however, they need to know what linguistic and cultural problems may influence their performance.

Jane Kenefick is a lecturer in Columbia University’s American Language Program, where she trains international teaching assistants and teaches a pre-MBA seminar for international students each summer.