Business School in English – What You Need to Know

If you are on this blog, chances are you are looking to attend a primarily English-language business school. Also, chances are English is your second or third language and we all know English is not an easy language. Is this causing some anxiety? Don’t fear…

Verbal and Written Participation in MBA Programs:

Not all English programs are going to feel the same to a non-native speaker. It comes down to how you are going to be graded. Heavy case-based programs like my alma-mater, HBS or University of Virgina’s Darden, are going to derive 50% of your grade from your verbal participation in the case discussions. Of course, nearly every program is going to have some case-based classes, but these two programs contain greater than 80% cased-based classes. That might feel like a lot if you are struggling to keep up. Discussions can move very quickly, and if you are still translating English into your native language in your head, the discussion will likely have moved on by the time you formulate a response. This can really hurt your ability to participate and lead to low grades and dissatisfaction.

The other 50% of your grade at HBS is going to come from written case analysis. Generally, this is less of a problem for most people because instructors provide ample time for you to formulate a thoughtful response.


Business schools will adapt their admission practices to meet the needs of their program, but most business schools do offer a minimum TOEFL (or similar score) requirement.


The English language part of the admissions process doesn’t end with you meeting the minimum requirement. Your communication and English skills will be assessed throughout the admissions process: as your writing skills will be evaluated in your essays, your verbal communication will be tested in the interview, and the verbal section of the GMAT will test your reading comprehension.


Most schools will wave TOEFL requirements for anyone who attended an undergraduate university taught entirely in English. If you did not attend such a program, you should make sure you get that minimum score or score near the median (if a minimum score isn’t supplied).

There are plenty of online and printed resources for prepping for the GMAT, below you will find some links to some highly rated resources:


Alternatively, if you don’t want to limit your studying to cramming for the TOEFL or just want to brush up on your English skills before heading off to school, check out some of the advanced offerings from services like Babbel.

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Hope this helps and Good Luck!

Solving a business challenge with design thinking

By Kristen Zhou Coming from a background in finance and engineering, I often solve business problems and improve operational performance using hypothesis-based analytical thinking and data analysis. When I was exposed to the design thinking approach for the first time as a MMM student, it struck me how many transformative design innovations have been created […]

Choosing Where to Apply to Business School

There are two separate decisions you will need to make during your application process.  Where should you apply?  Where do you want to go?  You will struggle to differentiate between these two questions at some point.  Just trying to get into “somewhere” and confirmation bias could influence you.  Use this simple rule to separate these two questions:  where you want to go is agnostic of your chances of getting in, where you should apply is not.  If you are not sure you want to go to business school, are willing to wait a year if you do not get into your top choice(s), or are unwilling to go to a runner-up choice, your list of schools can be the same for both questions (“Flexible Applicant”).  If you are sure you want to business school next year, you definitely need to consider your chances of getting in when deciding where to apply (“Committed Applicant”).

Where do you want to go?  There are basically 2 schools of thought:  First, go to the best school you can get into. Second, go to the school that is the best “fit”.   Determining “fit” is tough, the best schools are a little easier.  Take rankings with a grain of salt; remember that if magazines published the exact same list every year, no one would care.  They are incentivized to change their rankings every year and publish ridiculous things, like “HBS is #8” (that’s stupid) and “What is wrong with Wharton?” (absolutely nothing).  As far as rankings go, I believe the simpler the better.  I am partial to Forbes, which calculates a simple ROI and shares their criteria.  Viewing composite rankings (BusinessWeek and US News) only shows you what others think is important, not what you think is important.

Regardless of what the rankings say, you should do your own research.  Talk to mentors you respect.  Interview leaders in the area you hope to move into.  As a general rule:  For general management, Harvard and Stanford are your best bet. For finance, Booth and Wharton (throw in Columbia and NYU, if you want to end up in NYC). For marketing, Kellogg is the best choice. For technology, throw in Berkeley and MIT. (If you want to end up in a certain region after graduation, you may also want to add Tuck and Cornell for the Northeast; Ross and Kelley for the Midwest; Duke, UNC, Darden, and Texas for the South, or UCLA for Southern California.)

The second school of thought is about finding “fit”. For this I recommend making a “Fit List” of what is important to you and ranking schools on each item on your list.  The best way to experience fit is to do an official school visit (this also has the added benefit of making your application easier).  For me, I chose 4 categories (each with several criteria):  Lifestyle and Environment, Perception and Salary, Teaching and Curriculum, and Innovation Atmosphere.  I then took the added step weight each category and criteria based on its relative importance to me. This was minimally helpful. Essentially, the only value gained from this step was ranking each criterion by importance (not the actual quantitative result, which seemed too arbitrary to be useful).

My Fit List (including Difficulty to Get Into):


Where you should apply?  For Flexible Applicants, I recommend narrowing your list to 2-3 schools.  This should be the best schools for what you want to do or the top schools on your Fit List.  For Committed Applicants (definitely going to B school next year), you should be thinking 4-6 schools.  This should be your top 2-3 schools, plus 2-3 “Bumper Schools”.  These schools will help ensure you knock down at least one pin.  They are still high on your list, but where you will be a very competitive applicant.  You should also get at least one application done during Round 1 to ensure that there is time to finish or adjust strategy in Round 2.  To find your Bumper Schools, consider creating a two-part metric that utilizes both your personal ranking and difficulty to get into, such as selectivity %.  Schools in the South and Midwest such as UNC, Ross, Duke, and Booth, have high selectivity % relative to their perception and brand.  Schools in California and the Northeast, such as Berkeley, MIT, and Yale, have low selectivity % relative to their brand.

Ultimately, think of the application process as a “funnel”, where schools attrit at each step.  I hoped to get into two schools and allow the admit weekend to be the final deciding factor.  For this reason, I chose to submit 5 applications and ended up accepted at three (1 more than I had hoped).

My Application Funnel:


So when you are applying to business school, remember “where you want to go” and “where you should apply” are not the same thing.  Where you should apply depends on two criteria:  Are you a “Fit Lister” or a “Top Schooler”? And are you flexible in your application process?