Get a top-rated Mini-MBA Certificate for $199 $29 (till 15th Dec)

How important is international experience for MBA programs like INSEAD?

How important is international experience for MBA programs like INSEAD?
As if GMAT, good GPA, solid team lead experience and what not weren’t enough, now that you’ve decided to take the plunge, you hear of this new beast – international work experience. MBA forums are abuzz with presumptuous and incorrect views about how programs such as INSEAD will reject applicants for not having international experience.

Let’s try to demystify the what, where, how and why of it through this post and then some more.

How important is international experience for MBA programs?


How would bschools define ‘international experience’?

What exactly constitutes international experience then? Ideally speaking, this means physically living in another country – either for professional reasons or personal or both. This is not a verified of exhausted list, but the following usually count:

  1. Working in a country other than that of your origin for anywhere from a few weeks to years.
  2. Being born and growing up in another country. This can include education as well.
  3. Going on extended personal trips to different countries. A few days usually doesn’t count. Simple family vacations can have lesser weight compared to say backpacking trips and the likes
  4. Trips made as part of volunteer organization(s) where you spend time doing some socially useful work in another country

If you don’t have any, a second, albeit much weaker list emerges (we come to the why it is weaker question in the next part:

  1. Being part of a multinational organization. By the very nature of it, you get some exposure
  2. Working with teams/clients spread all over the world. Interacting with them through video/telephone far better than merely on emails/second connections.
  3. Having experience of working on global projects – meaning, the work you do has bearing on a firm’s business outside of your home country

Many folks go with the pitch of India being a diverse country and hence you know what it takes. Most of the times, this won’t fly. While adcoms appreciate the diversity of our country, it is still different once you are in a foreign land – you’ve got to experience that yourself to know it. Even if you use this pitch, don’t hard-sell it.

Why is global experience valued by business schools? What’s the benefit in MBA programs?

Now that we have some understanding on what can constitute as international experience, let’s examine why schools really care about it. When you go into a global program, your peers will come from all sorts of different backgrounds – cultures, languages, countries, regions, professional, likes/dislikes – everything will be diverse. The variety can be mind-numbing and it is not difficult to see why it can be intimidating to many.

It is here that the international experience becomes relevant. If you’ve been in similar situations before, you are more likely to take this into your stride and even turn this to your and others’ advantage. For instance, it will mean that you do not avoid those who may not have the best English language skills or whose eating habits are diametrically opposite to yours.

There is another vital reason why this matters. The chances of you taking up an international role in a foreign country are pretty good after the MBA; indeed, many seek a global brand for this very reason. While the business school will prepare you for this, it is still an academic setting. Your future recruiters too might be more receptive to your profile if you have had prior experience of dealing with international diversity.

It all boils down however as to what you learnt and what impact you delivered during your time outside the country. If you just saw the top 10 destinations in a given city, that is far less useful than say staying with a local or helping build a school in a place where none exist. Like all other parts of your application, schools are really looking for any impact you have created – on yourself and/or your surroundings – during this sojourn.

Is it mandatory to have (and show) international experience in MBA applications? What if I don’t have it?

Unlike some factors such as GMAT, this is not a must have to apply. But then again, all schools are not created equal. Some, such as INSEAD/IMD/LBS in particular and many European programs in general have a much higher preference for this compared to schools in other geographies. Some of these even ask categorical essay questions around your international experience.

Even so, it is not a must have and provided you can still showcase a global outlook, schools may be willing to look past this. This is where the second, less preferred list comes into play. Look for opportunities to interact with those not from your country.

Remember however that this is not a must have. That means if for instance you have an option to take up a mediocre international job versus an exciting opportunity within the country, go for the latter.

Business schools are aware of the fact that the number of international opportunities in certain roles and industries may be fairly limited. For instance, a marketing manager responsible for a certain (domestic) geographic region or someone in the finance industry in India responsible for domestic investment opportunities.

Speaking of the latter, we worked with someone with that profile (finance experience entirely in India) and the candidate was concerned about the lack of international experience on his resume. We concentrated on putting the rest of the pieces together in the best possible manner.

The result? He ended up with 4 admits from top business schools in India, USA and France. Yup, that last one was INSEAD. And our friend got in with a scholarship. To put that in context, many candidates assume INSEAD would never seriously consider applications with zero international experience.

And it’s not just INSEAD. We work with a lot of applicants who don’t have global experience and are targetting bschools in Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, and USA. This includes non-IT (where the probability of global travel is low) as well as IT candidates (where the opportunities are getting fewer over the years).

Here’s a sampling of candidates we’ve helped who hadn’t worked abroad who got into top schools in Europe where the proportion of international students in the class is substantially higher than in American MBA programs.

Candidate Role / Industry Admit from
Auto SCM HEC Paris
PR / Advertising HEC
Commercial Banking Oxford
Private Equity INSEAD

Here’s one such story. Unlike other applicants from companies such as TCS, Cognizant, Accenture etc where foreign clients, international assignments and travel opportunities are quite common, Khalid’s IT role in a domestic Pharmaceutical company didn’t give him any international work experience. He cracked into the Oxford MBA with no international experience.

If you are in the same boat as they were, our advice to you remains the same.

Never do stuff just for the heck of a bschool application – that is too myopic a view to take about your life in general.

Read these articles:
What INSEAD Looks for in MBA Applicants
INSEAD admit with scholarship for Indian applicant
INSEAD admit with average GMAT score
1 Year MBA Abroad (INSEAD) vs 2 Year MBA in India (IIM)
INSEAD Singapore vs MBA in India, USA and France
Can a high GMAT score compensate for less work experience?
16 INSEAD facts every international student should know
INSEAD admit with low GPA in engineering degree and bulge bracket bank work experience
Best Admission Consultants for INSEAD

Image credit: INSEAD

Mini-MBA | Start here | Success stories | Reality check | Knowledgebase | Scholarships | Services

Serious about higher ed? Follow us:


Manish Gupta
About Manish Gupta
Chief Consulting Officer at MBA Crystal Ball, ex-McKinsey, IIT & ISB topper. MG can help you get into the top B-schools. Read more about this top MBA admissions consultant. Connect with MG on Linkedin, Facebook or Email: mcb [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

8 thoughts on “How important is international experience for MBA programs like INSEAD?”

  1. Hello Sir ,
    Kindly through light on a marine engineer’s experience working in the shipping industry and value of the international experience he gathers by virtue of sailing in the international waters with international crew .

    Also , when is the right time to diversify from the shipping career ideally in terms of its regard with the international MBA schools.

    • The shipping experience is definitely considered international Priyam also because the crew tends to be quite multi-national.

      4-6 years of experience is usually the right time to think of MBA.

  2. Thats a sound advice. Can something like where a candidate takes up some foreign assignment just a couple of months before applying be taken in a negative way bu the admission committee? May be as a sign of desparation?

  3. Hello Sir. I am a doctor from the healthcare sector where international opportunities are virtually non existent. I have 2.5 yrs of experience in tertiary superspeciality health centres and am looking at Swiss insti such as IMD and HSG. Would my lack of international experience hurt my chances?

    • Per the above article, you should get a sense that international experience is highly valued by those programs Yash.

      While it is tough but in the medical circles too, there are conferences/seminars/secondments that do exist. One can also evaluate pro-bono assignments or some such.


Leave a Comment