Getting the Right International Experience

As the business world (and business programs) become more global, international experience is increasingly necessary to succeed.  As CISabroad puts it,

“Study abroad is a key component in keeping up with today’s ever-globalizing business world.  Regardless of where you decide to study abroad, you will learn firsthand the ways in which cultural norms influence the practice of business in that country.

Through your study or intern abroad experience, you will learn to think globally and come to understand how the world is interconnected through business. Adding an international component to your business degree will make you even more competitive in today’s multicultural, global business environment.

Business is a competitive, global field, and having this international experience under your belt will allow you to navigate the tough job market with confidence. Whether you wish to study abroad or intern abroad, you will have an amazing opportunity to network and build relationships which will be so crucial in your job search after graduation.”

While international experience is not technically a requirement for admission into top-tier MBA programs, in practice it is.  Without international experience on your resume, you are at a serious disadvantage, as you have not explicitly proven to admissions officers that you are capable of thinking with a global perspective and comfortable with diversity.

Types of Experience

There are two chief ways that students can demonstrate their international experience, international volunteering and studying abroad.  There are more, sure, but these are the two that most students opt for, including myself.  If you want to balance your application well, I would recommend doing one of each type of program.


Many students opt to study abroad in the spring, fall, or summer, but if your university holds winter sessions between the fall and spring semesters, that is also a prime time to study abroad.  You can then focus fall and spring on research or independent studies and getting to know your mentor, save summer for your internship, and best utilize your free time.  If you are worried about missing Christmas, don’t fret.  Most winter programs start the day after.

If your university does not hold winter sessions, you can likely join a local university’s program, especially if your university is part of a larger umbrella (the SUNY school system that I attend is comprised of 64 separate institutions, for example).

If neither of the above are the case, part of one of your summers can be utilized for a study abroad, with the other half being reserved for an internship or independent study.

Additionally, most universities offer alternative spring breaks abroad.  Go.  Raising money can be difficult but is doable.  Nothing stands out on an application like a student selfless enough to volunteer abroad while their friends are in Cancun.  If your university does not do this type of program (unlikely, but possible), you can still go yourself via Outreach360.

Ideal scenario:

  • Study abroad in the winter
  • Volunteer abroad another winter
  • Volunteer on an alternative spring break (as many as possible)

As mentioned, this saves fall and spring for your scholastics, research, independent studies, and internship hunting, and leaves summer open for your internships.

Where should you go?

For the volunteering abroad, the location does not matter as much as the cause.  Try to pick a volunteering experience that centers around a cause relevant to your field (e.g. education = teaching in country X, finance = financial literacy workshops in country Y, etc.).  Obviously, volunteer experience that is not obviously pertinent to your field is still better than none at all, but try your best to select an experience that will mesh well with your story.

For studying abroad, though, the location is a bit more pertinent.  Some locales stand out more on b-school applications due to their economic clout, prominence in certain industries, or developing status.  Below is a list of what I have found to be the best places to study abroad for a business major, in no particular order:

Hong Kong:  This Special Administrative Region is touted as one of the top financial centers in the world, and business students harboring a love of economics come here to see laissez-faire capitalism in action. It’s ranked 2nd on the Ease of Doing Business Index as well. Combined with its status as one of the world’s foremost centers for banking, finance and international commerce and trade, Hong Kong should be one of the top destinations for business students hoping to study abroad.

Singapore:  Considered one of the four economic juggernauts of Asia, Singapore ranks first on the Ease of Doing Business Index. A largely trade-based economy, the city-state thrives mainly on exporting goods and retooling imports. Suffice to say, it boasts one of the world’s most active ports on top of being considered the fourth most prosperous financial centers anywhere. Business students hoping to enter into the chemical, petroleum, electronics, biomedical or mechanical engineering industries have plenty to explore here as well.

London, England, UK:  Londoners enjoy the world’s 5th largest economy and the ability to brag about their home as one of the planet’s three most influential cities for business (along with New York and Tokyo). Its volatile, ancient, multicultural history and strategic location make it an ideal hub for international and domestic transactions. Various industries spread themselves across five distinct business districts, with similar ones bunching together for maximum efficiency. No matter their area of interest, business students wanting to study abroad will inevitably find something relevant to their studies in London. Those particularly interested in finance or marketing creative pursuits like publishing and fashion should especially consider this kinetic, frenetic city.

Mexico City, Mexico:  Given the current sociopolitical climate in Mexico as a result of the drug wars, any visitors are encouraged to thoroughly research and weigh the risks before making any commitments to study in its capital. As the 8th richest city in the world, it leads Latin America in finance and industry and serves as an ideal place for Canadian and American students hoping to attend classes comparatively closer to home. Considering Mexico’s involvement with NAFTA, international business majors wanting to learn more about trade and economics should definitely think about snatching up any study abroad opportunities here. Many go because of the excellent Spanish lessons as well.

Sao Paulo, Brazil:  The largest city in Brazil is a thriving financial center in the midst of an economic boom. A rapid influx of foreign investment has helped to make an economy once reliant on manufacturing into a multidimensional system, including a robust services sector. Many business and economics students looking to go abroad choose Sao Paolo to learn firsthand about the city’s growing economic power.

For reference: Below is a list of the international experience I had on my application when I applied to business school:

  • Study abroad:  Hong Kong
    • My university
    • Winter intersession
    • Subjects: Asian business and the global economy
  • Volunteering abroad:  Ecuador
  • Volunteering abroad:  Domincan Republic
    • Outreach360
    • Alternative spring break, 1 week
    • Focus: Teaching English (education-related)

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