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José Méndez was thrilled to be accepted into Arizona State University’s WP Carey School of Business. The Venezuelan consultant hoped the US business school would help him secure work with an American company.
But Mr Méndez soon began to fret about his prospects. Sixty job applications produced only 10 interview requests and it was several months before he was hired. Fewer US companies are recruiting overseas MBAs, he says, and part of the problem is the cultural gap that opens up during interview. “It is different,” he says.
Americans have a distinctive approach to interviewing and there are tricks to learn. Business schools abound with interview horror stories during the jobhunting season.
Students at the Carey school heard of a French undergraduate who wrote a pompous cover letter to accompany his interview. “The recruiter used the letter as an example of what not to do.”
There are worries about how to prepare for an interview and about how to behave once there. At a weekly meeting of the International MBA Association, first-year overseas students at the Carey school discuss everything from struggling with the silverware to how much to eat, how to dress and when to drink.
The situation varies dramatically according to where you are from, says Mr Méndez, who now coaches first-year students.
Luis Brenes, a student from Costa Rica, says he might discuss the food with an interviewer – at home, this is polite and a way to bond. But he knows this is not done in the US. In Venezuela, following up with an interviewer is viewed as begging; in the US it is considered a natural step.
But business schools are aware of the difficulties. The Carey school offers cultural preparatory classes. At orientation, the career centre takes the students to a department store and teaches them how to pack for a business/interview trip. A fashion show is arranged at another store to demonstrate appropriate professional dress. Second-year MBAs escort new students to popular sports such as hockey, baseball and football, which recruiters might want to talk about informally.
Most business schools provide foreign students with forums and councils about performance at job interviews. Columbia hires speakers to talk about cultural pitfalls and maintains an international student advisory board that gives students cross-border perspectives.
Career centres are also showing ways to adapt. At the Carey school, for instance, students learn about the Star system (situation, task, action and result), a US interviewing style whereby the interviewer asks the candidate to describe a work situation in which they were successful. Candidates end up better prepared to field questions such as “Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult colleague”, or “Describe when you were forced to make an unpopular decision”.
Business schools now prepare the overseas MBA logistically, too. Guest speakers from companies and government agencies such as the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and embassies advise on what forms to fill in, and when and where to send them.
Schools are also helping by offering separate careers fairs for international students. The annual University of California International Business Consortium career fair invites companies that want to hire MBAs who are keen to work outside the US, or overseas students who want to work in the US.
Students say the extra instruction helps and they feel less spooked by the recruitment market. Jim Clayton, senior associate director for the Graduate Career Management Centre, says he sees students integrating with nationals more and appearing more confident. “We’ve tracked their improvement in job placement and starting salaries. These programmes work.”
Mr Méndez says overseas students are distracted by the logistics of finding somewhere to live, establishing a credit history in the US and acquiring a social security number. “If we had more support with things like this, we could probably work harder and earlier on finding a job.”
US employers wary of overseas graduates
In spite of increasing globalisation, more US business schools are finding that recruiters hesitate before hiring overseas graduates.
Kip Harrell, associate vice-president for professional and career development at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, notes that, although employers still look for the best qualified candidates, regardless of their work authorisation status, the long processing time needed to obtain work visas leads some employers to work only with students who already possess the paperwork.
The demand for H-1B visas – non-immigrant visas that allow business professionals to work in the US for a specific period – far exceeds the quota imposed by the US Congress. Mark Rhoads, an immigration attorney in Virginia who processes hundreds of H-1B visas a year, says: “This year, the entire 85,000 quota will likely be exhausted on April 1 [the first day on which employers are permitted to apply]. This is a crisis.”