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Soothing Culture Shock

By Jeffrey Gangemi Mengjia "Victoria" Zhuang, a 29-year-old MBA student from Shanghai, China, will never forget her first day in strategy class at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. In the middle of her first case discussion, Zhuang was struggling to keep up. Suddenly, the teacher looked directly at her and posed the question, "What would you do if you were CEO of this company?"

"I was shocked," says Zhuang, "I just sat there for two or three minutes and tried to figure out my answer." Zhuang had unwittingly become the first example of a "cold call," when a professor randomly selects a student to participate in class discussion. The practice is unlike anything she had ever experienced in China, she says.

As an international student at B-school, Zhuang is among a substantial group. Business and management programs attract almost 20% of the 600,000 international students in the U.S., making it the most popular course of study for this global group. That's according to "Open Doors," a study published by the Institute for International Education, a Washington, D.C.-based independent nonprofit group promoting international education. About 30% to 40% of the students at top U.S. B-schools are foreigners.

Students like Zhuang are subject to a host of cultural, linguistic, and academic challenges. While it's impossible to erase all of the obstacles, here are some tips to ease the transition into the American MBA experience:

Pick the right program

Start educating yourself about U.S. B-schools from the comfort of your home country. When you research programs, try and choose one that has an office for international students. Not only will it provide help with tasks like finding housing and getting a driver's license, but it also provides "an ear to listen when you're frustrated," says Christie St-John, senior associate director of admissions and recruitment at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

Administration officials and current students can help address concerns and frustrations and provide important information. Talking and networking with students can help you get a sense of the school's overall culture and how many students come from abroad to study, speak a second language, or have lived or worked overseas, says Monica Gray, director of admissions at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

One aspect of a school's culture is determined by geography. For instance, incoming international students to Stanford Graduate School of Business in California need to know about entrepreneurship and the tech giants of Silicon Valley, says Seda Mansour, Stanford's assistant director of MBA admissions. This kind of info gives international students an idea of the type of community they'll be entering.

Brush up your English

Networking is one way to help you learn about a school and its culture, and it offers the additional bonus giving you a chance to practice your English. To get further up to speed, many students recommend watching American movies, reading the mainstream press, and eventually subscribing to business publications.

"People coming to business school in the U.S. need to have some knowledge of American business," says Ishrat Ali, a first-year student from Bangladesh at University of Virginia Darden School of Business. "Reading is the best way [to get the knowledge]."

But no matter how strong your written skills, you must also be able to speak the language. A requirement for the admission of international students to most business schools, the new Test of English as a Foreign Language, more commonly known as TOEFL, will challenge those students who have traditionally done well on the written test to now demonstrate their oral ability.

Starting in September, test-takers will need a more functional knowledge of English than ever before. The TOEFL test will contain a new oral section and be delivered via the Internet, allowing the test administrator to record speech and score responses in a standardized manner.

"A lot of times, people preparing for the TOEFL know separate areas, but when they get here, they realize the need to integrate everything to communicate effectively," says Carol Romett, senior instructor for the Center for Language Education & Development at Georgetown.

If you need extra help with English on arrival, make sure your school offers language courses. And remember: No matter how strong your English is, it takes a while to adapt to any new environment. Not knowing the subtleties of the language or the names of places can become stressful and overwhelming. "Be prepared to feel like a five-year-old for a week," says Dartmouth's St-John.

Arrive on campus early

A period of adjustment is inevitable, but it helps if you can get acquainted with your new home before classes start. Try to arrive at least two weeks beforehand. Use the time to take care of as many chores as you can -- get your driver's license, cell phone, and car. Also, finding housing from abroad can be a challenge, so take advantage of university resources to find a safe and affordable option.

Between all of these tasks, get to know some of your classmates by attending social events and joining student clubs. If your spouse or partner has made the move with you, this can help them start their own network of friends and avoid feeling alienated. It helps relieve your own feelings of isolation, especially for those students who come with a partner or spouse. Once classes begin, the activity and work won't stop -- so enjoy the preprogram downtime.

Know classroom cultural differences

Nothing will sufficiently prepare you for the B-school classroom experience. The relationship between students and American professors is one of open dialogue, which is not usually the case in Europe and Asia. Most professors in the U.S. offer office hours, where they meet with students individually to discuss the class content or address any problems.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is adjusting to the use of case discussions in American B-schools. Like Zhuang, Marco Mastrapasqua, an Italian first year student at USC Marshall School of Business, was bewildered at first by the case method. "Somebody told me about [the case method], but it was still culture shock," says Mastrapasqua. His advice on making the adjustment? "Look at what the domestic students are doing, and just go with it."

Use the career services office

The traditional American job search often shocks foreigners. The prevalent practice of "selling yourself" on a r?sum? or in an interview seems like bragging or lying to many other ethnic groups. But to get a job in the U.S., it's considered a necessity.

Many MBA students also think that employers will come looking for them when they graduate -- they don't know how fierce the competition for many jobs can be. "Often we hear international students say they wish they had focused on the job search from Day One," says Beth Miertschin, assistant director of career services at Georgetown. Career-management activities should be considered just as important as classroom ones, she adds. The earlier you start the search, the better.

The transition to a U.S. B-school takes time, but if you're talented and accomplished enough to be accepted, you can get through the program. "People will have tough starts, but they will succeed," says Mansour.

Zhuang not only adjusted to the case method, but her love for American movies landed her an international marketing job at Warner Brothers in Los Angeles. For her, it seems, culture shock is a thing of the past.

Do you have any other tips that would be helpful for international students attending U.S. B-schools? Send them to

Also, you can discuss life at American B-schools in the International Students section of the BusinessWeek Online's B-Schools Forum (Free registration required). Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York.

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