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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003

FOR MANY, IT'S THE ULTIMATE TEST

Race is on to get into world's most prestigious MBA programs


Staff writer

Some liken it to an event as pivotal as marriage. Others say it's a ticket to a super white-collar job, or even the ultimate test of one's being.

The motivations and goals may vary, but the race is heating up in Japan to get accepted into master's of business administration programs, and the application process for fall 2004 enrollment is now in high gear.

Officials from several world-renowned MBA programs were in Tokyo in the past few months to interview prospective students, an early batch of whom have already learned their fate. Several schools also set up booths at a global MBA fair, and even held individual seminars at premier hotels to woo the brightest few who might win multiple offers.

At a Nov. 6 function in Tokyo organized by Columbia University's business school, many of the nearly 100 attendees flocked to admissions officer Nancy Schauf when her Powerpoint presentation ended and before the banquet kicked off.

A thin young man in a gray suit peered at Schauf from a short distance. "I've been trying to talk to her," he said as he nervously sipped his drink.

He said he recently was told by the school he had applied to that he was on its waiting list. "I've heard she has a big say in deciding who gets to be chosen from that list."

As the economy continues to stagnate and job market uncertainties mount, more and more aspiring corporate leaders are pinning their career hopes on MBAs. And many of them seem focused, if not obsessed, with gaining entry into the top-notch U.S. schools.

But the odds of being accepted by any of the top 20 are as long as ever, and students from other parts of the world, including China and India, are raising the curve.

A decade ago, each top-ranked U.S. business school had 20 to 30 Japanese per class. The number has since dropped precipitously, said Tadashi Yokoyama, president of The Princeton Review of Japan, the Japanese franchise of the global educational institution offering training and counseling for MBA applicants.

Ten years ago, Japanese made up the biggest student group from outside the U.S., as schools were eager to learn from Japan's management style and its economic success of the 1980s, he said.

Yokoyama boasted that two-thirds of all Japanese admitted into the world's top 30 MBA programs have knocked on his company's door. It now has 1,300 salaried workers applying or preparing to apply to business schools.

"Back then, students could get accepted pretty much with their company names, academic background, job experience and (GMAT and TOEFL) test scores," Yokoyama said. "Today, with applications flooding in from China and India, schools look at each applicant's dossier more closely. They want answers on why they have to accept people from Japan."

Accordingly, prospective students are urged to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to writing essays, rehearsing for interviews and looking for outstanding letters of recommendation.

"Test scores only get you to the door in the screening process," he said. "Schools now want to know the philosophy and perspectives of individuals at a deeper level."

Even Japan's elite are desperate to gain admission. Takanori Sakamoto, a 26-year-old bureaucrat at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is preparing applications to 10 schools, including ones strong in turnaround management and biotechnology, such as Columbia, New York University and Harvard.

Sakamoto said he saw his fellow METI officials get one rejection letter after another last year, after applying for numerous MBA programs in the U.S. In the end, only a few from the ministry made it, he said.

"Your affiliation doesn't matter," said Sakamoto, who is a graduate of the University of Tokyo's faculty of law, traditionally home to Japan's best and brightest. "What matters is who you are, what you have achieved and what your passions and dreams are."

He currently spends three hours preparing applications every day -- after leaving work at midnight or 1 a.m. The most challenging part is writing essays, dealing with such enigmatic assignments as: "Creatively describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use any method to convey your message: words, illustrations, etc."

So what is it about top MBA programs that make Japanese twentysomethings defy the odds and hope so desperately to win admission? A brand name? Big financial rewards after graduation? Access to a network of distinguished alumni? Or frustration with corporate giants, which seldom offer them a chance to show off their skills?

Applicants, recent graduates and college officials say the huge investment, both in time and money, make only the top schools worth the trouble.

The total costs involved -- including tuition and fees, living expenses and two years of lost salary, which applies to a growing number of independently sponsored students who quit jobs to join MBA programs -- can easily top 20 million yen.

At Yokoyama's school, 60 percent of students today pay for their own MBA education, due in part to dwindling corporate sponsorship from traditional sources of MBA candidates -- financial firms and trading houses.

The challenge is another big reason. Only at the top U.S. schools can students pit their intellect, passion and leadership qualities -- all of which are required to be a successful manager -- against the brightest minds from across the globe, said Kentaro Yamamoto, a 28-year-old employee at a major manufacturer.

He plans to apply to at least 10 of the top schools early next year.

Yamamoto said he will take two years off from work and borrow money from his parents to finance his schooling.

"I find it extremely challenging to enter a class of people who want to change the world," he said. "And to compete against them on a daily basis."



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