Subject/Career Guidance – Business and Finance

A desire to study business drives many students around the world and business remains the first choice of international students, in particular those who are seeking overseas qualifications. Behind this lies the wish to acquire appropriate skills and insights into the business world in countries, such as the USA, which have the reputation of leadership both in academic studies relating to business and in operating within the ‘real’ business world.

What are the factors that students should bear in mind when selecting a business degree? The ground rules are a little different from the selection of other degree programs. Normally you would advise a student to go the university with the strongest possible overall reputation but other factors can play more strongly when selecting a business program. Some very traditional universities have come late to the notion of offering undergraduate business degrees as they have been reluctant to accept ‘business’ as a truly academic subject area. It therefore makes sense to look to universities such, for example, as those that were originally termed ‘Polytechnics’ in the UK, and are now still sometimes called ‘new universities’, because of their much longer commitment to business education. With a more vocational, ‘jobs-oriented’ outlook, they also adopt a less theoretical and academic approach in their business curriculum and emphasize the need for a more practical and hands-on style of learning and teaching. Most students who study business have a related career path in mind and so it makes sense for them to choose a degree program which adopts this practical approach and encourages them to engage with ‘real life situations’.

This can be taken to a further level in those degree programs which offer students the opportunity to gain work experience for a year or half-year or which provide internships, The ‘sandwich’ course, as this is sometimes called, gives students the chance to put their knowledge of business into practice in a business setting as well as to learn directly from the mentoring they receive from the host business’ own employees. Many international students are initially put off by this approach. They are studying at great expense thousands of miles from home and there is often both financial and emotional pressure on them to complete their undergraduate degrees as soon as they can in order either to move quickly to undertake a higher degree or to go home and seek a job or, more than likely, join the family business and deploy the knowledge and skills they have learned.

This desire to avoid programs with work experience or to spurn the work experience option can be very short sighted. The work experience element is high, to my mind, in the realm of ‘value-added’ elements in any degree program. That type of experience can not only be valuable in itself but also enables students to share their experiences with one another and enrich their learning experience during the final year of their degree program when they have all returned to their lecture and seminar rooms. 

Another by-product of the work experience element can be the offer of a job with the company that the student has been allocated to. Most large companies and multi-nationals in particular have training programs which involve their taking on bright young business graduates. These places can be highly competitive and the student on work experience who has made an excellent impression on the senior staff in the company in which he or she has been placed could find him or herself in a strong position to gain one of these trainee positions or, indeed, the outright offer of a job on graduation. I have even known bright students be taken on immediately and then supported financially during their final year of study. Of course, this will be the exception rather than the norm but why rule oneself out of the running by not taking up the offer of work experience.

Another important question which arises in choosing a degree program in the business field, is whether or not to go for a more general or a more specialized degree. It may be, of course, that a student’s family or sponsors have already pre-selected a program so that the returning graduate will be able to fill a perceived gap in the skills of the family business. If this is not a factor, I would urge prospective business students to choose a more specialized program that will allow them to offer particular rather than general business knowledge and skills to a prospective employer. The ideal structure at university anywhere may be a first year which introduces the student to a broad overview of business and its various functions, before allowing students, with that experience to guide them, to choose a specialization for the remaining years of their degree program, for example, marketing, human resource management or finance.

Finally, consider the degree options which carry great weight in the business world because, rightly or wrongly, they are considered the options that attract the brightest students. Economics provides a good example of this type of program. Sometimes within a business program, Economics hides itself as ‘Business Environment’ and, in fact, the study of Economics does give the aspiring businessman an opportunity to learn about those factors which affect the environment within which individual businesses prosper or wither. Similarly, Accounting is a very strong option to choose. Accountants traditionally rise high in large business organizations because they bring with them a close working knowledge of the financial aspects vital to strategic decision making within businesses. Economists and Accountants become key advisers to business leaders and often end by taking those leadership positions themselves.

Some leaders of business may even have studied something quite different in their undergraduate years, such as Engineering, Psychology or another Science or a Social Science and then, having entered the business world with this different skills-set they gain experience at, say, a middle management level, and then enhance their business expertise by studying for an MBA.

As you can see there are many considerations to think about before you apply for that ‘Business Studies’ or ‘Business Administration’ degree. This may well still be the most suitable degree for you, but at least take these other factors mentioned above into account when you make that all-important choice.

Find business degrees in North America

How to achieve academic success at University in America

Gaining a place at University in the USA or Canada is an achievement but leads on to the next challenge – how to make the most of that place by going on to achieve academic success at university? The vast majority of university students are successful, so there is no need to be too anxious, but what can you do to make sure that you are in that number rather than be one of the minority that drop out in their freshman or sophomore years or only proceed under an academic warning with failed courses on their record?

First of all, you need to be prepared for the fact that university study is just different from studying in high school. You are going to be expected to take a significant step forward in terms of the mature thought you bring to your studies and the range and nature of the skills that you’ll be called upon to deploy. Take advice from those who have gone through the experience and try to learn from them. Preparation is very often the key to success and so don’t let yourself be taken by surprise by the demands that university study impose on you.

You can also help prepare yourself in practical ways. Consider in advance the courses that you want to undertake and try to get an early sight of the textbooks that you’ll be using. Look at the nature and number of assignments that you’ll need to complete in those courses and don’t overload yourself, especially with written assignments, in an unrealistic attempt to collect as many credits as you can.

Try to live healthily at university. It may be tempting to live the life of the ‘night owl’ that you always suspected you were, but remember that getting enough sleep is very important. Everything becomes more of a burden when you are tired and that includes keeping up with your studies. Try to eat sensibly too, especially eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and take exercise regularly. Joining in sports helps you stay healthy and enables you to make a lot of friends quickly too.

It may sound obvious, but you should aim to do the work. Turn up to all your classes and become known to your professors for good reasons. You may find it difficult to keep up with everything but it’s easier to do that than to catch up if you fall behind. Being at class makes perfect sense. You keep up with the courses, you receive a lot of additional guidance and advice from your professors and you have your classmates to bounce ideas off.

The general advice is that one hour in class should be backed up by three hours study outside of class. To achieve this you need to be well-organized. The ideal is to have set study times. You’ll have seen in your forward planning what needs to be done in terms of assignments and you should have set enough time aside to cope with the expected volume of work so that you can comfortably meet your deadlines. Be strict on yourself and stick to your planned allocation of study hours. This means that you can always cope with any unexpected demands on your time without your study plan being total derailed.

Be proactive as a student. Take notes in your lectures and keep these organized and up to date. You are always a more effective student with a pen or pencil in your hand. Review regularly the material you have learned and then you won’t have to burn the midnight oil when you have a quiz or examination. Your aim should always be to store material in your long-term memory so that it remains there for you to draw on rather than try to hold onto some information looked at in last-minute cramming on the way to the exam hall. Be honest in your assessment of how you are doing and how much effort you are putting into your studies. You will know the particular areas you need to improve on better than anyone else and you should be open to seeking the advice you need to help you do it.

Develop and refine the university level study skills that you need. Be a careful and attentive listener. Develop the ability to skim complex texts and scan them for relevant points or your reading lists will overwhelm you. Practice the ability to analyze, challenge and criticize what you’re reading or are told in lectures. Learn how to source information and assess the value and reliability of your sources.

Make use of all the resources that are available to you. These are not only the obvious ones in the learning commons but also the tutoring or advising services, the free access to on-line study skills materials, your instructors’ office hours, the specialized input of the Writing Center and the support of your fellow students through both formal and informal ‘study groups’.

Finally, don’t forget that university is a total experience. The best student is not normally the one that locks himself away with his books and does nothing but study. Even if he appears to be very successful, he is also missing out on many important aspects of university life. Don’t be afraid to enjoy your leisure time. You should engage in extra-curricular activities as these confirm you as a more ’rounded’ person and often count strongly in your favor when you apply for higher degrees or for employment. It’s OK to want to party, even if it’s more sensible to do so on a night when there’s no school the next day.

Do well in your studies while gaining the maximum benefit from the wonderful range of opportunities that university offers you. Then you really will be able to look back on one of the happiest and most productive times of your life.

Best wishes for the new academic year!

How to organize recommendation letters for your application to university

The academic or professional recommendation letter is a key element in putting together a full and appropriate application for a place to study at a university in the USA.

The letter is particularly important in explaining in a positive and supportive way what might otherwise appear as a weakness in your application. You might, for example, have a poor grade in a subject area which is a blemish on an otherwise strong academic record. If you are using your work experience to secure a place on a graduate program such as an MBA you might have a gap in your career which the recommendation letter could explain. In general terms the recommendation letter can also assess your potential for success in your chosen field of study and comment on your strong work ethic as it has been revealed through your studies or in the workplace.

The first important step is to choose the right person to write the letter in your support.

  • You should approach someone who knows you well as either a student or an employee. It might seem more impressive to have a letter written by the Principal of the School or the CEO of the company but if they don’t know you well they’ll be forced to rely on the written record and the opinions of others
  • You need to approach someone who will be able to provide a reflective and balanced view of you. Their assessment will undoubtedly be a favorable one but should also read as careful, considered and, most of all, detached and professional.

Many letters of recommendation will follow a template and so, the person writing the letter will be expected to provide comments on your:

  • intellectual capacity – how well can you reason or analyze material
  • creativity
  • depth of knowledge in your chosen field of study
  • communication skills – both written and oral maturity 
  • potential as a student – ability to motivate yourself and whether or not you are an independent learner

Your second step, therefore, is to ensure you bring to the attention of the person writing the letter any information that you hope could be included to strengthen the case for accepting you into the university.

  • This is where you can cover any issues arising from an apparent weakness in your application by presenting some evidence/argument in mitigation
  • Provide your referee with some actual evidence in support of the positive statements you hope are being made on your behalf. Do not expect that the referee will remember all of your accomplishments, so give him/her a brief list of your achievements. You may claim to be creative but that is of little value without an example to illustrate your creativity. For instance, your abilities as a communicator should have been demonstrated by a powerful presentation you gave, a sales promotion you headed or a insightful report that you wrote up.
  • Inform or remind your referee about anything out of the ordinary, when you ‘went the extra mile’ to complete a work project within a tight deadline, ways in which you showed initiative and went beyond what was required of you.

That extra something that makes you stand out as a person will almost certainly say something positive about you as a student or as an employee and catch the attention and remain in the mind of the selector.

Note: You need to be clear yourself and inform the person who is writing the letter on your behalf about any special requirements that the university might have and so the particular expectations it has of the referee.  An example of this might revolve around the actual recommendation made. The school might require that the referee to write about your strengths and aptitudes in general, and not mention your suitability for a particular program of study. This makes sense as it is the school itself which will draw together all the evidence provided by your application in its totality and use that to make its own assessment of your suitability for the program for which you have applied.

Finally, some brief very practical considerations:

  • Don’t be shy about asking for a letter. A professional person expects to provide these from time to time
  • Don’t omit a person whom you might have been expected to ask, such as your immediate line manager  – that can raise questions and even suggest you have something to hide
  • If you know the person as a good and effective writer, so much the better
  • If time has lapsed since the letter writer knew you directly increase the amount of helpful information you provide – they’ll be pleased to have it
  • Allow the letter writer plenty of time to write the letter
  • Give full details of where you are applying and what for – that’s vital
  • Make life easy for your referee by providing a stamped, addressed envelope
  • Waive your right to view the letter – confidential letters carry more weight
  • Tell your letter writer how you have progressed – by keeping the referee in the loop it’ll be easy for you to approach him or her again in the future.

Good luck with your applications!

Download a checklist of supporting documents to include in your application packet.