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Advice to Prospective Schwarzman Scholars

Blaise Buma (Cameroon, ’17) shares his thoughts on making your application stand out, why Schwarzman Scholars is critical for young leaders, and how the program can help the future of Africa-China relations.

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My name is Blaise Buma and I am a member of the inaugural class of Schwarzman Scholars – Class of 2017. I grew up in Cameroon and moved to the U.S. in 2009 to pursue university studies. Upon graduation from college, I had a brief stint in the financial services industry before moving to China for the program. I made that decision because this pioneering program provides a unique opportunity for potential young leaders to get a 360-degree view of China, all at no expense to you. If future leaders from Africa and China mingle today as friends, I believe that the cross-cultural relationships they forge will ensure a greater mutual understanding if they meet in the corridors of power tomorrow.  Given the increasingly important nature of the relationship between these two regions, Schwarzman Scholars is a great platform for young people from the continent to better understand China.

If you are a prospective candidate reading this, you might be asking yourself: how do I make my application stand out? I’m I competitive enough? Do I have the right kind of leadership experience? If you're thinking these questions, you’re not alone. I too had doubts. But in order to put together a successful application, you must set these worries aside and get on with the task. Drawing from my own experience, I’ve written this article to provide a few tips on how candidates from Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, can make their applications more competitive.

Thirty-five percent of the seats in the program are allocated to candidates from outside of the U.S. and China. Of that allocation, Africans make up 14 percent, a strong showing for the inaugural class. But I think we can have more representation, especially from students coming directly from the continent. The majority of us Africans in the program had first studied in North America and had better access to information. But it is also important that students coming directly from the continent know that Africa may be underrepresented in the program not due to a lack of qualified young applicants, but because African students are often at a disadvantage compared to their peers from other parts of the world: our universities are under-resourced and we often do not have readily accessible information.

For those few of us who have been lucky to get a head-start in the process, we can provide assistance and discuss our experiences applying to the Schwarzman Scholars program – what we think made us succeed. As the new application cycle gets underway, I want to use this opportunity to provide a few tips to prospective students, especially from Africa.

Ask yourself a simple question – Why do I want to become a Schwarzman Scholar?

The program provides an opportunity for future leaders to experience China and leverage that experience to help narrow the gap between their respective countries and China- more than 30 countries are represented in my cohort. Growing up in Africa, you may have noticed how much your town and city have started to change due to Chinese influence. Given the increasing importance of this relationship between China and African nations, it is critical that young people get to understand the country so they can be in a better negotiating position as future leaders with their Chinese counterparts.

You may want to start by reading everything you can about the program. Before applying, I pretty much read the entire website and read every news article I could find about the program. That way, during my interview, I could articulate exactly how the mission of the program aligns with my future ambitions.

Draw from your past leadership experiences to tell a convincing story for why you’ll be a good fit for the program.

A program that prides itself on training the next generation of leaders would want to see that candidates have a demonstrated track record of leadership. This could sound somewhat daunting to students who may be thinking to themselves that they have no leadership experience. Here is my advice: do not let that discourage you. Leadership is encompassing of a multitude of experiences. You do not have to be the president of your student government or the founder of two or three organizations in order to be considered a leader. I believe we can all be leaders in our respective spheres of lives. We just need to broaden the definition of what it means to be a leader. And while they may be correlated, recognition and prestige do not necessarily have to be associated with leadership. Unsung leaders walk amongst us every day. So look back to your experiences -- whether at work, at school, or during an internship-- when you demonstrated leadership capabilities. Draw from those experiences and weave a narrative that speaks to who you are as a person – your values, what inspires you, why you want to be a Schwarzman Scholar, what contributions you would bring, and what you would take away. Regardless of the context, at home, in your early career, on campus, big or small, the key is that you demonstrated initiative, the ability to work with and lead other people to a goal, and the determination to push past obstacles and barriers.

Essays are everything – Well, not quite. But the essays matter a lot!

Unlike other graduate programs in the U.S., the Schwarzman Scholars program does not require you to take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or other standardized tests. As a result, if you account for the fact that many applicants would be academically competitive, that means the major differentiator would be your essays and leadership experiences. I think it is certainly the case that the essays are given more weight in the admissions process for Schwarzman Scholars than for business schools. There are three essays that you have to answer: personal statement; leadership essay; and current affairs essay. Treat the essay writing process like an introspective process of self-discovery. This does not mean that you need a degree in creative writing to craft the world’s best essay. All it means is, try as best you can to draw from the sum of your past professional and academic experiences to weave a compelling narrative that speaks to who you are as a person, what drives and motivates you, and how this program fits into that jigsaw of your future ambitions. If you do not believe in the story you write, chances are the person reading your application will not either. You need to speak with a voice that traces a common theme in your stories and impels the reader of your application to want to invite you to the interview process.

Please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Facebook if you are considering applying, and good luck!