How to Decide Which University to Apply For: 5 Questions
Which type of university fits your requirements? When choosing a which university to apply for, you should take a…
In the StudyAdvantage “Alumni Stories” interview series, we meet former international students now passionately embarking on global careers in business, politics, media, arts, technology and science. We ask them how their international educational journeys have shaped their outlook…and what they would do in an unconstrained version of life.
Felix is from Sweden, that northernmost Scandinavian nation viewed by some as meatball- slash Abba paradise, and by others as icy darkness for 8 months of the year. But his international journey started early and at age 16 he traded meatballs for feijoada, and snowy hills for sandy beaches, as he moved with his family to Brazil.
What impact do you think moving to Brazil early in life has had on your choices since?
“First off, thank you guys for having me – I’m always happy to give back to the StudyAdvantage community.
Living in Brazil or anywhere other than your home country is an enriching and eye-opening experience in its own right, but more than anything for me, it completely changed the possible trajectories my life could take because it introduced me to the idea of going to college abroad. College is a formative, exploratory adventure that had a huge impact on shaping who I am and enabling me to do things I didn’t know were possible.”
Graduating from the well-regarded American-Brazilian-international Escola Graduada in Sao Paolo in 2009, Felix decided to continue his international journey. He applied and was accepted to the prestigious ‘New Ivy’, Duke University in North Carolina on the American East coast.
Talk us through your decision-making process when applying to college. Why did you apply to the US, as opposed to returning to Sweden where university tuition is free?
“I had never really considered going abroad for college, or thought much about college at all, until I got to Brazil. Several colleges came to visit my high school and it started seeming like a cool adventure to me, plus tons of other people were doing it. I asked my parents if I could go, and they said sure. Swedish universities never really came into the picture, and I am not sure why – not all decisions were very well thought through, but the US seemed more exotic and exciting than commuting from my parents’ house into Stockholm.”
As a non-American, how did you find the application process? What resources helped you navigate?
“I was fortunate in that my high school in Brazil had a full-time dedicated college counselor who helped guide us through the process, select schools to apply to, and work on our applications. I don’t think I would have been able to apply to as many schools (11) with as much success (7 acceptances) if I hadn’t had that, and that’s why I think StudyAdvantage serves such an important role in informing and training high schoolers today.”
Was Duke on top of your wish list? What other schools did you apply to?
“I was pretty uneducated about the schools I applied to, having only done a fairly high level assessment of the quality of academics and student life, as well as filtered for things like geography, size, and campus look, feel, and sense of community. I applied to a number of the Ivies, other highly ranked schools, and some lower-ranked schools as safeties to ensure I would get in somewhere. With 11 applications spread over reach schools, 50/50 schools, and safety schools, I felt pretty covered.
My final decision was between Duke and the University of Chicago, mostly because they were the highest ranked schools I had gotten into, and after speaking to students at both schools and visiting Duke, I felt like Duke was a better cultural fit for me. Plus, I loved the southern climate. As you can tell, I wasn’t a particularly critical and structured decision-maker, and I probably wouldn’t advise someone to replicate my process (which is why they need something like StudyAdvantage). I’m just fortunate that I had two good options to choose from and, most importantly, most people find happiness wherever they end up. You just want to do the diligence upfront.”
At Duke, Felix majored in English and minored in Photography and became deeply involved in campus life. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Duke’s yearbook the Chanticleer with a $100k+ budget, was a member in the social living group Mirecourt, tutored freshman writing courses, and published and exhibited award-winning photography.
What was life like for an international student at Duke? Were you happy there?
“Duke was making quite a significant push to buff up its international quotient, so I think we were 10% international students when I joined and 15% when I left, and I think it’s continued in that direction since. In my year we were about 150-200 international students.
Some international students chose to hang out with a lot of other internationals, while others – like me – chose to integrate as much as possible, and I had mostly American friends and some international friends as well. Duke’s sense of community and tight-knit culture was particularly helpful in bringing people together into a small space so that you got to meet and spend time with all kinds of people.”
What is your single dearest memory from your time at Duke?
“A few weeks into the start of freshman year, it’s 2 AM on a Saturday night and I’ve just returned from a club in a long caravan of freshmen. I run into a friend who introduces me to a guy named Evan. There was something magical about Evan when he spoke. When he looked at you it felt like he looked into your soul. We ended up sitting on one of the giant benches by the main quad of the freshman campus and philosophized about life throughout the night, watching the fog rise up out of the lawn grass as the hours drew closer to sunrise. It was one of those ethereal, magical moments that will live on forever in my memory.”
Graduating in 2013 with fine results, like many of Duke’s top graduates, Felix quickly transitioned into suited-up life at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. But interestingly, this took him back home as he joined McKinsey’s Stockholm office.
What brought you back to Stockholm and Sweden after 6 years loving life overseas?
“I had honestly intended to stay in the US to work, but McKinsey was interested in having me in Stockholm, and working for McKinsey was too good to pass up on.”
Can you tell us about the rumoured world of McKinsey…was it as exciting as you had hoped?
“I had interned with McKinsey Stockholm during my summer between junior and senior year, so I had an idea of what to expect.
My two years with McKinsey were simply incredible. The first year was quite challenging as I had to adjust from a relaxed American liberal arts culture to an elite Swedish corporate culture and knew almost nothing about business. But in the meantime, I saw so many different businesses and industries, worked with leaders of giant companies, and worked on projects that were going to affect thousands of lives, save companies from bankruptcy, and significantly change the direction of others.”
Two years into his consulting-career, Felix decided to leave Stockholm and McKinsey, and to return to the American East coast. But this time to the University of Virginia’s coveted Darden School of Business, to obtain a Master of Business Administration. Felix is not the first McKinseyite to leave for an MBA after a couple of years at the firm, but we were curious about Felix’s attraction to Virginia.
What brought you back to the US and Virginia in particular?
“I wanted the two-year business experience at a top global business school, the American economy is currently healthier and more nimble than the European, and Virginia is quite similar to North Carolina in that the climate is warm, the BBQ is mouth-watering, and the people are friendly and kind. I relish the ability to be able to go for a game of tennis or golf in the afternoon, or head to one of the 10+ vineyards within a 30-minute drive of the school. Charlottesville is a beautiful and quaint town with a lot of history and outdoor activities.”
Some would argue a 2-year stint at McKinsey is a sort of business education in its own right. Why did the MBA program appeal to you?
“I realized soon after joining McKinsey that to be an effective problem solver and address a wide variety of business issues, I needed a foundation of business knowledge to leverage so that I didn’t have to figure everything out as I went. McKinsey taught me a remarkable amount, both in terms of breadth and depth, and foremost it taught me skills – how to break down a problem, work in a team, lead a project, etc.
The MBA gives me a formal education in which I am taught the business theories of every aspect of business – finance, marketing, strategy, operations, and so on. Darden uses the case method, so every lesson you are solving a particular issue that an actual company has experienced, and you’re learning the theory in the process. In my two years at Darden, I will have done 600 such cases, which is an even broader library of experience than what you are exposed to when consulting.”
You majored in English and minored in Photography at Duke. Did you always plan to apply your creative side in the business world?
“Not really, in any overt sense anyway, especially because I was planning on becoming a photographer and writer before McKinsey popped up. But what you learn is that business ends up being a lot about communicating with people and being a strong creative problem-solver. So to the extent that my English degree has helped me structure stories, understand how to reach an audience, and persuade, it has been helpful. Photography has helped me look at familiar issues and try to represent them or see them in a new way to create something novel and unique, and my artistic sense helps me to create really pretty PowerPoint slides…hahaha.”
Felix is now approaching his final semester at Darden. Like at Duke, he has found in UVA another dear alma mater and an additional network to build upon as he continues his global business career. Having spent the last summer interning at private equity firm 3i in New York, he is hoping to bring his artillery of languages and first class degrees, his McKinsey-approved slide-making prowess, and his sprawling network into the world of investing. But, there is something he needs to accomplish first…
Is there anything else we should know about your time at Darden, which may have impacted your ‘student satisfaction’ level?
“Yes, definitely – early in my first quarter at Darden I met the most incredible, wonderful person I’ve ever known, and I will be spending the rest of my life with her. We actually met because I wanted to network with her about private equity, and we hit it off, so I asked for a follow-up coffee chat, and within a week we were on our first date. The rest is history as they say. She was in the year above me at Darden and after graduation moved up to New York City, so I am spending a fair amount of my time until graduation commuting between Charlottesville and NYC. Our wedding will be in June, and then we’re likely staying in the US for the foreseeable future.”
Final question: if your life was unconstrained, if you had no financial limitations and no immediate responsibilities, how would you choose spend your next year?
“That sounds fantastic! My career goal is actually to not work, and the key performance indicator I have set to determine success in my life is if I have a palm tree in my backyard. So I would probably spend every second of that hypothetical year doing whatever it takes to put me into a position where I can extend that year for the rest of my life. That would enable me to spend time with my future wife, raise our future children, travel and experience the world, and work only as much as I felt like. I used to want to go on a deep-space exploration mission, but my family obligations and the limits of the speed of light would not allow me to do that in one year.”
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