Higher Education in Business in Canada and the UK - Michel Assaad
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
Undergraduate 1: Faculty of Commerce, Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting, University of Alexandria
Undergraduate 2: Bachelor of Commerce, Accountancy, Concordia University – John Molson school of business
Masters 1: Accounting, Organizations, and Institution, London School of Economics LSE, UK
Masters 2: MBA, INSEAD, France
TL;DR: Michel grew up in Alexandria, he currently works as management consultant at L.E.K., he earned two Bachelor's degrees in Commerce from Alexandria University and Concordia University. He also received a Masters degree in Accounting from LSE and his MBA from INSEAD.
UNDERGRADUATE JOURNEY: GETTING TWO BACHELOR DEGREES
Michel, tell us a bit about yourself? When did you first consider studying abroad?
Let me start with the personal side. I am from a family that is European-Middle Eastern. My family, on both sides, immigrated to Egypt, so actually my family is not originally Egyptian but I grew up and was born in Egypt.
For me, studying abroad was a pragmatic decision. I was simply thinking “what is best for my education and my career? What are all my options?” I would also say that I started to think this way because my close group of friends were also considering studying abroad.
You pursued your first bachelors in Egypt, and then you pursued a second bachelors in Concordia. What made you feel that your education at the university in Egypt was not enough?
Yes, I pursued 2 bachelors. The first was at the Faculty of Commerce in Alexandria University. But I knew I wanted to study abroad and that I could benefit from furthering my education.
One of my reference points at the time was Saint Marc, my school. We learn in French, and there is a bit of space for creative thinking. Now, I am critical of Saint Marc, but one good thing is that there was a breathing space to think and to create. There was some diversity in both students and teachers. From a young age, I started reading in both English and French.
During my time at Alexandria University, I did not have a very clear benchmark, but I felt that my education was not critical enough. I also was not allowed to choose my courses, and that was limiting. So I was reading in parallel to what I was studying, especially in management and economics. I realized there was a huge part that is not even being taught. I wanted to be in a space that was more critical.
How did you start considering different options?
I have family in Montreal, Canada and I had been to visit a few times and was very impressed by the city It is like a melange between the US and Europe. Montreal has two big English-speaking universities: McGill and Concordia. Concordia is a younger university than McGill, and I remember feeling impressed by Concordia. To be honest, it was not a very well thought out decision; it was more about a gut feeling that I had after visiting both universities. One felt a lot more traditional and the other felt young, creative and “different”. Coming from a very traditional university in Egypt, I think I was drawn to the opposite of what I had experienced. In retrospect, and compared to my thought process later in life, I did not spend as much time considering the pros and cons and as I mentioned went with my gut feeling. I am glad it worked out I think one of the problems I see many people face is that they do not know what they want, or what their options are. I did not actually know that I needed to do things structurally and systemically. I did not know all my options back then.
Tell us more about the application process?
I first applied when I was a sophomore in university in Egypt at the Faculty of Commerce. I must admit that I wasn’t necessarily taking the process very seriously. I did not get in that year because I had not completed my application and sent all the required documents. Then I applied again in my third year of university. I was accepted that year, and I was able to defer for a year so I can go after I complete my degree in Egypt.
Why did you decide to repeat your bachelor’s degree rather than apply for a masters?
I did not want to apply for a masters straight away, and I wanted to spend more time exploring some of the basic disciplines of business on the undergraduate level before moving to graduate education. I knew my knowledge was lacking in some aspects and I also wanted to take more application-based courses (as opposed to the very theoretical courses we took in Alexandria University.) To be honest, looking back, I did not have much awareness of my options. It was one of the easiest decisions I took in my life.
Did you apply to other universities?
No- I only applied to one university: Concordia. Looking back, I should have applied to more than one university, but I am glad it worked out.
Did anyone help you through the application process?
No! No one directly helped me with the application. Honestly, I did not know anyone who had studied at Concordia. I do not know if there was a LinkedIn back then or if there were resources. The application was also relatively simple; I do not even remember if I had to write a personal statement.
You attended a French school. How good was your English?
My English was not very good, but I read a lot through university, which helped. I had to take the TOEFL as part of my application, and I got 107/120 I think. It was surprisingly good. My reading and writing were better than my speaking for sure.
Can you tell us a bit about your time at Concordia?
At Concordia, I did a bachelor of commerce in 2.5 years. I was able to transfer some of my credits from Alexandria University’s courses. The process to collect all the syllabi (including numbers of hours taught, material and readings covered) was very tough as the school did not have any of that in a centralised database. I went to sho2on el talaba and was able to escalate this to get some of paperwork needed to transfer credits. In parallel, I had to call like 40-50 students and alumni who kept the printed syllabi we used to receive each year just to get the information I needed.
I remember that when I was in Egypt, I was generally an average student getting “good” as my grade, but at Concordia I found myself getting distinctions. It went really well for me.
GRADUATE JOURNEY: MASTERS AT LSE AND MBA AT INSEAD
You have two masters degrees. Can you tell us about your first Masters at LSE?
At Concordia, I discovered that I really enjoyed education and I realized I was enjoying consultative work as well as research. I took courses that were pure social science, which I enjoyed. For example, I took a course on the Sociology of Accounting in which I was learning about a new topic every week. For example, we covered the relationship between Nietzsche and accounting in one of the early weeks. I even wrote a paper on the role of accounting in genocides. It was completely different from what I had ever studied but something that I really enjoyed. A pattern I had noticed back then that many of favourite readings were written by professors who taught at LSE, and that is how I chose to apply to LSE. The program I applied to was a mix of sociology, behavioral science, and management. It was very interdisciplinary, and I could mostly choose whatever classes I wanted.
Did you pursue your first masters right after your undergraduate degree?
I worked for one year in between in consulting. I remember feeling very impressed by the field. I went to Dubai and had a really fascinating professional experience. But in the middle of the consulting experience, I got the LSE offer and I had a decision to make - and as you know, I chose to go to LSE. Funnily enough, I ended up working part time with my employer during my studies and even joining full time after completing my masters.
What about your MBA (your second masters), can you tell us more about that?
The MBA is a very specific degree: It requires more experience compared to other programs (5-7 on average) and is much more about practical and interpersonal skills than it is about diving deep in one specific field of study. The application itself is also different, especially if you are targeting a tier 1 degree that can get very competitive. In your undergrad application, you need a personal statement to link your previous life to where you want to be in the future. For an MBA application (and masters more generally), there is a much bigger emphasis on that link. You need to show that you have excelled in what you did prior to the application and be able to highlight how the MBA will fit in your plan and help you achieve your objectives.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
Some people ask me about funding, but personally I did not know about scholarships and I did not apply. For my bachelors, I felt I was relatively well off, and that perhaps other people needed scholarships more than me. For my masters and MBA, I had already started getting a salary and working, and did not consider scholarships.
However, I know that INSEAD has been working hard to increase diversity and include different voices and they have available scholarships. One scholarship that I am aware of is the INSEAD Robin Hood Scholarship.
What message do you have for students?
I helped many students over the years and I think there are two patterns that I see:
There is a lack of awareness. For example, I know someone who is amazing, speaks many languages and is top of his class. When I mentioned if he considered applying for a Masters abroad at a top school, he thought I was mocking him. It hadn’t crossed his mind but I believe that he would have had a very good chance at getting in. Many students have a chance, but they do not know it. Many students think we are Egyptians and studied at a simple university in Egypt. They do not know that there are many success stories of other Egyptians who get accepted into top schools. Maybe when people hear more stories, especially of those they know, that would help.
The second problem I see students struggle with is where to start. Honestly, some students do not do their research and are not as proactive as they should be. Some students who contact me expect someone to do the application on their behalf- luckily they are not the majority. I think students need to be proactive, and to do research and to ask specific questions.
So where should students start? What resources would you like to share with students who are applying?
Many people are wondering “What do I do?”. If you categorize applicants, you’ll find two categories: There are students who want to do the bare minimum to just have an opportunity. There are students who take the process very seriously - and want to do it right, including actually taking the time to figure out what they want. For example, when I was applying for my MBA, I worked on my application for 2.5 years. The more selective the program is, the more you need to work to prepare. In other words, a student cannot just volunteer for two weeks to have “leadership” experience. There is a process.
So where should you start? Start by setting your criteria. What countries are you interested in? What fields are you interested in? Are there specific financial constraints? Be clear about your criteria and constraints. Once you have collected a list of targeted schools, you can start your research process in order to get to a shortlist of schools that you would, by then, know very well and apply to.
A process that worked for me for my graduate applications was to start early and find as much information as I could about my targeted schools. For example, I created a folder with everything I could find: excerpts from articles, quotes from information sessions that schools hosted, webinars by alumni. I also spoke to 10-15 alumni from each school on my shortlist. And for that, Linkedin is HUGE and very underutilized.
The good news is that there are MANY resources that are easy to get. You need to be structured and - if you know what schools/universities want, you can tweak your story to fit their requirements.
For research, I recommend the following:
There are admission consultancies that offer free webinars, articles, and forums ( and paid services if you feel you need them and could afford them- I never used any.)
There are online trackers (e.g., beat the GMAT, GMAt club…) where people share about their background (years of experience, etc), and you can graphically see where you stand compared to others who were accepted.
Youtube is filled with useful content. For example if people want to learn, they can visit universities or look up information sources.
Check free webinars from universities as well as their blogs and website to learn about your options.
Talk to people. I talked to people (even grads of INSEAD) who told me not to go-which really helped me understand the pros and cons of each program before committing. Most people tell you to go and they sincerely mean it. Other people offered to read my cover letters and really offered to help and follow up.
Alums on LinkedIn. Reach out to ask for help, but have specific questions and do your research.
Alum club, alum societies. Many universities have an alum society in Egypt and they do events. They do information sessions on programs in Egypt. So that is really helpful - go to these events and see people in Egypt. You may get mentorship and help by being proactive. You might even get help or learn about a new scholarship opportunity.
There are many lists of universities and scholarships online. For example, Master Portal is a good website for masters programs. It is a starting place.
Check schools ranking if that matters to you but take them with a pinch of salt.
Read as much as possible from other online sources (Google is your friend)
Another trick I learned is to use the Word Map Generator - if a word is repeated graphically (you can even put a BLOG - you can see what words they use more (you’ll see that graphically) to see what matters to them and touch on that. You need to know their words, terminology, the people who applied there before. You minimize your chances of getting rejections.
You’ll be able to take this information and make a list of universities in an excel sheet. You can add information such as specialization, cities, program itself, deadlines, and requirements. You’ll be able to narrow this into the school list you’re working towards.