For thousands of MBA hopefuls, January is the month when they hit the ‘submit’ button on their applications to the world’s top business schools. Having crafted their essays, nailed the GMAT, tightened their resume, and cajoled their supervisors for a letter of recommendation, everything is set to meet the round 2 deadline for schools across the country.
The applicant hopes that the next time they will hear from the schools is not with an offer of a place (that may come later), but with an offer of an interview. This is a key component of the admissions process, and a moment for quiet self-congratulations. Though not yet time to put the champagne on ice, but you’ve just taken a big step towards acceptance into the MBA program of your dreams.
Of the thousands of applications that business schools such as Chicago Booth, Harvard Business School or Columbia might receive every year, only a modest percentage are offered an interview. But more than half will then be offered a place in the MBA, suggesting that the school is at this stage looking for reasons to accept you rather than reject you. At the very least the school believes you are an interesting candidate, and would like to know more about you – so plan accordingly.
But while some might see the interview as a mere formality, for others this face-to-face encounter proves to be a major stumbling block in what is already a competitive application process. So what do you need to know about the admissions interview, and how can you best impress the school?
From her former role as an Associate Director at Harvard Business School, my Fortuna Admissions colleague Malvina Miller Complainville has put together 10 tips to help you in your MBA interview.
#1 Preparation is essential. The key to success is not just thinking about answers to standard questions – describing your career plan and future goals, why an MBA and why an MBA from this school, what I can bring to the school community, specific examples of achievement – but training yourself to give natural, informative and confident answers. For this you should review your application thoroughly.
I recommend that you reflect prior to the interview on the 5 key pieces of information that you want to make sure come across during the interview. Then, as the interview progresses, you can keep a mental checklist, ticking off each point as you make them. Preparing this ahead of time ensures you don’t leave the room regretting not having mentioned something because it did not come up in the question and answer session. In effect you are being proactive with your selling points as opposed to passive, waiting for the recruiter to pull it out of you.
Being prepared is also the best way to feel confident and get the most from your interview – how you will want to convey your story, your career plan and your unique goals. Have answers for some of those tougher more specific questions, about a career change you made, why now is the best time for you to do an MBA, why you didn’t ask for a recommendation from your last job. Think about an aspect of your application that the school might be hung up on, and prepare your answer.
#2 Practice makes perfect. Interviewers can quickly identify whether you appear genuine, or are simply reciting phrases from your essays. Work with your admissions coach and friends on mock interviews, practicing the common questions. You want to reach a stage where you are clear about the point you want to make, but you’re no longer pre-occupied with finding your words. This will help you to interact more with the interviewer. If your goals and motivations are clear, you can expect a lively conversation and lots of good questions by the interviewer.
#3 Tune in and listen. A lot of interviewees tend to jump ahead and think about the great answer they are going to give, rather than focusing on the question being asked. Listen for what is really being asked, and don’t worry if you take a moment after the question to prepare your response. This might avoid giving a confused or incomplete response.
#4 Strike the right tone. A lively conversation should not encourage you to give cute or flippant responses. Nor should a friendly atmosphere encourage you to lower your guard and inadvertently share certain doubts about yourself or the program. And humility always works better than arrogance. The trick is to respond to questions honestly and candidly, giving specific examples of character traits that you want to emphasize to the school. These might include relationship building, achieving objectives, influencing others, and should be identified well ahead of time.
#5 Expect the unexpected. Remember that the school is interviewing you because they think you are admissible, but there might be one issue that they want to clarify. If questions keep coming back to one issue, stay calm and continue to give confident and poised responses. Be ready for confrontation. Some schools want to see if you can think on your feet, and want to see how you react when you are directly challenged.
#6 Keep to the point. The schools provide word lengths for their essays, and the responses you give in your interview should be similarly short, and focused on the question. While you want to come across as somebody who is engaging and thoughtful, you should avoid rambling or getting things off your chest. Use pertinent examples to illustrate what you are saying, that ideally provide an outcome that speaks volumes about you.
#7 Open windows of conversation. Strong candidates are those who can guide parts of the conversation, often without the interviewer realizing it. To do this you can use a technique of using “windows”. You answer a question, and in doing so you gently guide your answer so that you can briefly refer to another subject – opening a window. While schools like MIT Sloan state that the structured nature of their interview concentrates on areas that are important to them, there is a good chance that most interviewers will ask you a follow up question. Choose your references wisely, thinking about what your story reveals about you, and you can make a great impression.
If for some reason you don’t have the chance to mention all the points while answering questions, then you can do so at the conclusion of the interview when asked if there is anything else the admissions should know.
#8 Ask intelligent questions. Don’t forget that the interview is a two-way process. This is your chance to find out more about the program, and your failure to ask interesting questions could play against you. Maybe you can discuss special interests or community activities, and ask how the school could help you pursue them. You could ask about faculty research or the school’s approach in an area that concerns you.
But don’t make the mistake of asking questions whose answers are easily available on the school’s website. The questions should be pertinent and related to your personal and professional goals and your MBA experience.
#9 Plan your time. Typically the interview will run for around 45 minutes, though shorter and longer interviews are common. Plan accordingly, trying to engage the interviewer with your enthusiasm and providing clear, strong answers that set the tone for the remaining time. And of course feel free to ask them to repeat if you are not sure what is being asked of you.
#10 Don’t forget the basics. As with any professional interview you want to arrive in advance to collect your thoughts, look presentable and dress in appropriate business attire. Following up with a thank you note is a nice touch, but again make sure to give a specific example of what you appreciated, not just generalities.
Enjoy! Easy to say of course, but well prepared candidates can look forward to sharing their unique qualities, and finding out if a school is the right fit for them.