Managing the MBA Interview
"What if I don't know the answer to a question that I am asked?" This is probably the number one anxiety among business school interviewees. However, it is an unnecessary one, because your interviewer will always be asking questions about a topic you actually know very well—you!—not questions that require applied knowledge or research. So, in an MBA interview, you will not need to know how to calculate a discounted cash flow or express your opinion about the U.S. interest rate policy. Instead, you will need to be able to reflect on and discuss your life experience, why you want an MBA, the value you can add to your target program and your need to attend the specific school at which you are interviewing.
When mbaMission spoke with Bruce DelMonico, director of admissions at the Yale School of Management, he was clear that interviewers are not asked to create a "stress interview" for candidates, explaining that Yale's interview is instead a "fairly standard behavioral interview." He added, "The purpose is not to trick you or throw curveballs, but really get a sense of the applicant." Echoing these sentiments, Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, told mbaMission, "We have interviews that are conducted by our staff as well as alumni and current students, and typically, when someone comes in for an interview, a few minutes are spent just making the person feel at ease. We try to ease people into it. They're definitely not intended to put someone on a hot seat."
As you prepare for your interview, you should review your entire application in depth, paying particular attention to the stories you presented in your essays. Further, be sure to reexamine your reasons for targeting the specific schools you have chosen and get comfortable speaking about your short- and long-term goals and ambitions. In addition, take some time to the think about inflection points in your life and how and why you made the particular choices you did at these important times. Finally, consider instances when you have performed as an individual or a team player.
In short, your goal in preparing for your interview should be to have anecdotes that highlight important aspects of your personality, capabilities and experience top of mind and be ready to engage in a thoughtful conversation with someone who is there to listen to and learn about you. We could not sum up our feelings on the interview process any better than did J.J. Cutler, deputy vice dean of MBA admissions, financial aid, and career management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who suggested that students relax and even enjoy the process. Cutler told mbaMission, "The whole process [comes from] a positive perspective. We're not looking for reasons to deny someone; we're looking for reasons to admit someone."
MBA interviews fall into two categories: blind and comprehensive. Although their styles vary dramatically, the important thing to keep in mind is that you already have the answers, because the questions will always be about you.
In a blind interview, like those conducted at Kellogg, Tuck, Cornell and Duke, your interviewer will not have read your file and will come to the meeting with very little information about you beyond, perhaps, what is listed in your résumé. As a result, you can expect to be asked primarily open-ended questions. For example, your interviewer may start with a fairly basic question like, "Can you walk me through your resume?" or "Tell me about yourself—who are you?" As you answer this opening question, your interviewer may interject with a few questions along the way in response to certain topics as they arise. Or, he or she may just sit quietly and allow you to finish your response, then follow up with additional questions about why you feel you need to go to business school and why you have chosen this specific school. Later, your interviewer will likely ask you about your leadership and team experiences, both your successes and failures, and may finish with questions about your personal interests and community activities. Blind interviews follow no real standard form. Your interviewer will pose the questions, but you can control a lot of the direction and tone of the interview by selecting the nature and content of your responses, and will thereby be able to reveal your strongest experiences.
In a comprehensive interview, like those conducted at Harvard, NYU-Stern and London Business School, your interviewer will have read your entire application file and will already have questions in mind, most often ones that focus on how you make decisions or respond to certain situations. For example, a question for someone who was transferred for a promotion might be "What were the differences culturally between the Los Angeles office and the Boston office—and how did you adjust?" Or, alternatively, someone who gained an early promotion might be asked, "Why do you think ABC Consulting made the choice to promote you ahead of others?" Although such interviews do not tend to follow a predictable path, and you will not be able to control the agenda, as you can more easily do in a blind interview, you will probably not end up feeling "grilled," but simply challenged. The interviewer is not trying to poke holes in your stories or trip you up in any way, but rather to better understand your choices, motivations and personality by probing into your experiences in more depth.
Regardless of the interviewer's approach, many business school applicants still worry that, during their interview, they may be asked a single challenging question that will leave them awkwardly silent and that such a moment will be the symbolic end to their candidacy at the target school. Although such an experience would certainly be uncomfortable—and we suggest, of course, that you definitely do your best to prepare for your interview so as to avoid this kind of predicament—sometimes even well-prepared candidates can be "stumped," and we can assure you that an awkward pause in an interview will not cancel out all the positive elements of your application. Still, being ready for such a situation, should one occur, is important, so we offer the following tips on how to mitigate an uncomfortable moment:
Resist the urge to launch into a story. Your instinct may be to just start speaking, hoping that you will find the right story as you progress. This is a high-risk strategy because, if it goes wrong, it can compound the problem. Instead, you might consider pausing for a moment to recall an appropriate story. You can even say, "That is a good question. I am going to have to think about it for a moment," before answering.
Take a sip of water. Many interviewers will offer you a glass of water at the beginning of your meeting. Take the water and use it throughout the interview as a buffer to buy time or allow yourself to slow down. If you get stumped, the water can offer a brief opportunity to pause naturally, alleviating any awkwardness before you begin.
Maintain your poise. If you absolutely cannot answer a question, you should not get overly apologetic or grovel. Simply acknowledge that you are having trouble with the question and politely ask if you might come back to it at the end. This is not a best-case scenario, but it is certainly far better than rambling and apologizing. A confident approach during a tricky moment may even impress!
Forget about it. If you cannot answer a question, accept it and move on. If you spend the rest of the interview thinking about that moment, you will be distracted and struggle with any subsequent questions.
Many MBA candidates try to memorize their interview responses in advance and unsurprisingly find themselves fumbling as they struggle to adapt to slightly different iterations of expected questions. So, we absolutely do not recommend memorizing responses, but instead suggest that you develop a mental list of stories that you feel are important for you to tell and then try to incorporate your strongest stories/strengths into your interview. If, for example, your experience as a youth soccer coach is an important story for you, you could work it into the interview as an example of leadership, teamwork, etc. when such a question is asked or these topics are raised. Your stories are far more flexible than you might realize and can be "spun" if need be.
Think of five to six key points (activities, personality traits, etc.) you absolutely want to be sure you get across during the interview. Then think about possible prompts to which you can "hook" those points. For example, if you spend one afternoon per week tutoring inmates to take the GED, you might consider adapting your response to different cues as follows:
Tell me about a time when you demonstrated initiative.
Example: "I wanted to make a difference but wanted to move beyond just helping high school students. So I researched where the biggest need was in my area, and found a program that brings volunteers to prisons to…"
Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond.
Example: "For the past few years, I have been engaged in some meaningful service—teaching GED prep in a local prison. I was surprised to find that inmates were only allowed to attend one hour of extra tutoring per week. Recognizing that my students needed additional help, I devoted extensive time and effort to developing a series of math and vocabulary flash cards for them to use in between sessions…"
Tell me about a time when you had to motivate a reluctant person.
Example: "I believe my best example occurred outside the office, as part of my volunteer work with inmates studying for their GED. Although most of the inmates I tutor are very motivated, once in a while I work with someone who…"
We must clarify that we are not suggesting that you respond to three different prompts with the same story, but are merely attempting to illustrate how one important story can be flexible. By identifying your key personal stories and examining them from several different angles before your interview, you can better ensure that you will find a way to share these stories during your interview.
In addition to responding properly to interview questions, how you present yourself is crucial. After all, if you answer questions well, but do not make a good impression with the rest of your presentation, your interviewer may feel that you lack the maturity or professionalism necessary to succeed after graduation. So, here we provide our answers to four questions that often bedevil applicants with respect to interview etiquette.
What should I wear?
Always follow any guidelines the school provides on proper interview dress. If "business casual" is specified, wear business casual; if "business attire," dress in business attire. Jeans, T-shirts and ripped or unclean clothing are never appropriate. If the school does not specify a dress code, wear business attire for any on-campus interviews as well as for an off-campus interview with a member of the admissions staff. Business casual is often best when meeting an alumnus/alumna off campus, though you may consider politely asking the person you are meeting about proper attire in advance. Showing some creativity and style with your clothing is okay, but do not go overboard—remember that your meeting is a professional one, and your first impression is vital.
I am meeting my interviewer at a coffee shop. Who pays?
If you are meeting an alumnus/alumna at a café or similar establishment for an interview, you can avoid the awkward "who pays?" scenario by arriving a few minutes early, purchasing your own beverage and then offering to pay for the interviewer's selection when he/she arrives. If your interviewer arrives before you, you might politely offer to pay for his/her drink, but if the interviewer declines, you should not insist.
Should I send a thank you note?
Yes, you should always send a brief thank you note after your interview. Write and send the note as soon as possible after your meeting—the same day or the next is ideal—and be sure to mention specifics from your conversation or your visit. Emailing the thank you is fine. Interviewers usually need to submit their feedback on candidates within 24 hours, so you want your message to be received quickly.
If I am not sure how I did, can I ask for feedback?
No! Feeling anxious about how you performed is natural, but do not ask your interviewer for feedback. Doing so will not help establish you as professional and mature, and will instead leave the impression that you lack good judgment (and confidence). Just be patient and wait for the admissions committee to make its decision!