Tips for Acing your Business School Interview

Written by Kelly Granson. Posted in MBA Admission

Dreaded by many and feared by most, the interview is nevertheless a key part of the admissions process at most business schools. But fear not! If you’ve been invited to an interview it means that your initial application was strong enough to impress the selection committee. Now all you have to do is seal the deal.

The interview is your chance to demonstrate your worthiness for entrance into an MBA program. It’s your opportunity to sell yourself, to show that the essay and GMAT scores you posted are only the beginning of your many qualifications.

These days, the very concept of an “interview” needs not be taken too literally. In many schools, this stage of the application process takes on the more casual form of a dialogue. The moment you realize that the interview is a social exchange that, like any conversation, you have the power to control, you already have a jumpstart on the competition.

Sometimes the interviewers won’t even bring up many of the “key” questions you read about in preparation manuals. This can confuse candidates who assume that the interview would largely consist of the classic questions, such as what will you do with your MBA? and what are your strongest qualities? If you prepare correctly, however, the dialogue interview format can actually be liberating; it provides you with the opportunity to take command and guide its flow.

This advantage comes with a catch. Because of the informality of today’s business school interviews, your success depends upon being ready to apply the right strategy at the time of the interview itself. Granted, the knowledge you carry with you to the interview is very valuable, but the most difficult part of your interview will be fielding questions that weren’t found in any of your manuals or lists of FAQ’s. When answering unforeseen and unrehearsed questions, the confidence you have in your abilities and your level of relaxation will determine your performance. Along with providing lots of other practical advice, this article will tell you how to expect and train for the unexpected.

Research

Before we get to that, let’s discuss the basics. Boring and tedious as it may be, the first step to success in your interview will be extensive research. Research topics should include: the school you’re interviewing for, current business trends, MBA admissions standards, and effective interviewing techniques.

Undoubtedly, researching these various topics will take some time. But before you prepare to set up camp in the library for a week, be sure to map out a solid research method and know the resources available to you.

In general, there are two main sources of information available to those preparing for their business school interviews: the Internet and specialized publications. You should utilize all of these, but decide before-hand how much time you will be investing into each resource. This will help you manage your study hours and efforts effectively and ensure that your research is broad and well-rounded.

The Internet

The Internet has become the most convenient way to find information. A few simple online searches will lead you to extraordinary amounts of information on business schools, the GMAT and how to excel in interviews for high profile schools like Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, etc.

In addition, most business schools have their own home pages where you can find the answers to many of your questions neatly compiled into one or two categories. It’s a product of our times: the global network provides accessible, fast and convenient information troves that can save us time and money, two commodities that are, for most MBA candidates, all too scarce.

These advantages however, come with potential pitfalls that should encourage you to proceed with caution. Remember that it’s one thing when an organization or company writes about itself and another thing entirely when a relatively objective third party puts in its two cents. Schools might leave out criticism that’s been lobbed at them or other sensitive details relevant to your situation. A recent fall in the national rankings, or a funding scandal in which the student union was embroiled, are not details you would find on the school’s “about us” section, but you should take care to be well informed of these matters as well.

Therefore, consider looking into write-ups about business schools in independent sources, such as Business Week, FT, Forbes and the Economist. The site for Business Week, for example, has a whole section devoted to interview questions. Many business schools are listed there along with the interview questions that are most likely to be asked for each school.

Then, of course, there are the less "official" independently-operated websites that demand at least a brief analysis. Graduate student forums and blogs, video uploads and podcasts that discuss business school admissions requirements and related topics are all excellent resources for the aspiring MBA candidate. They often contain valuable first-hand information on how to succeed in an interview from people who have already passed through the fire.

Specialized Publications

No matter what kind of research you’re doing, whether it’s on how to build a doghouse, bake a pie or trigonometry, specialized publications will provide the most valuable collections of theoretical and practical advice on your topic.

The same is true of business school interviews. Specialized books and essays from reputable publishers are always written by experts in the field with a broad knowledge of the current trends (make sure to read the latest editions). If you want to cover all your bases, literature related to business school admissions is something you’ll definitely want to get your hands on to prepare for your interview.

As a rule, most guides about enrollment to business schools have sections or chapters devoted to interview procedures and preparation. The following is a list of books that will help you prepare for a business school admissions interview:

  1. MBA I.V.: MBA Interview Questions & Tips, Linda Abraham and Maxx Duffy
  2. How to Get into the Top MBA Programs, 4th Edition by J.D., Richard Montauk
  3. Applying to a Top MBA Program: From Decision to Admission - Interviews with      Successful Applicants, Lara Letteau and Bryan Goss
  4. Vault Guide to the Case Interview, Mark Asher
  5. MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile with Building to Essay Writing, Avi Gordon
  6. Your MBA Game Plan: Proven Strategies for Getting into the Top Business Schools, Omari Bouknight and Scott

 

Professional Counselors

Personal research is an effective but solitary preparation technique. There is another, less independent approach to preparation for your interview: Seeking the services of a professional interview counselor.

Seeking out such assistance is based on the wisdom that: a) Professional help is always best if you can afford it, and b) no amount of theoretical knowledge can substitute for direct experience.

Jimi Hendrix said it best in his album title: “Are You Experienced?” For a grad student-to-be the answer is usually no. Relying on someone who has experience, and has seen the admissions process unfold countless times, can give you an inside edge on the competition. A professional counselor is one of the most trustworthy sources for up-to-date information on what to expect during your interview.

Professional counselors earn their keep by making sure they are up on the latest insider’s information on interview proceedings. They will make sure you are ready to put your best foot forward, set your mind at ease, and help you to focus on your goals.

However, chances are that you’ll probably need to start earning a high-power, post Grad School salary, to pay off the debt you incur by hiring one of these gurus. Professionals who help prepare candidates for an interview at this level charge an average of $100 to $300 per hour in the U.S.

Their service comes at a premium because they know that students who have made it their life’s goal to get in to a top school will pay anything.  And in most cases you will get what you pay for. Experts provide such valuable information as the most recently used questioning patterns in interviews at your schools of choice, and how to answer questions about your strengths and weaknesses in a way that will impress the interviewers. Counselors will also stage practice interviews (more on that later). Generally, their service includes a detailed analysis of your requisite documents package, as well.

Whether or not you decide to go this route in your preparation, you will still need to conduct your personal research. You don’t want to spend $250/hour for the counselor to tell you things you could have read up on for free in the library. In your sessions, the counselor should fill in the gaps and tell you the insider’s information and techniques that you can’t find in print. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

Social Networking

Back to independent preparation, here’s another little tip that’s fun, easy and very effective. Whenever most of us go somewhere for the first time we tend to feel at least a little bit vulnerable. As the new environment becomes more familiar, we are then able to relax in our surroundings.

It may sound simple, but a great thing to do in preparation for the challenge ahead, if at all possible, is to spend a few hours walking around campus. Spending some time on campus before the big day will help you feel calmer and more confident (confidence is your greatest asset!). Your stride and composure might also be slightly affected by your familiarity with the surrounding. These subtle displays of confidence are cues a sharp interviewer might pick up on.

The stroll around your future school can also serve as a chance to talk with some students and learn more about the school and its business program. Any tidbits of information you have in your back pocket can set you apart from the pack, especially if that information reveals an intimate familiarity with the MBA program. This makes you look as if you are already part of the gang.

Ability to Interview Successfully is an Acquired Skill

Although you don’t want to be nervous for your interview, you don’t want to be overconfident either. This happens when people confuse their experience of interviewing in the professional world with interviewing for business schools. The two are similar but almost never the same.

Any experience is valuable but only when it is viewed accurately for what it is. Interviewing for business school is a unique skill you can learn, but only by applying your knowledge and confident attitude to the specific requirements of the challenge at hand.

That’s right, you read correctly. Interviewing in the academic world is a skill you can learn -- much like driving a car. As such, reading about it will not be enough. You may have all the theoretical knowledge at your fingertips, you may have even driven a go-cart or two in your days but until you’ve actually sat behind the wheel and navigated through traffic – you can’t truly appreciate what it’s like.

Therefore we can only come to one conclusion: you need to rehearse your business school interview responses in order to be ready. In the same way that anyone can learn how to drive a car, anyone, with no exception, can develop their interviewing skills, provided they put in the time to practice. Practice makes perfect.

There are three primary ways to practice interview skills: self study, the practice interview and the real deal as it unfolds at the school.

Self Study

Let’s take a step back. You’ve done all your research about the school and about what it takes to succeed at a business school interview. You’ve even scheduled a visit to the campus and intend to have a meaningful chat with current students and faculty about the academic atmosphere of the school and what to expectation from the program. All of this knowledge should be integrated into your real time interview rehearsals.

You can start on your timing first. It’s a good idea to develop a time frame for the interview so that you’ll be sure you have enough to say when you need to say it.

Practice speaking for about 6-8 minutes about your work experience, education, and the reasons why you’ve decided to apply for this MBA program at this time in your life. This should form the core of your presentation and it’s what the interviewers will likely be listening to very attentively.  All other prepared answers should take up no more than 90 seconds. Again you can never be sure that you’ll get to talk about subjects in the same order you had practiced at the interview itself. But if you prepare, you will have these ideas and words to draw on at will.

As stated above, interview formats today can be unpredictable, from a calm and relaxed conversation with a school graduate to a more formal and focused conversation with the head of the selection committee. You, the applicant, must balance your prepared monologues with a flexible approach.

The Practice Interview

The practice interview is arguably the most powerful preparation strategy. Nothing else will give you that sense of realism, the feeling of what it’s like in the interviewees’ hot seat. During the interview, you will have to be comfortable answering questions on the spot; the practice interview will give you the confidence you need.

What does a practice interview involve? Invite a friend, a fellow applicant, or anyone else who possesses at least a basic understanding of the admissions process to an MBA program to stage an interview with you. The effectiveness of this method does depend, in part, on the knowledge of your partner, so choose wisely.

Have your list of questions and your timed answers prepared beforehand (see list below). Tell your interview partner to go through them one by one and take notes about your answers, as well as provide suggestions and criticism. Discuss beforehand the extreme importance of constructive criticism, for will you need objectivity in order to improve.

After the half-hour interview, allow your interviewer to analyze your mistakes or short-comings. If your partner isn’t giving you enough by way of constructive criticism, prompt him/her.

For example, ask whether you were clear enough, or if there were some points that needed further clarification. Ask if you repeated any words too often. Was there an answer that was too long? Should you have elaborated on any other facts about yourself or your qualifications? Did you leave anything out? Also, ask more general questions about your attitude and posturing. Did you project your voice? Was your tone confident, positive and relaxed? Were you stammering or swallowing words?

These are important factors for you to be aware of and to perfect. You should feel free to add or remove anything to or from this list, but focus on the more general questions about your presence and personality during the interview. How you say it is always more important than what you say in this context-- otherwise, think about it, an additional essay would have sufficed.

When you’ve covered all of this, try it in reverse. This time you ask the questions and allow your partner to give the answers. By placing yourself in the interviewer’s shoes, you come to appreciate the other perspective and see what they see. You will take note of what’s impressive and what’s not in your interviewee’s performance which will allow you to streamline your preparation, focusing on the areas that are most important and where you could use the most improvement.

Finally, if you’re lucky and foresighted enough to choose an interview partner who is also able to preview your documents, all the better for you. Let them point out inconsistencies, spelling and grammar mistakes, and make sure that everything you need is included.

You should also make a video or audio recording of the practice interview. Later you can go back and find mistakes. When you listen, pay close attention to the important factors: articulation, repeated words and the rhythm of your speech.

In fact some people prefer to do this in the first place. Instead of coordinating with another person, often a difficult task, park yourself in front of a computer and open up a business school interview FAQ at random. Answer the questions; record the results and-- badabing badaboom-- you’ve got yourself a practice interview to work with. Repeat this process several times over until you’ve built up your confidence to the point where you feel you could pull this interview off in your sleep. Then go to sleep, because you’ll need rest, too.

If the day for your interview is fast approaching and you want that personal touch but can’t find someone qualified to conduct the practice interview with, there’s always the paying-way-out. For a fee, ranging again, from $300-$500, many companies will stage an interview for you.

Your interviewer will first study your essay, transcript, and resume. Then the professional will conduct a phone interview, in which he/she will tailor your questions based on interview statistics taken from the school you are applying to.

After half an hour, your interviewer will go over your mistakes and weaknesses with you, answer your questions, and give you as much support, criticism and advice as you need.

Typically, such “professional” interview training gives candidates a great sense of self-confidence going into their interviews. Moreover, according to reviews of those who availed themselves of a professional interviewer’s services, the practice interview corresponded to the actual admissions interview by about 80%, a powerful number that makes it hard to argue with anyone who promotes or seeks out these professional services.

The price of the service varies significantly according to location and agency. Some British agencies are ready to organize a test interview with an HBS alumnus for $250, while this service may cost more than $400 in the U.S.

The agencies that charge less offer essentially the same service as the more expensive ones, so shop around until you find one that fits your budget.

A list of frequently asked questions at business school interviews (to be used in practice interviews)

 

1. Explain every item (job, school) on your CV: why did you choose this work or school? How successful was your choice? Why did you leave?

2. Tell us about yourself.

3. How do you have fun?

4. What are your career plans for future? How do you think the MBA program can help you achieve your professional goals?

5. Why do you think you need a business education? Why now?

6. Why did you choose our school? What do you know about our MBA program? What other schools have you applied to?

7. Why should we accept you into our MBA program?

8. What would you do to add to our program?

9. What are your major achievements?

10. Tell us about a personal or professional failure.

11. Do you have any international experience?

12. Tell us about a recent leadership experience.

13. Tell us about your recent experience working in team.

14. Tell us about a situation when you had to make a tough decision.

15. What can you tell us about your work?

16. What do you like / dislike about your job?

17. What do you think is the main shortcoming in your resume?

18. Do you have any questions for us?

It’s All About Practice

Finally, the third live and interactive way to prepare for a business school interview is to interview at business schools. You can do this. Swallow the fees and apply to multiple schools (a good idea anyways since you never know).

Schedule all your interviews while making sure that you schedule those for your top-choice schools last. After conducting the interviews in other schools, you'll probably shake off some excess nervousness even as you gain confidence in your abilities.

Final Thoughts

Confidence is really the name of the game. It is the single most important component of your success. You’ve come a long way in your academic career, your grades and achievements have been evaluated and you’ve been deemed worthy to compete with the best.

All this is important to acknowledge because aside from the three most important components of confidence (those being practice, practice and practice) the fourth is how you view yourself. The key to responding well in a spontaneous interview is the strong belief in your ability to do so!

No one will be able to write you a formula for succeeding in an interview that is loose, unstructured and based very much on the personality of the interviewers. There is no algorithm for determining the best answers and brightest remarks. Just be confident and be yourself.

The greatest asset you have to offer is your unique outlook on life and business that no one else can bring to the table besides you. Don’t try to fit into a mold, break them all! Show the interviewers that you are not afraid to be creative and different. This will set you apart and propel you to the top of the pack.

This will also create a scenario in which you set the pace and tone of the interview according to your preferences. You as the interviewee, who is well practiced, well prepared and confident in his/her self has the upper hand.  Listen attentively to the questions being posed but do not shy away from answering sincerely, in a way that reflects your true values.

So use positive affirmations often, get some exercise, and eat right. You’ll want to exude the most positive energy you can.

Finally, a word about details: Our appearance affects our confidence so you should dress to impress, not only for the impression it gives but because of how it makes you feel to wear your best business suit, starched shirt and shiniest shoes. Part of believing that you are the best candidate is dressing the part.

Also, wear a watch. It shows that you place value on time.

Show up at least five minutes early to give yourself time to settle down and get centered.

After all your research, preparation and practice, give yourself every chance to succeed on the Big Day. You are more than just the sum of your knowledge and that will become crystal clear in the first minutes of your business school interview. There is a bright future ahead of you and you are crating it with you hard work and unique qualities. This is the path of success. Good luck!!

 

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