Thriving in Virtual and Activity-Based Interviews
You probably picture an adcom interview as two people, face-to-face, on opposite sides of the desk. In this environment, you can read their body language, make eye contact, and command their full attention. But what if a school tweaks this tried-and-true formula? What if you could only speak to someone through a camera? And what if your interview was actually a group activity with other prospective applicants?
Those are two strategies being employed in place of telephone or in-person interviews. One is the virtual interview, where you spend 30-40 minutes talking to an adcom through a camera. Another is the team-based discussion (TBD) – a hallmark of Wharton and Ross – where applicants collaborate virtually to prepare a timed solution and presentation. So why aren’t schools leaving well enough alone?
Let’s start with the virtual interview. In a column for Clear Admit, Shelly Heinrich, Director of MBA Admissions at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, contends that a virtual interview can reduce costs and risk for students. For example, between travel, lodging, and meals, a trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. could cost $2,000 or more, a hefty sum for an interview and a campus tour. What’s more, weather can wreak havoc on travel plans. In a virtual interview, the adcom and candidate can still closely interact. To make that time productive, candidates should be prepared and aware of their surroundings.
And nothing conveys who candidates are more than what’s behind them, Heinrich argues. To send the right message, she urges applicants to keep objects to a minimum. “Create a clean, professional backdrop,” she contends. “You want the interviewer to focus on you without any distractions, including background noises.”
Clothing also delivers a strong message in Heinrich’s experience. “…You should dress for a virtual interview in the same way you would for an in-person interview. Proper interview attire includes a jacket and tie for men and a suit or professional dress for women. Dressing the part will psychologically prepare you for this important component of the application process.” She also encourages applicants to dry clean and press their clothes. “Believe it or not, you can see wrinkles through the web camera.”
What’s another virtual faux pas that can torpedo a candidacy? How about wasting time mastering the technology during the interview? You can check every box in the interview checklist, but wasting time at the outset fiddling with headphones, microphones, and speakers reflects sloppiness at best and disrespectfulness at worst. “I have had countless people tell me in the first few minutes of interviews that it was the first time they had used this virtual technology,” Heinrich sighs, “only to have interviewees then waste valuable time that would have been better spent in conversation.” Camera angles and internet connections are other potential hazards according to Heinrich.
Finally, Heinrich notes that body language is just as critical to the virtual interview as the in-person one. “…Look and speak to the web camera, not the screen and interviewer, so that it appears as if you are making eye contact.” She also discourages movements like rocking, bouncing or heavy gestures. Most important: Avoid following a script. “Interviewers can tell when you are reading and referring to notes—it is distracting.”
The real wild card, however, is the team interview. Here, applicants must work together to solve a problem before a short one-on-one with an adcom. Here is how Accepted ‘s Cindy Tokumitsu describes the virtual team process applied at Ross:
In a group of 4-6 members, “the team is given 2 words, and they first prepare individual presentations connecting these words (10 minutes for this portion). Then the group receives additional random words, and they have 20 minutes to prepare a team presentation that uses the words to address a problem and articulate a solution. The individuals in the team, not the team as a whole, are evaluated either by second-year students or adcom members, who also interview them separately afterward.”
In other words, applicants are assessed on “how” they accomplish a task, as much as “what” they achieve. To Tokumitsu, the benefit is that applicants can more easily “showcase [their] interpersonal, team, and leadership skills” in an activity. The drawback? Well, sometimes people can bring out the worst in others. What’s more, Tokumitsu argues that it takes time to grow into a team-based dynamic with new people.
The key to success, in Tokumitsu’s experience, is self-awareness. “Think about your inclinations, behaviors, feelings, and approaches when working in a team or group setting,” she writes. “And also ask a colleague or two for some objective feedback. You shouldn’t change your natural approach, but you can certainly play to your strengths and minimize negative tendencies.”
As part of that, Tokumitsu also advises applicants to sublimate their egos during the exercise. “Make your goal the team’s success and ability to complete the assigned task, not its adoption of your idea.”