Lessons From My Booth, HBS & GSB Interviews

Stanford: An Exercise in Meticulous Detail

Stanford released its interview invitations over the space of a one-month period. I found myself about a week out from the end of that window and was beginning to feel nervous. Luckily however, I did get the email, and along with it – the contact details of my interviewer. Once I’d scheduled a time for my interview directly with him, I began considering what I should expect from a Stanford interview.

The preparation: As I began researching, I was reminded of the three criteria against which Stanford evaluates its applicants (intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions). I therefore focussed on developing stories which speak directly to one or more of these qualities. My research suggested that because Stanford interviews were conducted by many different people, significant variability might be experienced from one interview to the next, but that the admissions committee reviewed the interview in the context of my whole application (as opposed to the approach whereby the application gets you the interview and the acceptance decision is entirely or largely based on the interview). Having said that though, with Stanford’s extremely low rate of acceptance, this was no time to be complacent.

The interview: As expected, my interview kicked off with a few minutes of small talk: something that was easy as we both work in the same industry and as it later emerged, we both shared similar professional backgrounds at the point of applying to Stanford. What came next however, was surprising: he asked me to tell him a story about an accomplishment (seemed simple enough), but then proceeded to drill down into acute detail with increasingly probing questions.

I told the story of how I started up an employee network to improve LGBT+ inclusiveness in the workplace and within minutes we were discussing the very fine details. Who did you approach first? Why them? How did you approach the CEO for support? Why did you frame the message in that way? This detailed probing continued for around 25 minutes on this one accomplishment. We then went on to discuss a failure in detail, however that discussion only lasted for around 10 minutes.

Faced with this situation, I can see how it might be easy to go into panic mode. Luckily, my interviewer was personable and approached it with an inquisitive mindset, more so than by pressuring me, so the interview was not as stressful as it sounds. It emerged that the purpose behind his approach stemmed from the fact that he was required to communicate the details of my story back to the admissions committee: no doubt along with some insight into how I think and how I fit with the big three criteria that I mentioned above.

The takeaways: Having now been through the unique experience that is the Stanford interview, I suggest you make sure you have accomplishment and failure stories at the ready, which align with Stanford’s evaluation criteria (as you would for any MBA interview), and try to call on examples that are recent enough for you to remember the finer details, and which you were personally pivotal in the situation. Also, the Stanford interview provides a critical example of why you should never try to stretch the truth in your application or interview. By drilling down to that level of detail, it’s easy to understand how incomplete or fabricated stories could unravel quite quickly.

Parting Advice

If you do find yourself with an offer to interview at a top business school, that is a massive achievement, and a sign that your odds of acceptance just went up substantially. That said, getting over that last hurdle does take a lot of time and careful preparation to ensure that you are presenting yourself in the best way possible. I’ve covered a lot in this article but my top lessons are:

  • What are they looking for? – Business schools typically publish the criteria on which they evaluate candidates. You can select the examples you highlight with that in mind to help the interviewer to connect your past behaviours with those criteria.
  • “Walk me through your Resume” – Don’t skimp on the basics, and make sure you are prepared to give a quick overview of your application, focusing on the “why” for each item. By doing so, you may be able to steer the conversation in your chosen direction.
  • Refresh on the Details – Your interviewer may quiz you on any of the stories you cover or on any parts of your application. Ensure you fully understand the details, particularly as they pertain to your involvement (and don’t try to stretch the truth).
  • Culture is Key – If possible, take the opportunity to visit campus and learn about the campus culture, and then apply that understanding to your interview. Alternatively, connect online with students or alumni who may be able to provide some insights.

Plus a bonus lesson:

  • Don’t forget the Follow Up – Grab a business card from your interviewer and send through a personalised thank-you email. You can use the email highlight a couple of key elements of your candidacy or reflect on a question that you might answer differently in hindsight.

Now then, time to practice!

GSB-bound Dane Renner

Dane Renner is an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (class of 2019), an experienced chemical engineer, and an LGBTI+ advocate. His stats are off the charts: He racked up a 3.8 GPA in commerce and engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as a 770 GMAT (44V/50Q). In addition to Stanford, he was admitted to both Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the first of a five-part series by Renner who will chronicle his interview preparation, with recaps of his HBS and GSB interviews, how he decided which school to attend and what he intends to do to prep for his MBA experience. 


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