Interview essentials: from the M7 landscape to your prep strategy
If you’ve recently received an interview invite, it’s a clear signal the school believes in your potential. At the same time, competition is fierce, and the interview has never been more important. Among M7 schools, your prospects of admission are generally between 1 in 10 and 1 in 18. But secure an interview and your shot at acceptance has just improved to about 1 in 2. You now have a great chance of getting in, and now is the time to prepare with gusto.
Even if you’re confident about your interview skills, you have a short window to impress, so you need to focus on the essentials, get to the point quickly and prepare to adapt to various MBA interview styles. Schools will be looking for your leadership and communications skills, your ability to articulate your career ambitions within the context of the MBA, and whether you’re a good fit for the school. As my Fortuna colleague and former Harvard Business School Associate Director, Karla Cohen, says, “The interview is essentially a search for authenticity. Do you seem like the person we thought we met on paper? Are you who we think you are?”
Here are six essentials to keep in mind for acing the MBA interview:
1. Know the MBA interview landscape
You can expect to have very different kinds of interviews depending on the program you are applying for. As former admissions directors and business school professionals from the world’s top business schools, my Fortuna colleagues and I are fully aware of how different schools are looking at new interview formats and using a wide range of interview techniques. You should become acquainted with each kind of interview format and prepare accordingly.
At Stanford GSB you may have an hour-long, blind interview with an alum, meaning the interviewer has only seen your resume. GSB places heavy emphasis on behavioral questions, so expect to speak to very specific examples of what you did, why, what was going through your mind at the time, the outcome and impact on others.
“Stanford is looking for evidence of intellectual vitality and demonstrated leadership potential, your personal qualities and contributions,” says my Fortuna colleague Tatiana Nemo, a Stanford GSB alumna and former admissions interviewer. “They’re looking for personal character, they’re looking for traits and potential. And they’re certainly looking for sound analytical skills, creative instincts and strong performance – these are a must and a constant across their application process.”
For an HBS interview, on the other hand, you have just 30 minutes to make a great impression. You may have a two-on-one formal interview, where one admissions officer is actively interviewing while the other is observing. HBS and MIT are the only M7 schools in which the interviewer will have studied your entire application in depth (others typically reference your resume only). HBS tends to concentrate less on behavioral questions (although these could come up), in favor of delving into your resume to discern your motivations, experience and decision-making process. You’ll also need to send a post-interview reflection within 24 hours.
“It’s not so much where you’ve worked, but why you worked in those different places, and getting an understanding of your role within different organizations at different levels,” says Karla Cohen. “They’ll push you in terms of trying to understand what was your rationale for making different moves, for example. They want to see, too, how you handle unexpected questions.”
Wharton and Michigan Ross invite you to participate in a Team Based Interview. The school brings together a group of candidates and gives them a real-world business scenario to work through together. This dynamic format allows admissions to observe how you’ll operate in a team setting and gives them a sense of how you’ll perform in an MBA setting where interaction is extremely important. At Michigan Ross, the Team Based Interview is in addition to a traditional interview, while at Wharton, the activity is followed by a 10 minute one-on-one debrief with an admission representative.
“Individuals who present themselves with a closed leadership style rather than a facilitative one, or a style lacking in team-orientation, will be at a disadvantage in terms of being granted admission,” says my Fortuna colleague, Judith Silverman Hodara, former Wharton head of Admissions.
At Yale, Kellogg, INSEAD and LBS – in addition to the traditional invite interview – your application includes a video essay component, which prompts you to spontaneously answer a question with little or no prep time.
“The newer trend of MBA video essays means that candidates face a combination of the most challenging aspects of live interviews and written essays with the added pressures of camera, time limits and technology concerns,” says Fortuna’s Cassandra Pittman, who worked in admissions at INSEAD and LBS. “The lack of any real-time feedback that you would get from a face-to-face discussion is perhaps most challenging of all.” You only get one chance to convey your poise, confidence and clarity.
2. Make time to prepare and practice
You’ll want to be proactive (versus reactive), and practice is the best way to build your confidence and train yourself to give informative, natural and confident answers. You’ll need to speak without hesitation about why you’re pursuing an MBA, what your career goals are and why you’re interested in this particular school. Be ready to offer how you’ll contribute to the community, with examples of your leadership and teamwork. This includes having a two-minute response to “walk me through your resume” or “tell me about yourself.” Beyond the standard questions, you’ll want to prepare to be calm and poised in the face of tricky or unexpected questions.
First, sketch out some thoughts on paper, then practice with video, answering one question at a time. Find someone willing to put you through your paces in a mock interview, as well as offer candid feedback on your performance. Practicing aloud will help reduce your chances of rambling – you want to focus your response on the question being asked and stay on topic.
3. Identify your key selling points and supporting stories
The content you prepare should include at least five key selling points to offer during the interview. Each selling point should have a couple of short stories to illustrate your point. Your selling points and stories should relate to your strengths, your personality or soft skills (leadership potential, teamwork skills), your contribution to the school, and your career goals. Keep the program’s core values in mind, and identify stories that include behavioral examples that support your points with specifics. And while I can’t overemphasize the importance of practice, you need to be savvy about not sounding overly rehearsed, or crossing the line to pushing your agenda and trying to take control of the interview.
4. Know how to approach tough questions
Despite your preparation, you’re likely to get a question that you didn’t anticipate. (A recent client interviewing at a top school was recently asked to solve a probability question – and was admitted despite answering incorrectly.) Whether you’re asked about an area of weakness, an example of a failure, or why you left a certain position or industry, the key is to respond with honesty and humility. Present yourself in a positive light by focusing on your personal growth, lessons learned and ability to be introspective. Showing how you’ve stretched yourself in the past can be a compelling success story.
And if you gave a bad answer? Don’t lose confidence. Take a breath, carry on and, at the end of the interview, ask to clarify your response to the earlier question. This shows self-reflection and confidence, and most interviewers will let you do this.
5. Prepare questions for your interviewers
Be ready with meaningful questions to ask at the end of the interview (with answers that can’t be found on a spin through the school website). This kind of thoughtful preparation demonstrates your genuine interest in learning more about mutual fit. If you know your interviewer’s name ahead of time, do your research – look him/her up on LinkedIn for example. Considering your interviewer’s profile will help you tailor your questions accordingly. For alumni, you have a valuable opportunity to learn from their experience and glean insights that can help inform your decision. For admission representatives, you might ask questions specific to the strengths of the school community, or logistical questions about support for partners and families.
6. Stay grounded
Try to approach the interview as a conversation. Admissions wants to know what makes you unique, what you care about and what fuels your career aspirations. This means sharing your story with enthusiasm and personality, while keeping the general tone calm. You’ll want to come across as a sincere, grounded and thoughtful candidate. Whether it’s your only MBA interview or one of several, you’ll want the interviewer to feel their school is your first choice.
In closing, your interview is also an important moment to assess fit – not just you for the program but the program for you. Once you’re walking into the interview itself, allow yourself to enjoy the opportunity to bring your candidacy to life. You’ve captured their interest, and the most compelling way to win them over is to let your authentic self shine.
Malvina Miller Complainville, is Head of Interview Practice and Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, and was an Assistant Director at Harvard Business School. She has worked with many successful applicants to the world’s top business schools, and has featured on Forbes and the FT for advice on MBA interviewing.