Preparing For Alumni-Led MBA Interviews

You’ve landed a coveted MBA interview…  and learn it will be conducted by an alum. What can you expect in this scenario and what does it mean for how your candidacy will be conveyed? Most importantly, how should you prepare?

Firstly, having an alumni-led interview is a signal the school values the perspective its grads can bring – both to you as a candidate and to the interview process itself. True, alumni interviewers are not the final gatekeepers and won’t have the final say in whether you’re admitted or not. But their influence provides vital insight to the admissions committee as your file is holistically considered at decision-time.

Stanford, INSEAD, Columbia and Northwestern Kellogg are some of the top schools that deploy alumni to conduct admissions interviews, while others enlist a second-year student, like UCLA Anderson and Yale SOM. INSEAD, for example, tries to pair you with one alumnus who has a similar profile to yours and another who has a very different background for the sake of diversity. Some programs, such as Berkeley Haas, reserve the right to throw you into any number of scenarios – with an alum, second-year student or a member of admissions (or some combination of the two).

Key factors to keep in mind about the alumni-led MBA interview:

  • Style: In general, alumni-led interviews are conducted blind. This means the only thing your interviewer knows about you is your resume. Still, that’s not always the case – the LBS interview is one exception, in which the alumni interviewer gets your full application in advance.
  • Structure: Some interviewers arrive with questions sent from someone on the admissions team. Others have carte blanche to go off script into their own line of questioning, using your resume as a starting point. Some interviewers prefer to prepare by glimpsing at the overall review and highlights of your file; others prefer to hear your story without knowing anything (or very little) about you beforehand to avoid biases.
  • Location: Many schools, like INSEAD, will supply you with the interviewer’s contact details and expect you to reach out directly to arrange a mutually convenient time and place. You might be invited to meet your interviewer at an on-campus location, at a coffee shop or, more commonly, in his or her office.
  • Tone: By design, the alumni-led interview lends itself to be a conversational experience, allowing both interviewer and applicant to gauge fit with the school. Yet it often depends on your interviewers’ personality and what they do professionally.
  • Length: Some interviews could be 30 minutes; occasionally they can run to two hours. On average, interviews run about an hour. While schools offer guidelines to alumni interviewers, the duration of your interview with an alum may vary widely depending on the flow of conversation, and the time they have available.

Additional tips to make the most of the opportunity:

  • Do your homework. Given this format’s variability, hedge your bets with due diligence and conduct some research on your interviewers prior to the interview. Check out their profile on LinkedIn and do a Google search, at the minimum. Give some thought to what you might have in common – this could be useful as an ice-breaker.
  • Come prepared with smart questions. This is your valuable opportunity to ask those nitty-gritty questions that only someone who has gone through the program can respond to. When it’s your turn to ask questions, use the opportunity wisely; don’t make the mistake of asking questions for which the information is easily available online.
  • Have your 30-60 second elevator pitch. It’s common for alumni interviewers to open with, “tell me about yourself,” or “walk me through your resume.” Your elevator pitch is a concise and compelling conversation opener that speaks to who you are, what you’re passionate about and what’s driving you to pursue your business school degree. Your goal is to both create a positive first impression and open the door to further conversation by generating interest.
  • Make your points focused and compelling. Your interviewer may or may not be taking notes, so practice your key selling points to ensure that what you convey is memorable and persuasive (i.e. easy for them to remember when they’re writing their report or reflection).
  • Connect the dots for them. Practice your responses to the standard MBA interview questions; expect why an MBA, why this school. Alumni are the school’s messengers and champions; you’ll need to show the love by conveying a sincere and thoughtful understanding of its unique values and culture. Among other qualities, your interviewer is looking for your leadership potential, fit with the school and ability to connect the dots within your professional experience.
  • Research where your interviewer works to gauge attire. Particularly if you’re meeting them at the office, dress appropriately for that environment in business attire (a startup in Silicon Valley may skew more relaxed, a Wall Street brokerage more formal.) Remember that first impressions are important, and how you present yourself will be perceived as part of your personal brand.
  • Show your appreciation: Alum interviewers are volunteers who are generously giving of their time, likely during a busy workday. As successful professionals, they’re doing so because they love the school and want to contribute to its community. So don’t neglect to acknowledge and thank them for their time (a written follow up note to show your appreciation is a nice touch).

At the end of the day, your alum interviewer will be reporting back to the admissions office with specific insights, observations, and assessments related to your interpersonal skills, abilities, performance and potential fit with the program. But don’t miss the chance to glean valuable insights by turning the tables: What was their most powerful lesson learned? What has been most valuable to them about the alumni network? What do they perceive to be the program’s greatest strength? In addition to making a persuasive and memorable case for your candidacy, your interview with an alum – unlike with a member of admissions – is also an invaluable opportunity to discern the school’s fit for you from someone who has walked in your shoes.

Melissa Jones is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Assistant Director of the INSEAD MBA Program. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.