How To Prepare For Tough MBA Interview Questions – Part 1

The standard MBA interview questions revolve around conveying your story, your career plan, and your unique goals, all of which you should be ready to address in a coherent, confident, and focused manner. Other types of interview questions plumb for another level of substance and specificity, from behavioral questions (like the Stanford GSB interview) to your personal characteristics and opinions. You can prepare yourself by identifying your key selling points and supporting stories to weave throughout your conversion when given the opportunity.

What do you do when the MBA admissions interviewer asks you whether 3,599 is a prime number?

(Besides try not to break into a cold sweat.)

Or, why doctors would prescribe a drug if they didn’t believe the disease was real? Or whether the government should apply tariffs based on a product’s environmental sustainability or if police should wear body cameras to promote transparency?

All above are real questions posed by top 10 schools to recent Fortuna Admissions clients. As interview season gets underway, I’ve compiled my colleagues’ top tips and insights to help you prepare to handle the tough and tricky questions with poise and confidence.

HOW TO HANDLE TOUGH QUESTIONS – AND WHY YOU CAN EXPECT THEM

As Wharton’s former head of admissions, I can assure you tough questions aren’t motivated by schadenfreude. (Although in the case of the prime number, our client had a first-time alumni interviewer who may have been a bit overeager.) I’ve certainly thrown a curveball question to shake an overly rehearsed candidate from their script and to deepen the conversation. Remember that the purpose of the interview is to get a stronger sense of who you are and how you think, so your authenticity and presence is key. So how should you handle the tough questions?

Your goal is to remain calm and focused, and pleasant to engage with. The HBS interview, for example, is notorious for having a “poker face” interviewer – and it can be unsettling when you can’t read someone’s reaction to validate whether your answers are resonating (or not). In most cases the interviewer is looking to see how you carry yourself under stress – a test of how you will handle pressure in the MBA program.

Some schools want to see if you can think on your feet, while others want to know how you react when you’re directly challenged. If there is a red flag in your profile – for example, a record of disorderly conduct in a regrettable undergrad moment – expect to be asked about it and prepare to answer in a straightforward and introspective way. After all, an invitation to interview is a signal that the school believes in your potential, but there might be one issue that they want to clarify. Answer in a matter-of-fact tone, take your time and don’t get defensive.

HOW TO RESPOND WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER

There are several things you can do to prepare to meet the unexpected with confidence and curiosity.  Here are three types of questions you might receive that you may not be able to answer:

  1. Point of view question – For example: What are your thoughts on your current industry trends? Just take your time to answer and avoid something too ambitious or complex. In the time leading up to your interview, stay current on news sources like the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. You want to show that you are informed about the business world and macroeconomics. This can be a great opportunity for you to link your news interests to industries related to your career goals.
  1. Fact based question – This is the question that can really make you feel cornered. For example: What was the price of gold this morning? If you don’t know the answer, admit that you don’t know it and link it back to what your goals are in terms of developing your business knowledge and why you’re here applying for an MBA.
  1. Problem to resolve – For example: How many coins fit in this room? Here the interviewer is interested in how you think through the problem; it’s not about having an exact answer.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU GIVE A BAD ANSWER

If you gave a bad answer, and you know it, don’t lose confidence. Keep going, and at the end of the interview ask to clarify your answer to the earlier question. This shows confidence and self-reflection, and most interviewers will let you do this. You might also weave in your clarification into an artful thank you email.

Finally, keep your perspective. Know that your presence and authenticity can be more compelling than whether you get all the right answers the first time around. For example, a recent client interviewing at a top school was asked to solve a probability question – and was admitted, despite answering incorrectly. “Be yourself – it’s your unique perspectives, rationale and thought process that distinguish you from others of a similar or identical profile,” says my Fortuna colleague and former HBS Associate Director, Karla Cohen, in her article on acing the HBS interview. “The more you can convey what you were actually thinking, and how you made certain decisions and choices, the more believable and persuasive your impression will be.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series next week: 8 Tough MBA Interview Questions & How to Tackle Them.


Fortuna-AdmissionsJudith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business