In part one of this series, How to Prepare for Tough MBA Interview Questions, I cited the specific types of tricky questions top tier schools will ask to shake you off your script. Most of the time, unexpected questions are deployed to elicit more clarity, honesty and substance, which makes the conversation more interesting for both of you.
While you can’t know what your interviewer will ask, you won’t feel as flustered if you practice delivering concise, calm and thoughtful responses to all manner of unexpected questions. If you lose your composure, it’s hard to get back. In the moment, you can always take a sip of water or short pause to breathe, then redirect.
In part two of this series, I’ve collected advice from my Fortuna Admissions colleagues on seven tough questions you should be prepared to encounter:
- Give an example of a failure.
This question invites you to consider the circumstances and pivot points that shaped you into an ever-wiser human being, and challenges you’ve faced and overcome along the way. In her recent article on how to address the question of failure, my colleague Caroline Diarte Edwards (former INSEAD head of Admissions) emphasizes, “What’s most compelling to the admissions committee on the topic of failure is what you’ve learned from your experience, whether you’ve had to face your fears, and whether you’ve demonstrated the grit and persistence to bounce back and forge ahead with new awareness.”
- What are your weaknesses?
Like the question of a failure, frame weakness examples in a way that allows you to demonstrate growth. For example, describe what initiative you’ve taken to work on overcoming the weakness and what you have learned from this experience. One way to talk about a weakness is to provide a situational weakness (as opposed to a character weakness). However, be careful not to sidestep the question. Showing humility and self-awareness is critical.
- What other schools are you applying to?
Every school wants to know they’re your first choice. But under this question is a subtle test of your deep understanding of this school’s culture, values and unique offerings. “Of course, they also know that you’re applying to other programs – they expect that and it’s a sensible thing to do. But to win their acceptance, show them the love,” says Fortuna’s Amy Hugo (former LBS manager of admissions and recruitment) in her article on tailoring your b-school application. “This means going the extra mile to prove you understand a school’s unique culture and values, and that you’ve given considered thought both to how you’ll contribute to their community what you hope to gain from it.”
At the same time, notes Fortuna’s Karen Hamou (CBS alum and former Deloitte recruiting lead), you want to show reasoning for why you’re applying to other programs in the context of why this school is still number one. If you’re interviewing with Columbia, for example, consider contextualizing in this way: “Given my interest in doing my MBA in NYC, I am also applying to Stern. While Stern could also provide me with a strong finance education, CBS remains my #1 choice due to its unique value investing program.”
- Explain a project you worked on as if I was an 8-year-old child?
This is a great communication exercise showcasing your ability to convey complex information to laymen. Be clear, concise and focus on the big picture. Avoid using any industry jargon.
- What do you dislike about your job?
Think about your short and long term career goals, and make sure your answer doesn’t clash with them. For example, don’t say you don’t like office politics if your goal is to become a GM. Instead, you could focus on what you’re currently missing, and what you’re doing about it.
- Give an example of a time you worked with a difficult team?
Again, emphasize what you learned from this experience and avoid a lengthy explanation of the scenario. How did this experience impact your more recent team experiences? Or how did this experience help you define your leadership style? If asked about a difficult boss, focus on how this made you stronger (e.g. more autonomous, made you search for a mentor, etc.).
- You don’t need an MBA to achieve your goals—why are you applying?
Here you want to show you have thought at length about what business school will provide and how it will help you go further and have a bigger impact than if you did not have an MBA. You can also take a page from the playbook of UN peacekeeping chief and LBS grad, Paul Heslop, who spoke to Fortuna’s Matt Symonds in Forbes on the value of the MBA in a non-traditional path like his. Says Heslop, “I’m using those skills I learned in business school every day. And, because not a lot of people in the UN have MBAs, it gave me a unique perspective that was recognized and rewarded with rapid promotion to my current position.”
It’s also not uncommon to be quizzed on something your interviewer finds intriguing in your application, such as undergraduate education paths in your country. Left-field questions can be an interviewer’s way to stay engaged in the conversation or satisfy a curiosity. (It can also be a sign your interviewer is not an expert at interviewing; this can happen more often with a second-year student or alumnus.) Don’t be thrown off by these types of questions, and embrace the spirit of the conversation. Focus on articulating clear and concise answers, and, more importantly, frame the interview by remembering to proactively insert your key selling points.
Finally, don’t miss your chance to turn the tables – especially if you’ve been fielding questions from an alum interviewer. “This is your valuable opportunity to ask those nitty-gritty questions that only someone who has gone through the program can respond to,” says Fortuna’s Melissa Jones (former INSEAD assistant director) in her article on preparing for alumni-led interviews. “When it’s your turn to ask questions, use the opportunity wisely.”
For more interview prep strategies and tips, check out this article by my colleague Malvina Miller Complainville, “6 Tips for Acing the MBA Interview.”
Judith 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