The interview starts the moment you step foot on campus. Technically, your assessment includes any communications you have with an admissions committee member leading up to the interview. From your exchange with the receptionist to a coffee chat with a student or chance encounter with a faculty member, every interaction counts. And it’s not over when you exit the interview — there’s follow up to be done.
“When I was head of Wharton admissions, we had a fabulous receptionist. Like other administrative staff, she was on the front lines of interactions with prospective students,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Judith Silverman Hodara. “If a candidate wasn’t gracious to her, wasn’t polite — or worse, dismissive or patronizing — she let us know about it. I really appreciated it.”
All told, the MBA interview process is a relational experience, and the sphere of influence extends beyond your interviewer. As a Fortuna Admissions coach and Columbia Business School alum, as well as a former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Here are 7 top tips for approaching the MBA interview holistically, from lead up to follow up, and ensuring that you put your best foot forward at every interval.
MBA INTERVIEW MISTAKES TO AVOID: FROM LEAD UP TO FOLLOW UP
- Don’t overlook any interaction. As Jeff Bezos asserted in a 2010 Princeton baccalaureate, “cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.” Go the extra mile to be courteous to everyone you meet, from the dean of the school to the parking attendant. The reality is that the way you treat anyone throughout your day on campus reflects on your character and maturity. (Remember, “memorable” cuts both ways — impressive or cringe-worthy.) Even if you’re wildly nervous, flustered from getting lost, or running late, don’t be too harried to smile and offer your appreciation to people for their time and assistance. The last thing you want is to inadvertently give the admission office a reason to doubt you.
- Don’t just make the connection, build the relationship. Sure, you want to impress your interviewers, but funnel some effort into cultivating relationships with current and past students. They’ve been in your shoes before and can be your advocate. If someone is very impressed by their interaction with you, they can send a little note to admissions — that’s certainly been done before — just remember it works the same in the reverse. I recently had a client who was invited to a social event at CBS by a student she’d met on campus — which offered a prime opportunity to deepen the relationship, assess fit for the school and learn more about what it might be like to go there.
- Don’t get overly familiar. When an interaction is going well, whether it’s a conversational interview experience with an alumni just a few years out of school or a side conversation in a campus hub, don’t make the mistake of getting too chummy. “No matter how comfortable you feel with an interviewer, AdCom member, or student ambassador, always treat them with the same respect you would treat the CEO of your company or your grandmother – whoever inspires you to maintain your manners!” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal in her article, MBA Etiquette for Written Communications. “Even if the person … seems like a peer, don’t be misled. You should still address them with the care of someone who is in a position of evaluating you.”
- Don’t skip the networking opportunities. Whether it’s a pre-interview pub night at Wharton or the spectrum of activities on offer at HBS during its interview days, take full advantage of what your program is offering around your interview experience. Not only is it a chance to have a fortuitous encounter, it’s a golden opportunity to get a feel for campus life and gauge mutual fit. Just remember that you’ll be under the microscope. “Case in point is Wharton’s pub night,” says Judith. “Don’t be tempted to have a drink too many to calm your nerves. I hate to sound like your mom, but if she wouldn’t approve, neither will the admissions committee.”
- Don’t just wing your introductions. Instead, have your customized elevator pitch at the ready. This means being able to share who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what’s driving you toward pursuing your MBA (at this school) in a minute or two. “Authenticity is key, so as you draw these connections within your pitch, stay true to yourself and your personal style,” advises my Fortuna colleague, Sharon Joyce in her article, How to Develop Your MBA Elevator Pitch. “Remember that your goal is to both create a positive impression and open the door to further conversation by generating interest, not to tell your life story.” With enough practice, you’ll avoid sounding scripted and feel more confident about talking to anyone you encounter with poise and clarity about why this next step in your career is meaningful.
- Don’t forget some thoughtful questions. It’s also wise to come to campus prepared with two to three thoughtful questions to demonstrate your level of interest, whether it’s to a networking event with current students (they’re a font of candid insights) or to your formal admissions interview. “When it’s your turn to ask questions, use the opportunity wisely,” says Fortuna’s Melissa Jones in her article, Preparing for Alumni-led Interviews. “Don’t make the mistake of asking questions for which the information is easily available online.”
- Don’t miss a chance to say thank you. Sending a timely, sincere thank you note to your interviewer should be top of mind, but include one to any student you meet with. If you sat in on a class, approach the professor and ask for their contact to send a note of appreciation. “It should be one of your top priorities to follow up with people within 24 hours of a call or meeting. An email is an acceptable follow-up gesture, but make it timely and gracious,” says Maschal. “This may might mean typing something out on your phone, but take the extra time to ensure your note looks polished and sincere.” Ensure your note is personal by citing something you did, said or learned that day. By all means, double-check you’ve spelled names correctly and avoid sloppy mistakes. A thank you isn’t just about protocol, again, it’s about developing authentic relationships for the future.
Aside: My colleague Judith confessed to keeping handwritten thank-you letters she received from students some 10 years ago — so they really do matter. That said, email is efficient and expected, and advantageous in the right circumstances. For example, Columbia alumni interviewers can send their feedback same-day, and if they don’t have your artful thank you in their email inbox it might be a missed opportunity to reinforce the high points of your conversation.
For more advice on how to maximize your pre- and post-interview interactions with schools, view my brief video strategy session with Fortuna Co-Director Judith Silverman Hodara.
Karen Hamou is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions as well as a Columbia Business School alum and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.