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, whether the government should apply tariffs based on a product’s environmental sustainability? Or why doctors would prescribe a drug if they didn’t believe the disease was real, or if police should wear body cameras to promote transparency? Now imagine that this is actually taking place over Zoom, where you cannot necessarily read the body language of your interviewer!
The above are real questions posed by top 10 schools to recent Fortuna Admissions clients. 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 or to deepen the conversation. As the purpose of the interview is to get a stronger sense of who you are and how you think, your authenticity and presence is key. So how can you prepare to handle the tough questions?
First of all, your goal is to remain calm and focused, and pleasant to engage with. 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. 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). 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.
As interview season gets underway, my Fortuna colleagues and I are hosting a free, live webinar on MBA Interview Strategy for HBS, Stanford GSB & Wharton, Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 12:30 ET (register now to reserve your place).
In the meantime, I’ve compiled top tips and insights from my Fortuna Admissions colleagues on 10 tough questions you should be prepared to encounter.
10 TRICKY MBA INTERVIEW QUESTIONS & HOW TO TACKLE THEM
1. 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 blog on customizing your MBA 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, Karen advises to contextualize 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.” This helps to set up your thinking as well as cement your choice in your interviewer’s mind.
2. What are your thoughts on your current industry trends?
Point of view questions like this are an opportunity to show that you are informed about the business world and macroeconomics. 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. This can be a great opportunity for you to link your news interests to industries related to your career goals.
3. Give an example of a time you’ve failed.
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. Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards (former INSEAD head of Admissions) says, “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.”
In her article on HBS essay advice, Fortuna’s Karla Cohen affirms that some of the best essays she’s ever read open with an applicant’s story of a failure and how it has shaped them, creating credibility through their introspection and authenticity. “From my perspective, if you are never making mistakes, you aren’t working hard enough,” says Karla.
4. What are your weaknesses?
Like the question of a failure, frame a weakness example 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). For example, instead of saying “I am a perfectionist,” you may want to talk about how you are learning to build in time to allow for extra review with a deliverable, so that it’s up to your standards. However, be careful not to sidestep the question. Showing humility and self-awareness is critical. Schools are not expecting you to be perfect; they want to know that you are able to learn and to grow during your experience on their campus.
5. How many coins fit in this room?
Coins in a room, cookies in a jar – when an interviewer lobs a problem to resolve, they’re interested in how you think through an issue. It’s not about having an exact answer but meeting the unexpected with confidence and curiosity. Karla puts it this way in her article on acing the HBS interview: “Be yourself – it’s your unique perspectives, rationale and thought process that distinguish you from others of a similar or identical profile.”
6. Tell me about… the gap in your resume.
Maybe you initiated a career switch, took time off to start an entrepreneurial venture, or got laid off during the Covid pandemic. Perhaps illness or other personal circumstances were to blame. Whatever the reason may be, you want to provide a straightforward explanation versus an excuse. Again, articulate not just the circumstances surrounding any employment gap, but what you learned from the experience. (For more on addressing a gap in your resume, view this related post by Fortuna’s Jessica Chung.)
Similarly, 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 reflective 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. As Jessica says, “How you choose to frame your challenges and upsets as opportunities and learning lessons can make all the difference.”
7. What do you dislike about your job?
Consider 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 actively doing about it.
8. What was the price of gold this morning?
Fact based questions come in many flavors, and they can really make you feel cornered. 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. In most cases the interviewer is looking to see how you handle yourself under pressure – a test of how you will cope with stress in the MBA program. Remember, 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.
9. 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. The story is not as important as 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.).
10. You don’t need an MBA to achieve your goals—why are you applying?
Here you’re being asked to show you’ve 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 pathlike 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.)
Finally, keep perspective, and try to enjoy the challenge. Instead of getting thrown off by these types of questions, 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. Most of the time, unexpected questions are deployed to elicit more honesty, clarity, and substance, which makes the conversation more interesting for both of you.
For more insights and advice, register to join Fortuna’s free webinar on Wed., Oct. 14 at 12:30 ET: MBA Interview Strategy for HBS, Stanford GSB & Wharton. It’s part of our fall series of MBA Admissions Masterclasses, hosted by Fortuna Director Matt Symonds and featuring a panel of experts, former MBA Admissions gatekeepers to the world’s top business schools.
Judith Silverman Hodara, EdD, is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton acting head of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.