What should you do if your MBA interviewer veers into politics? Or asks you about a gap in your resume, to describe a time you’ve failed, or how you’ve been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
The above are real questions posed by M7 schools to recent Fortuna Admissions clients. As Wharton’s former head of admissions, I can assure you tough questions aren’t motivated by schadenfreude. (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? And what hot topics should you prepare to anticipate in Round 2?
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. Anyone preparing for the HBS interview should anticipate a “poker face” interview style – which can be unsettling when you can’t read someone’s reaction to validate whether your answers are resonating (especially on Zoom!).
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 Round 2 interviews get underway, my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I are running clients through the paces in MBA interview prep sessions. This strategy significantly increases your chances of success: In Round one of 2021, 73% of Fortuna clients invited to interview at Harvard, Stanford GSB or Wharton were admitted (far above the 40-50% schools say they admit).
In the meantime, I’ve compiled insights from my Fortuna colleagues on three tough questions you should be prepared to encounter, along with top tips for tackling unexpected questions.
3 TOUGH MBA INTERVIEW QUESTIONS TO ANTICIPATE
1. What other schools are you applying to?
Every school wants to know they’re your first choice. But underneath 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). “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 for you. 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. 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.”
Fortuna’s Karla Cohen (former Associate Director at HBS) 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.
3. 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.”
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 or your penchant for mushroom hunting. 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.) Here are some practical techniques to deploy when hit with the unexpected.
3 TIPS FOR RESPONDING TO UNEXPECTED QUESTIONS
1. Use “bridging” techniques to steer the conversation.
Know how to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand: YOU and the school, and why you should be there. Have 1-3 pre-prepared ways to bring a topic like the recent US election back to business in the realm of your own goals. Identify ‘an election topic’ to pivot to if asked to speak to something that matters to you specifically. If you can, make it something no one can argue – therefore make it personal and related to your goals. In this way, you make it about you and not the politics of the issue itself. Always keep it positive.
2. Know what you stand for.
Whether the topic is how you’ve been affected by the pandemic or protests for racial justice, consider it an invitation to speak to your values, what you care about, and how recent and current circumstances motivate you to drive change in a way that serves a greater purpose. How does it shape your drive, your motivation, and your vision of the world? As you respond, keep your audience in mind: This is a business school admissions interview after all, and your words are directed to the admissions committee. How do your own stated values tie back to that of the school?
3. Circle back to clarify your response.
If you give a bad answer and you know it, don’t lose confidence. Keep going, and at the end of the interview ask to clarify your response 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 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.
If you’re looking for more support, check out Fortuna’s MBA interview prep services, which includes HBS Interview Prep and Wharton Team Based Discussion Prep (spaces are limited).
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.