As the World Sterns: Crafting Your Narrative for the MBA Interview

Washington Square Park next to NYU Stern

A question you hear a lot as an MBA is, “What’s your five-year plan?”

Usually, I reply, “All I know is, if you asked me five years ago what my five-year plan was, it would not be this.”

Five years ago, I had spent my year working seasonal hospitality jobs, and was set to continue doing that for a while. At the time, I was choosing jobs based on work that sounded fun and a location that seemed cool.

Business school had not crossed my mind. Setting myself on a path to become a management consultant had not crossed my mind.

So when I was preparing for interviews with MBA programs, I quickly realized how difficult it would be to explain how I had ended up here. I had heard that the three most common questions asked in MBA interviews were these: “Why an MBA?”, “Why now?”, and “Why this school?”.

I knew I needed to develop a story that made sense as to why I was here.


Penny Burgess

Something that I’ve noticed in talking to MBA students is that they have two answers to the question “Why an MBA?”: the “application answer” and the “honest answer”.

However, what I’ve also found is that generally the “honest answer” is the reason that someone started the application process for MBA programs, but the “application answer” is the reason that they stuck with it.

For example, to be totally candid, my MBA journey began because I was tired of feeling like my work had no impact. I had felt unappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid at almost every job I’d had.

On top of that, I had spent two years building a small self-owned business selling vintage clothing online, and it had really opened my eyes to how much creativity and strategy goes into running a business. However, I didn’t find that work impactful either. I knew I was interested in learning more about how to run and change a business on a larger scale, so I started researching MBA programs.

It happened to be the Summer of 2020, during which I had an ample amount of free time, so I simultaneously started studying for the GMAT. I decided that if I did well on the GMAT, I could apply to some MBA programs and see what stuck.

However, the more that I looked into the MBA experience, the more interested I became. I quickly discovered that the career of management consulting existed, and it sounded like a perfect fit for me. A job where I frequently get to work on different projects, with different teams, in different locations, and for different clients? And the work I do could actually impact the way that business is conducted?

Sign me up!

I also learned that jobs such as these were difficult to break into without a network — something that these MBA programs would provide. I was definitely attracted to the network at NYU Stern, which is particularly strong in New York City (where I wanted to end up). Its location means that Stern students are more easily able to have in-person coffee chats, corporate presentations, and site visits with companies in the city.

I became very interested in the social aspect of an MBA program, too. Since matriculating at NYU Stern, I’ve discovered that a lot of the extracurricular elements of the program are student-run, which I believe is true at most MBA programs. There are a multitude of clubs, all of which plan and organize a full calendar of events meant for education, networking, and (of course) fun. As someone who loves planning events, this also seemed like a great fit for me.

Equally importantly, I was attracted to the idea of learning more about business. I went into Stern with a mission to make the workplace experience better for workers than I had witnessed. I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do with an MBA yet, but I knew that learning more about how businesses operate and make strategic decisions would only help me better understand how I could make a difference.

Ultimately, the application process for an MBA program is not easy. Studying for the GMAT, taking the GMAT, writing essays, asking for recommendations, and filling out applications is time-consuming and mentally-taxing. So if your “honest” answer is different from your “application” answer — push yourself. This isn’t an easy process. What keeps you going? Why this degree, and not a different one? There are seemingly infinite options for graduate degrees; there must be something about the MBA experience that specifically attracts you.

Stern MBA students on a cruise around New York City


Once I had my reasoning locked down for “Why Business School,” I knew the biggest hurdle was going to be explaining how my eclectic background had led me to apply to an MBA program. (Read more about my background in my first Poets&Quants column here)

I changed the way that I approached my resume. Rather than asking why I took a job in general, I started asking myself, “Why did you take this job, specifically?”. While I accepted the black bear tour guide job because of its cool location (Alaska), I had specifically chosen that job because it involved learning a lot quickly, leading groups, and teaching through presentation – all skills that I had strengthened throughout my career.

As I went through my background, job-by-job, patterns began to emerge. By taking the time to notice these, I started to see “chapters” of my life: a chapter focused on presentation, a chapter focused on people, and a chapter focused on business. I saw how the skills and experiences I had gathered in each chapter could make me a valuable addition to an MBA class, as well as a strong candidate for a post-MBA role.

However, I also saw what I was missing: knowledge about business. But wouldn’t you know it, I had found a great solution to that: going to business school! Just like that, the pieces fell into place. I started to understand the timeline of my career, and how an MBA would fit perfectly between where I was and where I wanted to be.

New York University’s Stern School of Business


The final question you should be able to answer in an MBA interview is why you want to attend this MBA program specifically. This is sometimes the hardest to answer, but again I would push you to dig deeper than what you consider to be your “honest” answer. It’s time-consuming and costly to apply to an MBA program. What moved the needle for you for this particular school?

The best way to find your answer to this is to do your research. MBA programs generally have very thorough websites. NYU Stern has the entire catalog of classes listed online, so you can go through, class-by-class, and see what you would take if you attended. You can also find lists of experiential learning opportunities and clubs.

When I was looking through Stern’s club offerings, I discovered the Entertainment, Media, and Sports Association (EMSA). At the time of application, I was interested in pursuing a career focused in entertainment. While my path ultimately led me away from that, I’m still glad to have found a community of entertainment-loving Sternies. EMSA also offers the benefit of connections all over the entertainment industry, which could be leveraged down the line if any of us decides to pivot our career back to that field.

Additionally, Stern Follies was one group that made me confident that I would find my people at Stern. Stern Follies is an annual comedy sketch show written and performed by Stern students, parodying the MBA experience. As an applicant with a theatrical background, I was comforted by the fact that there would at least be one group of students who could take a step back from the seriousness of school, put together a show, and provide a night of laughter and fun.

One more great way to information-gather about a school is to speak with current students. I was incredibly lucky that for one of my NYU Stern info sessions, I was randomly matched with the president of Stern Follies at the time. He not only gave me open and candid answers to all my questions, he also got me excited about the Follies, and showed me that this was a community where I could feel at home.

Most MBA programs will hold info sessions and panels with current students; take advantage of those. While MBA students are very busy, many volunteer their time specifically to interact with prospective students. Come to these sessions with specific questions about what’s important to you, and you will get much more value out of them. For example, I would ask about whether the school was equipped to help non-traditional candidates with recruiting. This was a high priority for me, and I appreciated any time a student was able to give an example of someone with a background like mine being successful in recruiting.

Finally, with all of the information you have gathered, create a rough draft of what you would do with your time at that school. If you express that you already have a plan going in, it will reflect the fact that not only have you done your research, you can actually see yourself going to this school.

For example, I made sure that for every one of my interviews that I knew of at least two clubs at that school that I would be interested in being involved. By finding ways to explore your interests, you can show each school that you know what makes them unique, and you can help yourself understand where you see yourself going.

Schools want to admit students that want to go there. Show them why you know you’re the right fit!

Penny is a current second-year student in NYU Stern’s Full-Time MBA program. After graduating with a BFA in Acting from NYU Tisch in 2015, Penny spent the next five years exploring a number of adventurous hospitality roles. In the summer of 2020, she started looking into MBA programs and discovered it was difficult to find information specifically geared towards non-traditional candidates. She hopes to pay forward everything she has learned about applying to MBA programs, the student experience at Stern, and entering the business world through a non-traditional lens.


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