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October 27, 2007

Behavioral Questions: MIT Sloan & Stanford GSB for Fall 2008 MBA Admissions



In this very long post (sorry it took so long for me to get it done, but I have been busy), I will look at behavioral questions in general, the behavioral essay and interview questions for MIT Sloan MBA Essays for Fall 2008, and the behavioral questions for Stanford GSB MBA Essay Questions for 2007/2008.

First, I think it helps to know something about the origin of behavioral questions. Next I will discuss the MIT interview. Finally, I will analyze the MIT and Stanford behavioral essay questions for Fall 2008 Admission.

Before reading the rest of this post, I strongly suggest downloading a copy of MIT's excellent guide to behavioral interviews, The MIT Sloan Interview Guide, because reading it first, will maximize the value of my comments below.

The behavioral essay questions that MIT and Stanford ask have their origins in behavioral interviewing. This method is not old:
“Bill Byham, CEO and founder of Development Dimensions International, originated the behavioral interviewing method in 1970.”

In fact, the STAR technique outlined in MIT’s guide was developed by Byham as THE WAY to answer behavioral questions:

Byham calls an example of past behavior a STAR, because a complete example consists of a situation or task, the specific action you took and the result of your action. The result you describe doesn't have to be positive; it could be that you learned a valuable lesson from doing something the wrong way.

In his book "Landing the Job You Want: How to Have the Best Job Interview of Your Life" (Three Rivers Press, 1997), Byham
tells candidates how to identify the skills for a job; explore their own "behavioral dimensions" (the behaviors they use every day to get things done); and recognize and present a STAR with positive impact in an interview.

In addition to the MIT SLOAN Guide, I suggest also taking a look at the slightly different guide to the Star Technique that MIT Career Services provides.

The STAR technique is really the core method you need to use for answering behavioral questions both in interviews and essays. It is simply this (taken from the MIT Sloan Guide):

• Situation: define the situation or “set the stage.”
• Task: identify the task/project performed.
• Action: describe the action you took.
• Result: summarize the outcome

Just keep in mind that you need to be introspective as well, so say what you thought. Don’t just present “the facts” but actively interpret your actions. There is really nothing overly complicated about this as long as you understand that you need to tell a DETAILED story. Pure abstractions disconnected from a concrete set of action steps are highly likely to result in a weak answer. Similarly grand actions not told in any depth are also likely to be weak.

One key to answering these questions is to provide enough detail at the micro-level: Identify specific actions that contributed to the result so as to establish a clear link between cause and effect.

Another important consideration is, like when answering any kind of question, to think very critically about what your story selection, understanding of the task, actions taken, and results say about you. Keeping in mind that the whole point of asking behavioral questions is to determine how someone acts and thinks as a basis for selecting or rejecting that person, it is obviously critical to be aware of your own message.

When it comes to behavioral interviews, first do the following:
1. Review your own application completely and isolate your key selling points/qualities as abstractions.
2. Review the types of questions you are likely to encounter by reading reports from other applicants. See here for more about that.
3. Next develop a set of stories that make the very same or similar points about you as the essays, but not the same content. These stories should cover a wide array of possible questions. I don’t suggest writing them out, just outline them using STAR.
4. Practice telling stories using STAR.
5. Don’t memorize everything, just be comfortable with telling a wide variety of possible stories so that when you are asked you come across as natural, not providing something memorized.

During the interview:
1. Make sure that you don’t just begin telling the first story that comes to you. That is natural enough, but you should avoid it at all costs because you may very well not select the right story. Instead pause for a second to think about it.

2. Presentation counts, so make sure that you are showing good eye contact, speaking clearly, showing personality, and otherwise making a good impression because all of these things are also part of your behavior.

3. Don't worry if you are unable to discuss everything you wanted to. Just focus on giving solid answers to the questions.

Please see my prior post for MIT’s complete instructions. I will analyze one question at a time. A few things to keep in mind:

1. You need to show the capacity of analyzing and acting in different ways, so while all the stories should utilize STAR, don’t tell them in the same way. Make sure you are presenting different sides to who you are by telling your stories differently.

2. If at all possible discuss different situations in these essays, not two different stories from the same situation because you are trying present as wide a spectrum of events and qualities about yourself as you can.

3. You should ask yourself “what does this essay reveal about me?” If you can’t state that clearly and unambiguously, you need to clarify your message. When asking this question, think about both what you intend the reader to think and what you might also be revealing. Control for the possibility of sending out unintended signals. One of the best ways of handling this issue is to have a very careful and intelligent reader review these essays. If you are working with an admissions consultant, they should be able to do this. Getting multiple perspectives on what you wrote will help you better understand your likely impact on an admissions reader.

Essay 1: Please tell us about a time when you had an impact on a group or organization. Describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did. (500 words or less.)
THINK WIDELY and don’t just tell big picture leadership story here, instead think about a situation where your actions lead to positive improvement in a group or organization. Don’t feel obligated to provide a work related answer to this question even though you may have developed such an answer for another school. A few questions to think about:
1. How did you add value?
2. What skills or qualities did you demonstrate in the process?
3. What does this story reveal about the way you interact with organizations or groups?

Essay 2: Please tell us about a challenging interaction you had with a person or group. Describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did. (500 words or less.)
If Essay 1 is in primarily about the way positively impact groups or organizations, Essay 2 is clearly about the way you interact either individuals or groups. Clearly think about what “challenging” means to you. We have all had challenging situations that ended badly and that we wish we had handled better, but that is not what you should write about here. Instead focus on a difficult interaction that ultimately shows you positively. They are not asking for a failure story here, so don’t provide one.

Essay 3: Please tell us about a time when you defended your idea. Describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did. (500 words or less.)
MIT is about the joining together of Mens et Menus (Mind and Hand), so it should come as no surprise that they ask about your ability to champion an idea. I use the word champion because defending, sounds merely reactive and ultimately you must show your ability to serve as the champion for an idea whether you were acting on the offensive or the defensive. The idea might be an abstraction (“honesty”) or a specific analysis (“My calculations were simply better because…”), but in either case be very specific about you defended the idea. Clearly this question is tailor-made for showing linkages between thoughts, interactions with others, actions, and means of communication. You need to show MIT that you have the ability to get other people to accept your ideas. This may involve a compromise, but should not involve failure. Think about what this essay reveals about your ability to work with other students at MIT Sloan.

Essay 4: Please tell us about a time when you executed a plan. Describe in detail what you thought, felt, said, and did. (500 words or less.)
DO NOT WRITE ABOUT YOUR PLAN TO APPLY TO MBA PROGRAMS! Hopefully no one will do that, but I know someone will. If there is one essay in the MIT set of questions that is well suited for a big story, this one is it. You can of course tell a small story here, but if you want to write about your biggest accomplishment that involved a significant amount of planning that is great. This essay is clearly about the joining of mind (plan) and hand (implementation). Focus on the execution of the plan, not its initial conceptualization. While there are now hard and fast rules, I would try to expend at least two-thirds of your word count focused on showing how you realized your plan.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) applicants only: Essay 5: Tell us about a time when you shared your talents or expertise with a group or organization. (500 words or less.)
While you should try to use STAR here as well, I think the important thing is to focus on one to three aspects of yourself that added value to a group or organization. The emphasis should be one linking these specific aspects of who you are to the outcome. Obviously many applicants will write about situations that directly involve prior experience with entrepreneurship and innovation, and it is fine to do that. On the other hand if you can showcase talents or expertise that reveal your potential to be an entrepreneur in a situation that is not obviously entrepreneurial that may very well have a greater impact on your reader.

Last year Stanford followed MIT by introducing Essay C. In the process, Stanford applicants now have the opportunity to write on their accomplishments, failures, difficulties, impact, and other characteristics without direct reference to either what matters to them most (Essay A) or their goals (Essay B). See here for my analysis of the other essays. This has made the Stanford Essay Set a more balanced set of questions. If Essay A is ultimately about what you value and B is about what you want, C is about what you can do.

Before looking at the specific questions, lets look at the instructions:

Essay C: Short Essays—Options 1-4
Answer two of the questions below. In answering both questions, tell us not only what you did, but also how you did it. Tell us the outcome, and describe how people responded. Describe only experiences that have occurred within the last three years.
If you are applying to MIT SLOAN, I think it is best if you can write the MIT essays first because this will likely help you select topics for Stanford. Having four or five behavioral essays to choose from would certainly help. The only constraint on this suggestion is that Stanford specifically requires that these experiences come from the last three years. That time constraint is important to keep in mind. If you consider that you can focus on the past and future in Essays A and B, Essay C is clearly the space to focus on the present. In C, Stanford is trying to get a sense of who you are now.

Option 1: Tell us about a time when you empowered others. (Recommended length is 1 page, double-spaced)
As a Californian, I can’t help but find something essentially regional about the wording of this question. “Empowering others” is California-speak for motivating other people or for providing them with resources that make it possible for them to take action. I can’t imagine an East Coast school asking this question. That said, this is actually a question about your ability to generate the multiplier effect that leaders are capable of. This is not the place to write about your leadership in general, but to show how you provided resources or motivations to others that allowed them to take action. Establish a clear chain of causality between your impact on others, their actions, and the outcome.

Option 2: Tell us about a time when you had a significant impact on a person, group or organization. (Recommended length is 1 page, double-spaced)
This is the same question as MIT SLOAN 1 except that it also includes individuals.

Option 3: Tell us about a time when you tried to reach a goal or complete a task that was challenging, difficult, or frustrating. (Recommended length is 1 page, double-spaced)
This may very well be a failure story. See my post on failure essays. It is possible that the topic of this question is the same as MIT Essay 2 above.

Option 4: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected. (Recommended length is 1 page, double-spaced)
This may very well be the same as MIT SLOAN Essay 3. Going beyond something defined, established, or expected may involve breaking the rules. It certainly may involve innovation, so it is possible that this could be on the same topic as MIT Sloan Optional Essay 5. Stanford GSB is place for those who are not traditional and are flexible in their thinking. If you are maverick, a risk-taker, or simply unconventional in your approach to adding value, this essay option is for you.

Behavioral questions are not necessarily harder than other types of questions, but they do have their own underlying logic: Past behavior is a guide to future behavior. Keep that in mind, so that Stanford and MIT see what you want them to see and believe in your future potential.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.

-Adam Markus
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