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November 07, 2007

MBA Application Interview Strategy

In this post I will provide some general advice for preparing for interviews. The methods I outline are the ones I use with my clients.


I have a very simple and effective method for interview preparation: Over-preparation. The best way to do well in any interview is be prepared for an interview that will be harder than the actual interview. I write this based on my experience. Since 2001, I have been told by grateful clients that my practice interviews were harder than the real thing and as a result they could confidently handle the real thing. I think any highly experienced graduate admissions consultant should be able to provide this kind of practice to their clients. If you don't use an admissions consultant to help you prepare, find someone, a mentor perhaps, who can help you. Whoever you seek advice from, getting actual critical feedback from person who understands the MBA admissions process is critical.

Just as critical is your own preparation (see below for the methods I suggest). The amount of practice (with someone else and alone) you require will really depend on three variables:

1. Your English ability. For international applicants with low intermediate to high intermediate level ability, expect to focus a significant amount of your time on practicing to speak.

2. Your comfort with interviews. Some people are just really good at interviewing and others are not. If you know that you are weak in the this area, you will really need to practice with another person who can judge your performance.

3. The difficulty of the interview. Some schools simply have difficult interviews (HBS for example), while others do not (Duke for example), so take that into account. A great way to determine the difficulty of a particular school's interviews is to read reports written by applicants (See my earlier post regarding where to find interview reports).

Many applicants wait until days before an interview to prepare, but actually your interview preparations should ideally begin at least a month before you start interviewing. Why so long? Because you have a lot to do:

Interview Strategy FormulationIt is absolutely critical that you have an overall strategy for determining what you want to say about yourself. Just as with your essays, you need to formulate your self-marketing strategy for your interviews. Obviously what you put in your application should be consistent with and supported by your interview. However writing essays and talking for 30 minutes or more are simply not the same.

Don't worry about the questions, worry about your message!While you should use the Accepted and Clear Admit sites to learn about the questions, an overemphasis on simply preparing answers to the questions that other applicants were asked is not the main thing you should be doing. Instead, decide what you want to say about yourself. One way of doing that is prepare an outline like the following:

Strengths/Contributions/Future Potential
1. One of my key strengths is X. A story that demonstrates this strength is... Another story that does is... This strength will be a contribution at your school because... This strength will contribute to my future goals because...
2. Another of my key strengths is Y. A story that demonstrates this strength is... Another story that does is... This strength will be a contribution at your school because... This strength will contribute to my future goals because...
3. Another of my key strengths is Z. A story that demonstrates this strength is... Another story that does is.. This strength will be a contribution at your school because... This strength will contribute to my future goals because...

For each X, Y, Z insert a keyword describing your strength. Connect keywords to specific stories. If possible find more than one story that demonstrates the keyword. Next think how this strength could be a contribution when you are student. Next think how this strength will contribute to your goals. By using this method, you will have prepared answers to such common questions as "What are your strengths" and "How will you contribute to our school." Additionally you will be ready to show how your past experience will help you achieve your goals. Additionally when asked questions which are less direct about your strengths, you will already have keywords and stories ready for those questions you can't predict.

1. One of my weaknesses is X. A story that demonstrates this is... Another story that does is... I want to overcome this weakness by... This weakness resulted in failure when...
2. Another of my weaknesses is Y. A story that demonstrates this is... Another story that does is... I want to overcome this weakness by... This weakness resulted in failure when...
3. Another of my weaknesses is Z. A story that demonstrates this is... Another story that does is... I want to overcome this weakness by... This weakness resulted in failure when...

As with strengths you should have at least three keywords. Here you be preparing answers to the very common questions that are asked about weakness, but in addition you will need to think about how the MBA program and/or some other aspect of yourself will make it possible for you to overcome this weakness. Weaknesses should be real and not abstract. You should have clear stories that demonstrate your weaknesses, something many applicants initially have a problem with. Additionally knowing how a program will help you overcome your weakness will explain why you want to attend that school. Finally, SOME, BUT NOT All weaknesses make for great failure stories, another very common topic for interviews.

Leadership and Teamwork Skills/Potential
All applicants should have keywords and supporting stories describing their leadership and teamwork skills and potential. Given the very common nature of questions related to both leadership and teamwork, you should also be prepared for the following:
1. My definition of leadership/teamwork is... because... I demonstrated this kind of leadership by...
2. One leader I really admire is... because... I am similar/want to be like this person because...
3. I think I am a good team member because...

Have enough keywords and stories
If you have enough keyword and stories you will have a solid basis for answering the great range of questions that you are likely to be asked about yourself.

Questions you should be ready to answer
In addition to having keywords and stories, there are certain questions that you should be ready to answer because they are commonly asked in interviews.
Goals/Why MBA?/ Why this school?
You should have outlined answers to the following:
1. I want an MBA now because...
2. I want an MBA from your school because...
3. Your school is my first choice because...
4. After my MBA, I will...
5. My goals are...
6. If I was not able to attend an MBA program next year, I would...

Ethical Dilemma QuestionsAnother very common question relates to ethical dilemmas. Be ready. Have a story or two ready. If you are having a difficulty formulating ethical dilemma questions, please take a look at the Institute for Global Ethics. Also see Business Ethics Research - Knowledge@Wharton.

Questions for the interviewer

You should be ready to ask questions to your interviewer. What you ask should be governed by the following considerations:
1. Is the answer to the question obvious? If so, don't ask the question.
2. Is the answer to the question really relevant to you? If not, don't ask it. General questions that have no specific connection to you are probably not worth asking.
3. Will the interviewer be able to answer the question? In general avoid asking interviewers questions that they are not really able to answer. Asking an alum who graduated five years ago about what is new at the school would be one such bad question.

When formulating questions it is obviously important to consider who you will be interviewing with because what you ask an alum is not the same as what you ask an admissions officer or current student.

Tell stories that show the range of your experience
Keep in mind that you should use stories from different parts of your life. Don't overemphasize one specific situation. Instead tell stories that showcase the range of your experience.

Keep it simple and don't recite from memory
Regardless of how complex the topic might be, when you tell a story, keep it simple enough for your listener to follow. The human brain can only absorb a limited amount of information, so when you tell a story make sure that it is something that can be easily followed and delivered very briefly.

For that reason (and others), memorizing long stories and reciting them to be avoided because it will likely result in your interviewer being unable to absorb your story. If the story takes too long to recite, the may also become bored or annoyed. Additionally memorized answers from a non-native speaker of English are a sign that the interviewee's English skills might be weak.

Don't write a script, just a very brief outline
Unless your English speaking ability is very weak, I would strongly recommend that you don't write scripts of your answers, instead prepare a very brief outline and practice speaking. Tell the stories repeatedly so that are comfortable doing so, but since you want to come across as polished, but natural, don't memorize it.

Use an audio and/or video recorder
For many people, except for watching yourself on video, nothing is worse than listening to your own voice. However as painful as it maybe, doing so will help you identify weakness in your answers and overall performance. Therefore record and analyze yourself. You are your most harsh critic.

Relax and be confident
I know this part can be hard, but the more relaxed and confident you are, the more likely you are to have a good interview. Creating the right impression is as critical as what you actually say. Make your interviewer feel your enthusiasm.

Practice for specific interviews
Finally, don't just practice for any interview, practice for specific interviews. While you may initially need to think about overall strategy, you should focus much of your practice on specific interviews. If you have mock interviews, make sure they are school specific because a very important aspect of the interview really is about you showing your connection and fit to the school.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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