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October 08, 2009

MBA Application Interview Strategy

This post includes minor updates made in November 2010.

First, I think it useful to contrast two different of ways of preparing interviews. As I will argue, a proactive approach to interviews is a more effective way to prepare for an MBA interview.

Just as the name implies, reactive interview preparation is based on reacting to actions taken by others. It has the following characteristics:

A. Timing: Reactive interview preparation does not begin until all other parts of the application process are completed and in the worst case not until the applicant is actually invited. Interviews are not approached as inherent part of the application process, but something that occurs independently from the rest of the process. For example, the applicant does not think about their resume as an agenda setting device (see below) for an interview, but simply as part of the application. Reactive interview preparation is invariably a scramble for time and often comes too late to have sufficient impact on improving the applicant's performance (An interview is a performance).

B. Approach to answering questions: Reactive interview preparation is always based on reacting to the questions. At its core, reactive interview preparation is based on responding to specific answers to set questions. As result, even those who use this method extensively have to prepare many answers to many questions because that is the only way they can be prepared. The problem, of course, is that when encountering a new question (If you put in charge of the world economy right now, what you do?) in actual interview, the interviewee is often at a loss about how to answer.

C. Reactive interviewing is strategically flawed:  Since you don't know what you will be asked, you set yourself up for failure if you plan a strategy only based on the questions you think you will be asked.  It is a poor excuse to say "I was not prepared for that question" because you actually cannot know exactly what you will be asked.   After all, a good interviewer will tailor questions specifically to you and in the process of doing that, they are likely to ask something you are not prepared for.

Just as the name implies, active interview preparation is based on taking a proactive approach to interview preparation. It has the following characteristics:

A. Timing: Proactive interview preparation begins with making a resume. Consider that for all US MBA program alumni interviews, all US MBA program student interviews, and many US program admissions interviews, the only thing from your application that your interviewer will have is your resume. Hence, it is important that your resume contain only information you are comfortable discussing in an interview. It is, to some extent, an agenda setting document. Hence, you should view interview preparation to begin with the composition of your resume. Proactive interview preparation also involves begin interview preparation sufficiently early to have impact. For some applicants with weak English and/or interview skills, such preparation may require a month or more to have real effect. For some applicants, it might just require a day or two of highly concentrated preparation. Much will depend on your skills as well who is interviewing and from what school.

B. Approach to answering questions: Proactive interview preparation is always based on knowing what you want to say about yourself before you interview. At its core, proactive interview preparation is based on thinking about your message. You must also be aware of potential questions, but the focus should be on knowing what you want to say about yourself, no matter what the question. You should have keywords and stories that can be used to answer a variety of questions.

C. Proactive interviewing offers a comprehensive strategy: Proactive interview preparation is based on the idea that you don't know what you will be asked, but you do know your message. Being ready for the unexpected is thus incorporated into the very method itself.

Interview Strategy Formulation
It 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 being proactive is prepare a table like the following:


This table can be used for doing an inventory of your keywords and stories that you will use for interviews. Next, I will consider some specific types of keywords you need to develop.

Strengths/Contributions/Future Potential/Personality
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. Keep in mind that your strengths might include particular skills as well as personality characteristics. You should think about strengths in the widest sense. Try to develop about 6-12(or more) keywords and 12-20 (or more) stories that relate to your strengths, contributions, personality, and future potential.

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...

HAVE AS MANY WEAKNESSES AS POSSIBLE, NOT JUST ONE OR TWO. TRY FOR THREE TO FIVE. 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. Don't develop more than you can master, but don't skimp either.

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 Questions
Another 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.

Behavioral Interviews
Both MIT and, as of 2010, Wharton have behavioral interviews. My post on MIT is comprehensive as this has been their longstanding practice.  Please see here for that analysis.  Regarding the specifics of the Wharton interview, please see here .

Prepare intensively for any category of question that you are especially uncomfortable with.
Many applicants hate answering questions about weakness or failure. Other don't like ethical dilemma. Whatever it is you don't like, master it.

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. To do so effectively, means preparing a sufficient amount of keywords and stories ahead of time. 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:


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. 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 the links above to the Accepted and Clear Admit interview reports).

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 should 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 telling the story. Tell your stories repeatedly so that you 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.

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 and need to prepare your stories, you should focus some of your practice on specific interviews. BOTTOM LINE: 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.

If you are interested in my interview preparation or other graduate admission consulting services, please click here.

Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advise you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant."
-Adam Markus
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