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October 27, 2011

How to Prepare for Wharton MBA Behavioral Interviews

 NOVEMBER 2011 UPDATE: A NEW VERSION OF THIS POST CAN BE FOUND HERE. You should read that version as the version below was written before any Wharton interviews in November 2011 had taken place.

Until after some interview reports come out, we will not likely know exactly what Wharton MBA interviewers (adcom and  2nd year students, no alumni interviews this time) will be asking.  Based on the October 26th chat (See my report.), unlike last year, interviews for Fall 2012 admission will not be limited to the small group of questions that was asked.  Fortunately, in terms of having a list of behavioral questions, we have the six behavioral questions from last year and MIT interview reports to draw on.  Here is my initial stab at advising applicants how to prepare.
During the October 26th chat, admissions emphasized knowing your resume and application well.  That said, keep in mind that the Wharton interview is totally blind.  The only thing the interviewer will have your is resume.  Additionally, based on the comments that admissions made, it is probably the case that you will not be asked questions like "walk me through your resume," but only behavioral questions and some "informal chat before and after the behavioral questions."

The role of the resume in Wharton interviews
Since they are asking you to bring your resume, unless this purely for symbolic reasons, I think it is worth remembering the kind of roles a resume is likely to play in your interview:
A First Impression:   Make sure your resume is really designed for ease of use by the interviewer.  One of my objectives when helping a client with a resume is always to focus on how effective the resume is for this purpose.
Agenda Setting Device: To a greater or lesser extent, a resume has an agenda setting function in many interviews.  While Wharton is seemingly providing interviewers with a very high level of guidance about what questions to ask, the resume may very well impact which questions the interviewer focuses on.  Or it may not have any such effect at all. We simply don't know yet.
Bobby Trap:  The resume can blow-up in your face if you are not careful.  Failure to review your own resume closely prior to interviewing can put you in an awkward position if you are not fully prepared to discuss everything on it. Since adcom repeatedly emphasized during the October 26th chat that you should know your resume well, this point is worth keeping in mind.
Your Main Depository of Past Experience Answers: Since you have presumably highlighted many of the key things you would actually want to discuss on your resume, it is in essence, a primary source for your answers to past experience questions aka Behavioral Questions. Especially when I working with a client with limited English ability, I will tell them to practice explaining “Who What Why How When” questions related to their resume.
In addition, since you might get asked to “Tell me something about yourself that is not covered on your resume,” you can use the resume to figure out what that would be.

Before reading the rest of this post, I strongly suggest downloading a copy of MIT's  guide to behavioral interviews, The MIT Sloan Interview Guide, because reading it first will maximize the value of my comments below. Also, since the meanies at Wharton Adcom don't put anything like this MIT guide together and can't give better advice than "I would encourage you to do some google research...behavioral interviews are based on situations and reactions," I suggest you look at MIT guide. 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. It is simply this:
• Situation: define the situation or “set the stage.”
• Task: identify the task/project performed.
• Action: describe the action you took.
• Result: summarize the outcome
The behavioral interview method is not old (if you are me and born in 1968):
“Bill Byham, CEO and founder of Development Dimensions International, originated the behavioral interviewing method in 1970.” The STAR technique was developed by Byham as THE WAY to answer behavioral questions:
When you are using STAR, just keep in mind that you need to be introspective as well, so in an interview say what you thought as well as what you did. 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. Identify specific actions that contributed to the result so as to establish a clear link between cause and effect.

As when answering any kind of question, another important consideration is to think very critically about what your story selection, understanding of the task, actions taken, and results say about you. Keep 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. Specifically think of examples you can use to highlight your intelligence, creativity, leadership skills, interpersonal communication skills, and conflict resolution skills.

Last year, Wharton only used 6 questions divided into three categories.  According to the chat, they will be using many questions and it will not be just limited to a few.  I think it is worth keeping these six in mind (Taken from Poets and Quants):
The questions on “team building” are:
“Describe a time when you have been working toward the completion of an important task, when it has been necessary to consider the opinions and feelings of others.”
“Describe a time when you have worked as part of a team working towards an important goal, when you have addressed conflict between two or more team members.”
The questions on “facilitative leadership” are:
“Describe a time when you have worked with others to complete an important task, when there was no formally appointed group leader.”
“Describe a time when you have ensured an important task has been completed, when you felt others were less focused than you on completing the important task.”
The questions on “persuasive communication” are:
“Describe a time when you have had to persuade others to your way of thinking, when at first they did not buy into your idea.”
“Describe a time when your ideas have been challenged by others, requiring you to defend your opinions.”

Beyond these six,  I have modified this list of MIT Sloan questions that my colleague, Steve Green,  put together.  The behavioral interview questions on this list should prove helpful to those preparing for Wharton interviews, but to what extent I don't know yet.  I will not know until I read some interview reports from R1.
  • Tell me about something at work you have been proud of in the last year
  • Tell me about a time when you set a goal and moved towards achieving it.
  • How did you manage to resolve a conflict situation and move the team forward?
  • Tell me of a time when you took a risk. What was the outcome and what did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to persuade/convince others.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to present something to someone who you did not like.
  • Tell me about a time you had a challenging interaction with someone
  • Tell me about a time you had to convince others to see your perspective
  • Tell me about a time you had to ask for help
  • Tell me about a time when your expectations were not met
  • Tell me a time when you thought outside of the box
  • Tell me about a time when someone needed your help.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to step out from your comfort zone.
  • Tell me about something that you've encountered, at work or outside of work, that made you feel uncomfortable
  • Tell me about something you've done that you're proud of.
  • Tell me about a time you failed.
  • Tell me about a time you convinced others to follow your plan. 
  • Tell me a time when something unexpected happened to you
  • Tell me when you did something innovative
  • Tell me a time when you influenced someone
  • Tell me about a time you led a team to a solution.
  • Tell me about a time you had to sell an idea.
  • Tell me about a time your idea was rejected.
  • Tell me about a time when you mentored someone
  • Tell me about a time when you butted heads with a co-worker/client/employee
  • Tell me about a time when you were part of a team that had poor dynamics/didn't get along well.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with someone who wasn't pulling his/her weight
  • Tell me about a time when you had to decide multiple options.
How To Prepare Outlines for Practicing Behavioral Questions
I would suggest making some simple STAR (Situation Task Action Result) outlines.  For example:
Team Story 1: Project X
S:  Harry was not cooperating with the rest of the team on Project X.
T: My job was get the team to work together because Project X really required everyone to participate. Harry was important because of his technical skills.
A: In order to get Harry to cooperate I..  (ACTION 1) first talked with him privately to better understand his perspective.  Next, (ACTION 2) I talked with the rest of team to try and make an adjustment so that Harry would feel more comfortable. Finally (ACTION 3) Established information sharing sessions so that everyone understood what needed to be done and how our work fit together.
R: Project X succeeded.
The above outline could be used to answer such questions as "Tell me about a time when you were part of a team that had poor dynamics/didn't get along well," "Tell me about a time when you had to deal with someone who wasn't pulling his/her weight," and “Describe a time when you have worked as part of a team working towards an important goal, when you have addressed conflict between two or more team members.”
Now, when you actually practice the above for a behavioral interview, you would need to flesh out the story and provide more details.  If you have outlined a STAR story, you  have not practiced it yet.   The only reason to outline STAR stories is if you cannot systematically turn any spoken story into STAR automatically.  Actually once you start using STAR, chances are that you will not need any outlines.  STAR is actually a highly intuitive way to tell stories and useful for telling stories in any situation. 

Clients often want me to read their interview preparation notes. I usually refuse because I think it is a total waste of their money to have me do that.  I believe such outlines are useful for the person doing the preparation, but all I can really evaluate is their performance.  If I have a client with a TOEFL under 100, I might review their scripts because given that they may lack basic English vocabulary for effectively telling their stories. This is not case with the vast majority of my clients, even those with TOEFL scores at the 100 level.
An outline is a map, but in the case of an interview it is really lousy map because an interview is all about performance, the territory. You can have the best stories in the world, but if you can't deliver them effectively, you are dead.

Depending on your communication skills, available time, and comfort with interviews you may need days or weeks or months to be at your best. Whatever amount of practice you think you need, try to actually do more than that.  One of my clients who had already been admitted to two top schools, did 50 hours of practice on his own to get ready for HBS.  He was successful because he put in enough time actually speaking the answers  to many common questions that he could feel comfortable and confident.  He did just a couple of hours of interview practice with me and one of my colleagues. He was admitted to HBS. I wish all my clients followed this example of extensive self-practice.  While the exact ratio of counseling hours (strategy sessions focused on developing good answers and mock interviews) to self-study will vary, I think somewhere between a 1:5 and 1:20 ratio is ideal.  I am always depressed when a client only does interview practice during sessions with me and then does no practice by themselves because I know they are not maximizing their performance. Like a great musician or actor, you need to internalize your script/notes/outline to perform it effectively. I can best help a client by judging that performance.  Something could look great or horrible on paper, but very much the reverse when actually performed.

How to practice:
1. Speak.  Doing it in your head is not enough.  Actually perform to the hardest audience you will ever encounter: yourself.
2. Record yourself and listen and/or view the results. Note problems and practice more.
3. Speak in front of other people who can give you feedback.  Even if you are using a consultant try to practice in front of other people. This will help make you comfortable having an audience.
4. Have school specific mock sessions, either with a admissions consultant or someone who can at least ask you the questions.

(For additional suggestions on interview strategy, see here, here, and here. Some of the content in those posts repeats what is here.)

I know that what I am suggesting might be burdensome and time consuming, but so what?  The whole application process is like that.  And at least with interview practice, you might actually become better at telling stories (Good for making friends!) and interviewing for jobs. Best of luck with your Wharton Class of 2014 interview!

-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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