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January 16, 2012

MIT Sloan MBA Interviews

In this post, which is significantly updated from my prior posts, I discuss how to prepare for an MIT Sloan MBA admissions interview. I have been preparing applicants on MIT Sloan interviews for over ten years and the post below provides my overall perspective on how to best prepare this challenging interview.  If you are interested in my interview preparation services, please see here
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. 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.

The Questions
My colleague, Steve Green, has put together the following list of typical MIT Sloan MBA admission interview questions based on the public interview reports found on the Accepted and Clear Admit sites.  This includes both behavioral questions and the standard questions that MIT interviewers ask.

  • Do you have any recent accomplishments you want to share?
  • Are there any changes to your resume since you submitted it?
  • Walk me through your resume. (FOLLOW UP)
  • What do you do outside work?
  • How do you have time for all the things that you do (referencing resume)
  • Tell me about your job, have your responsibilities changed since your promotion.
  • Tell me about yourself, what have you been doing in the last two years.
  • What exactly do you do? What have you been doing in your position recently?
  • Tell me about something at work you have been proud of in the last year.
  • What's a personal goal that you've set for yourself recently?
  • Where do see your business heading?
  • Why MBA?
  • Why did you decide to apply to Sloan? Tell me your thought process.
  • Tell me about when you had a difficult time with your job.
  • How did you manage to resolve a conflict situation and move the team forward?
  • Tell me about a difficult conversation you had to have with someone.
  • 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 a time when you influenced someone (Then a follow up question to my answer was: Can you tell me what your plan was?)
  • Tell me about a time when you butted heads with a co-worker/client/employee.
  • Tell me about something that you've encountered, at work or outside of work, that made you feel uncomfortable.
  • 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 took the lead on something.
  • Tell me about a time you led a team to a solution.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to persuade/convince others.
  • Tell me about a time you convinced others to follow your plan.
  • Tell me about a time when you mentored someone.
  • Tell me about a time when someone needed your help.
  • Tell me about a time when you set a goal and moved towards achieving it.
  • Tell me a time when you thought outside of the box.
  • Tell me when you did something innovative.
  • Tell me of a time when you took the risk and the outcome. What did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about something you've done that you're proud of.
  • How would a friend describe you? A client? 
  • Tell me about a time when you had to step out from your comfort zone. 
  • Tell me about a time you had to ask for help 
  • Tell me about a time you failed. 
  • Tell me about a time your idea was rejected. 
  • Tell me about a time when your expectations were not met.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to decide among multiple options.
  • I'm meeting a lot of people today, what is going to make me remember you?
  • Any questions for me?
  • What do you wish I had asked you?
A "typical" MIT Interview, which can last anything from 20-60 minutes (assume approximately 30 minutes), might consist of the following questions:
1. Any updates since you last applied?
2. 1-2 questions based on specific details from your application and/or resume related to a hobby, award,  or work activity.
3. 3-6 of the above behavioral questions.
4. Perhaps a question about your goals or motivation for Sloan.
5. Questions for the interviewer.
DISCLAIMER: The above is just a general guide as the actual interview will vary greatly.

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. 

The map is not the territory!
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 limited 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.

Actual Practice
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.
5. Given that the MIT Interview will be either with an admissions officer (Always the case if the interview happens overseas. My International clients have had a much higher chance of interviewing with Rod Garcia than those who were based in the US!) or a contracted interviewer (Usually an MIT Sloan staffer, but not in adcom) who has read your file, you should closely review your own Sloan application.  It is best not to repeat the stories you told in your essays, but feel free to discuss variations based on the same situation. You don't want to make your interviewer feel like they hearing the same story they already read.

(For additional suggestions on interview strategy, see herehere, 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 MIT Sloan MBA 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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