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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

March 02, 2012

The Darden MBA Admissions Interview

Steve Green has taken on the unique challenge of providing advice for Darden's "one question" interview. Darden has been doing it this way for years.  Steve's graduate work in political science was conducted at the University of Virginia, so he is someone particularly familiar with the culture of Mr. Jefferson's University. (If you don't know what I am talking about, you should!) Information about Steve's interview counseling services can be found here. Steve and I have been working together since 2001. Many of my clients do interview preparation with him for Darden and all other top MBA programs. A full-time professor, Steve exclusively focuses on MBA interview preparation. 

Remember that UVA takes its honor code seriously, so this is not an interview to practice truth stretching, but one to engage deeply in truth telling. As in any interview, it is all in the way you interprete yourself. 

The Darden MBA Admissions Interview

Have you ever felt constrained by the standard Q&A format of an MBA interview? Have you ever wished you could be given the time to tell an interviewer your life story?  If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then the Darden admissions interview may be for you.

According to publicly available reports, Darden bundles a half-dozen interview questions into one covering statement that directs interviewees to tell their story.

  • In a nutshell, Darden’s single question is “Tell me about yourself.”
In at least one case, this extended version of the same question was asked:  
“I am here for you to tell me your story. Just tell me about yourself. In the process you can cover college, anything before college if relevant, your resume, why MBA and why Darden.”

According to the public reports you should expect:
  • to be given 20-30 minutes for your story (though the whole interview itself may last longer should you talk for a long time and follow up questions are saved until the end of your monologue.)
  • to be interrupted sometimes with follow-up questions.
  • to be interviewed by a current student, possibly with an adcom member present (unless, of course, you have arranged on an off-campus interview with an alumnus.)
  • the interview to be blind (i.e. the interviewer will not have seen your resume.)
  • a relaxed atmosphere:  Darden interviewers seem genuinely interested in hearing applicants’ personal histories, from what I’ve seen in reports.
  • to be given the chance to ask questions about Darden to the interviewer.
Based on what the reports say, Darden really seems to want to get to know the person “behind” the application- the person who wrote the application essays and earned the test scores that inspired Darden to extend an interview invitation.  

Considering that most interviewers are students, and the fact that they are allowing interviewees the freedom to talk so much about their lives, suggests they consider this the best way to select for people who would be the most interesting future classmates.  

You don’t need to have a unique, “made for Hollywood” life story.  
You do need to be able to talk about your life in the most interesting way possible, with special attention, of course, to what has led you to want an MBA from Darden.  Obviously, this interview format places a premium on excellent communication skills. Also, given the role of the honor code at UVA, if your story comes across as too good to be true, you will be in trouble.

How should you prepare for the Darden interview?  
The good news is you already have prepared for it!  Through the writing of many MBA admissions essays (presumably you have applied to more schools than just Darden) you have already told a lot of your life story, albeit in a piecemeal manner.  By now, it is highly likely that you have written about: both personal and professional accomplishments; your strengths and weaknesses; setbacks, and what you learned from them; why you want an MBA and what are your career goals.  If you have already had an admissions interview, then you may have taken someone through your resume, as well.

To tell your story you should
Cover all these topics but ground them in the personal experiences that shaped your values and created the strengths that have led to your success.  

Advice for how to structure your story:
The guidelines below assume a chronological answer to the Darden question.  At least one successful report describes just such an answer that began in the interviewee’s childhood.  The public reports suggest Darden wants people to discuss their whole lives, and the most logical, though not the only, way is chronologically.  The advantage of this format is it allows you to show your development over time, with the story culminating in why you want a Darden MBA.  However, you do not necessarily need to follow a strict chronology.  If you want to bring a lot of attention to your career goals, for example, and believe they define who you are now more than anything else, you could begin with them.  Even in that case, though, you’ll need to take the listener “back in time” a bit to show how you came to reach these goals.

  1. Begin your monologue by saying clearly who you are.  State up to 3 key points about yourself, including your guiding value(s) and core strengths. These strengths should not be limited to one field, e.g. finance, but the skill that allows you to succeed in particular fields, e.g. analytical thinking.  
  2. Explain the experiences that forged these values and strengths.  Darden allows you to describe events in your childhood and/or teenage years, as these are the periods in our lives when many of our core values, and even, in some instances, the foundations for our core strengths, are formed.  However, don’t devote more time than necessary to talking about your pre-college years.
  3. Develop your story arc with these core values and strengths. Illustrate how they were enhanced and even challenged by experiences in college and how, as an adult, you have applied them in your professional and personal life.   
  4. Illustrate your story arc with accomplishments that are on your resume. Emphasize turning points and setbacks, from which you learned something important that defines who you are now.
  5. Describe the experience(s) that gave form to your career goals and convinced you needed an MBA. This experience, by definition, would be a turning point in your life.  Discuss what about it made you realize you cannot achieve your career goal with out an MBA.
  6. Explain how you discovered that the Darden MBA is the best choice for you.
  • Your audience wants to know whether or not you would make an interesting classmate.  Avoid jargon, and do not sound boastful or give the impression you have never made mistakes.
  • Your interviewer may interrupt your story with follow-up questions about particular points in it.  Do not be unnerved if this happens.  Take it as a positive sign of interest in your story.  After all, it is only natural to want more details about someone’s experiences.  According to reports it is common, and, frankly, it probably makes the session more interesting for everyone involved.   
Look at the Darden interview as an opportunity.  
Most of us love to talk about ourselves, if given the chance.  But, unless and until you become as famous as Bill Gates or J.K. Rowling, your detailed, personal story probably will never be the main interest of an audience of strangers.  So, Darden gives you a rare chance to show someone just how fascinating you are. Make the interviewer believe in you!

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my MBA admissions interview counseling services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green
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