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September 07, 2012

Columbia Business School MBA Application Interviews

In this post I provide advice on how to prepare for a Columbia Business School MBA interview. You can find my post on Columbia Essays here. For general advice on interview preparation, please see here, here, and here.

Columbia Business School offers only one flavor of admissions interview: "Columbia Business School Ambassador" alumni invitation-only interviews. You will get to select from multiple interviewers, so try to figure out who they are first before contacting them. I suggest using Google searches, LinkedIn, and perhaps your own network to do so. Select someone who you think you will be compatible with.

While this interview is certainly important, it is not unheard of for admissions to admit someone the alumni did not recommend or ding someone the interviewer did recommend. The admissions office has the ultimate discretion over this issue and clearly sees the interview as only one factor for determining the ultimate result. That said, the interview is certainly quite important. In my experience, clients who report not having a great Columbia rarely are admitted, so you as an applicant should assume that like with any interview, it is very important to do well.

Columbia alumni seem to be particularly effective gatekeepers for the program. They are well known for relentlessly determining whether Columbia really is the applicant's first choice. They are clearly told to do this as it is a consistent feature of interview reports. Not only should you be able to explain why Columbia is your first choice, but you had better explain why HBS, Stanford, and/or Wharton is not. Less then clear answers to the why is CBS your first choice question can prove fatal. Beyond that, I think alum are really looking to make sure that you possess sufficient mental strength, personal drive (aggression), and career focus to become a part of their "club."

Some of the most common question topics you would encounter in a Columbia interview (Based on my colleague Steve Green's review of reports at accepted.com and clearadmit.com, which is consistent with what clients have been reporting to me):

  • Walk me through your resume.  (PICK AND PROBE CONTENT)
  • Tell me about a professional achievement
  • Explain your professional progression up until now and why you need an MBA?
  • What is unique about you?

  • What are your career goals?
  • In addition to applying for an MBA, what other steps have you taken toward your goal?
  • Why an MBA?
  • Why now?
  • Why Columbia?
  • How will you contribute to Columbia?
  • What are your criteria for an MBA program?
  • Where else did you apply?
  • What other schools have you applied to?
  • What will you do if you don't get in anywhere else?
  • What makes you unique from other (financiers / salesmen / IT specialists, etc.) applying to Columbia?  
  • Are there any red flags you think the adcom will find in your candidacy?

  • What is your leadership / management style?
  • Tell me about a time when you took the initiative.
  • Have you ever been in a leadership role?

  • Tell me about a time when you had a work in a difficult team at your first job.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult person.
  • What role do you play on teams?
  • Example of leading a team.
  • Example of contributing to a team.
  • Example of a challenging team/group situation.

  • Tell me about a time when you faced adversity?
  • Tell me about a time when you made a major mistake at work and how you dealt with it.

  • What
    was an ethical dilemma you've faced, and what did you do about it? (Follow up with q’s like “What would you do differently?”)
  • Describea time, either professionally or academically, when you witnessed others behaving unethically--what did you do about it?

  • Tell me something unique about you
  • Is there anything particular you’d like me to add to my report for admissions?
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • What do you get excited about? What turns you on?
  • Why? (sports, hobbies etc.)
  • What are 5 adjectives that describe your interpersonal skills and communication style?

  • Tell me about a technology trend and how it will affect business.
  • What is the impact of the financial crisis on (YOUR) industry?
  • Topical questions about the current financial crisis, etc.
  • Anything related to interviewee’s field:  Future or real estate, health care, etc.

Either walk me through your resume or questions that amount to the same thing are always asked. Expect to be asked one way or another about how you standout professionally. Be honest, but very direct and sell your experience emphasizing your ability to make an impact. A common question is "What improvements have made in the position hold at work?"

Ethical dilemma questions, especially related to work experiences are common. So lets go over them briefly here. Ethical dilemma questions are all about decision making and learning:
1. Define the situation, such that it involves clearly identifiable options that are in conflict.
2. The options have to be real. They each have to have clear "goods" associated with them.
3. Justify the basis for the decision you made.
4. If your decision was right, focus on the result.
5. If your decision was wrong, focus on what you learned and hopefully applied to a more recent situation.

Be ready to ask questions to the alum. Prepare them ahead of time. Assume that unless the alum is a very recent graduate, they should not be asked about recent developments on the campus. This is a good opportunity to ask them about their Columbia experience and about the alumni network.

If there is anything you wanted to mention that was not covered in your application that you want to bring to the admission committee's attention, you will possibly have the opportunity to do so because interviewers frequently ask about this.

You probably will not be asked any weird hypothetical questions, but rather expect to cover some variation of the above questions in a great deal of depth.

Reported interview length is typically 60-75 minutes, but some interviews are shorter and some go for 90 minutes.

Brief Telephone Follow-up Interviews with an Admissions Officer: A number of my clients, especially,but exclusively non-native English speakers, have had short 5-15 minute interviews with the admissions office after the alumni interview.  More of my Japanese and Chinese clients have experienced this for purposes of an English language check, but I have also had clients from the US and Canada who received such calls. Sometimes the admissions office simply as a point of fact in the application that they want to clarify. From what I can gather, getting such a call is neither positive or negative in terms of the final result.

-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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