One thing I have learned over the last 15 plus years of coaching applicants on MBA, scholarship, and other admissions interviews is that there is no one way to prepare. What works for one applicant, does not necessarily work for another. People not only have different learning styles, they have different psychologies. If you are preparing for interviews, you need to find the kind of preparation that works best for you. As a coach, my job is to adapt to the needs of my client but always be focused on the core task of enabling better interview performance. Whether you work with coach or prepare on your own, you need to find what will work best for you.
INTERVIEW STRESS: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
THE GOOD: For some people, stress is energizing force that gets them operating at their best. They can go with the flow and love the intensity of interaction in a good interview. They love debate and dialogue under pressure, so being asked hard questions, experiencing multiple follow-up questions, or even being challenged are totally fine with them. Some applicants positively need to be pushed in this way in order to expand their interview skills. Mock interviews that are designed to be at least as hard if not harder than the real interview tend to work best with such people.
THE BAD: However, for others, stress can impair or paralyze their interview performance. For someone who feels nervous, can’t think clearly, gets stuck or even paralyzed, interviewing is a less than pleasant activity. While language ability can impact performance, I worked with intermediate English level Japanese clients who had excellent communication and interview skills because they were comfortable with being interviewed and felt no undue stress and I have worked with Ivy League educated Americans who were severely impacted by it. Stress-related psychological issues can short circuit underlying skills or knowledge and undermine performance. If interviewing does this to you, you need to seek outside help. Some people benefit from mindfulness or meditation training, others may need to seek professional psychological advice. I would personally suggest taking a look at Mindfulne ss-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) because this method has extensive data to back up its efficacy and can have positive benefits for a lifetime.
THE UGLY is an admissions coach who makes a stressed out client even more stressed during practice; Giving such a person a stressful interview is an act of cruelty and off-task because it does not improve their performance. Instead, it further erodes confidence and may increase anxiety, nervous behavior, and even reduce the performance level. Sometimes it is not obvious that a client will be stressed out because it is the first interview training session. While I try to identify potential problems in this regard by providing a survey of interview experience (I discuss this in detail in this post I wrote for another blog) to my clients, some clients don’t complete this form and even if they do, it is not 100% guaranteed to catch problems. But once I identify that someone is experiencing extreme stress, I take a time out and change tactics.
MOCK INTERVIEWS ARE NOT FOR EVERYBODY!
For most people, mock interviews help them build up confidence for the real interview, while for others mocks are a source of anxiety that may not be indicative of how the person performs in an actual interview. I have worked with clients who experience real stress when doing mocks but report no difficulties with the real interview. If you are the kind of person who has done well at real interviews but feels uncomfortable with mock interviews, don’t feel the need to practice this way, at least initially. I have written elsewhere about working with an applicant who was admitted to HBS but who had extreme issues with mock interviewing. My solution in such situations is not to increase someone’s stress but to find alternative ways to prepare. If mock interviews increase your stress and undermine your performance, you need alternatives. Beyond self-preparation, which is critical for any applicant, two things I suggest instead of or in addition to mock interviewing:
Open question by question preparation. Simply by not creating the atmosphere of a mock but rather by treating a session as a place to test out and refine one answer at a time, I find that almost any client can improve on their content and enhance performance. By removing “the reality” of the interview and even the roles of interviewee and interviewer, this tends to reduce anxiety and allow for on-task performance enhancing training. If you are working with an admissions coach or consultant who can’t or seems unable to do this, find someone else. If you are asking a friend or family member to prep with you, ask them to do this way if you are finding mock interviewing unhelpful. Mastering your content and feeling comfortable with it is a core objective of interview training and you don’t need a mock to do that.
Focus on storytelling. In some situations, I will not even ask a question but instead simply listen to and provide feedback on possible stories that can be used to cover various types of questions. Removing the asking of a question is itself another way to reduce stress. For applicants who just want to test out stories, regardless of whether they benefit from mock interviewing or not, focusing on just telling stories can be an effective way to review and refine them. The process for this consists of listing to the story, providing feedback on the story, having the client tell the story again, and then refining it further in order to get the timing and focus right for addressing different kinds of questions. This kind of prep is not only useful for those who have stress but for any client working on refining a story. It is something I use especially for handling behavioral interview questions (For more about BIs, see my post on MIT interviews).
Realistic Mock Interviewing
Finally, as far as mock interviewing goes, I try to provide realistic mock interviews based on what I know about the questions that are typically asked by a particular school and, in some cases, what I know about a particular interviewer. Excepting for some (and it is too many though not most) sadistic and/or unprofessional alumni interviewers who are badly trained (if at all) by the schools that they incompetently represent, most interviewers are friendly or neutral and not overly aggressive. There are exceptions to this. For example, ISB interviewers tend to be consistently aggressive and are clearly told to do that. That said, most admission officer, alumni, and student interviewers are not so aggressive. Even HBS admissions interviewers, who may ask many follow-up questions, can’t be said to be overly aggressive and they are typically friendly or neutral, not hostile. Don’t equate being asked a hard question with an unfriendly interviewer. Some people make that mistake. Having your plans questioned (“Can you really do that?” “What if your plan fails?” “What is your Plan B if you are not admitted?”) is something you need to be prepared for but being asked about this is not inherently hostile as the interviewer may be trying to gauge your realism, the depth of planning, and/or your ability to think about alternatives. When I am working with a client who finds mock interviewing challenging but wants to do it, I will gradually increase the difficulty to simulate what they are likely to experience. This increase might happen in a single session or over multiple sessions. As long as doing so does not undermine performance, I will increase the difficulty. The point is to find the sweet spot for such clients so that they improve their performance. Of course, if I know in advance that a particular interviewer will be difficult (it happens sometimes bec ause of information I and/or my client may have about the interviewer), I will help clients adjust accordingly. The objective is always to focus on practice that enhances performance and generate the one desired outcome: Admission.