The importance of the interview in the MBA admissions process depends on who you speak to. Some claim it’s an integral, make or break element of your application, while others say it’s a mere formality, that the school has already decided they want you and just need to check that you’re not a complete ill-fit.
The reality is somewhere in between. According to interview coach Margaret Buj, on average 35% of the application process is weighted towards the interview. “There are thousands of applicants who look great on paper, who have perfect grades, have aced the GMAT exam and have some great professional experience. But schools want that rare balance of academic prowess and interpersonal strengths, and this is what’s tested during interviews.”
The interview process varies between business schools – sometimes you’ll encounter a panel, other times it’ll be the admissions officer or often its alumni scouting you out. Others, such as IMD Business School in Switzerland and, increasingly, Wharton, conduct group interviews to see how you interact (and compete) with others.
The interviewer can be ‘blind’ – armed with nothing but your CV – or know all the details about your application. So, how can you ensure you make it through?
1. Assume the interviewer knows nothing
Even if your interviewer only has your CV to go on, the chances are that their observations will be feed through to the admissions officer who knows all about your application and is set to use feedback from the interview to address some concerns.
Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep, says that admissions officers already have opinions going into interviews – “Robert has terrific leadership experience, but we’re concerned about his quant skills”, for example. Of course, you’ll be unaware of this, so the best approach is to assume the interviewer knows little or nothing about the rest of your application and just present as strong an impression of yourself as possible.
“They go into the interview with these opinions and questions, and in large part the purpose of the interview is to help them confirm what they know and find out what they don’t know,” says Shrum. “In some cases the interviewer already knows all of this about you, and in other cases he goes in with nothing more than your CV, but the information from the interview gets fed back to the person in the admissions office who knows all of these key details about your candidacy.”
2. Meticulously prepare for the ‘big five’ questions
It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be asked the following five questions (or iterations thereof). Make sure you’re prepared:
1. Walk me through your CV
2. Why business school/MBA?
3. Why now?
4. What are your long-term goals?/What do you hope to get out of an MBA?/How will an MBA help your career?/ Where do you see yourself in five years?
5. Why X business school?/Have you applied to any other schools/What will you do if you’re rejected by X?
“These questions search the inner motivations of a candidate, and there are no right answers,” says Buj. “The only way to answer these questions is to talk about what excites and motivates you. What makes you perform your best; what would you really like to do in your life? How do you genuinely see an MBA helping?”
Quite simply, if you can’t explain the decisions that have shaped your working life so far, or describe your reasons for undertaking an MBA or a particular school, is it really the best option for you?
3. Don’t expect a conventional setting
Because most business schools take on a high proportion of foreign students, alumnus can conduct interviews with applicants in their home countries. Very often, this can be in a hotel, over lunch or in a coffee shop, but it’s important that you don’t confuse a casual location with a casual scenario.
“Recently, business schools have started conducting interviews over Skype, in order to loosen the dependency on alumni, or sometimes draft in students in their first semester to interview potential candidates,” says Graham Richmond, CEO of MBA admissions consultancy Clear Admit. “Some interviews are 30 minutes, some are 2.5 hours. Basically, expect the unexpected, but always keep sight of your aims.”
4. Think introspection, not automation
The interviewer will have your CV in front of you. They will know that you worked at X bank for three years, or that you moved from one role to another. They won’t know why and they won’t know what drove your decisions. Talk passionately about your achievements and ambitions; enthuse the interviewer with stories about your career and why, right now, an MBA is important to you.
The interviewer wants to know what “makes you tick”, not about your technical skills, says Shrum, so it’s important to know yourself – even if that means getting tips from other people.
“If you need help, ask a friend of a friend (someone who doesn’t know you very well) to look through your CV and essays, and ask them to describe you. Ask them about your strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “If there are key themes that you’re trying to highlight in your application, find out if these are coming through in your application. Knowing all of this will leave you very well prepared as you enter the interview.”
5. Get your stories straight
Behavioural questions – namely, those designed to probe how you reacted in particular situations – are increasingly common MBA interviews. Using real-life examples, you need to demonstrate leadership, teamwork, analytical abilities, ethics and, importantly, your main weakness (and your ongoing attempts to address this).
Get your (best) stories clear in your head. If it helps to get your thoughts in line, think of the STAR interview technique. Situation – the context of your story, Task – the specific issue or problem faced, Action – what you did to tackle the problem and Result – what happened, what you learned. This will prevent the cardinal sin; rambling.
“A lot of interviews have a psycho-analytical edge to them, probing emotional situations,” says Richmond. “Despite this, you need a clear, engaging and linear story to respond with.”
“When applicants don’t perform well in interviews, it’s because they fail to cover what they wanted to talk about - usually some combination of their leadership experience, analytical abilities, and penchant for working well in teams,” says Shrum. “Particularly when interviewing with an alumnus or someone else who approaches the interview in a very casual manner, remember that friendly banter is great, but is no substitute for making sure that you talk about the absolute essentials before the interview is over.”