How to Crack the Personal Interview for the MBA

All highly selective MBA programs require personal interviews from the candidates they admit. If the business school appears in U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 rankings, then that school requires interviews.

Top business schools that offer online MBA programs also fall into this category. These schools include Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. The new online MBA program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business also requires interviews.

Why do admissions committees at these leading schools insist on interviewing candidates? Interviews provide admission committees personal insights into factors like a candidate’s emotional intelligence, oral communication skills, level of maturity, and self-awareness. Schools claim that a lack of these first-hand impressions precludes fully informed admission decisions.

Overall, interviews give MBA candidates opportunities to tell their stories to business school admission committees directly. Here are some tips that will help a candidate convert their interview into a spot in the class.

Classifying MBA Admission Interviews

Several terms classify these interviews. In this brief discussion, we’ll consider three of them: open interviews, invitation-only interviews, and blind interviews.

Open Interviews

A minority of well-funded schools offer applicant-initiated interviews, which are also known as open interviews. These schools include:

These schools offer interview opportunities to any prospective candidate who wants an interview, even though it’s expensive for the universities to do so. The schools defend these programs as a safeguard to prevent them from denying admission to deserving candidates whose written applications fall short of justifying admission offers.

Northwestern University’s open interview applicant policy embodies a long-standing philosophy of the school. Beth Tidmarsh, Kellogg’s director of admissions for full-time MBA programs, told Clear Admit, “We really want to evaluate the whole person, and the application process is holistic. We still seek to interview everyone who applies—as many as we can.” In cases where applicants can’t travel to the school’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, Tidmarsh says “we will match candidates in their home locations to conduct interviews with alumni.”

Except for Kellogg, all of the other schools that offer open interviews allow anyone to interview, whether they apply or not, and those interviews can take place before candidates file their application. However, potential applicants can only schedule interviews until the end of the school’s open interview period, or until the school’s interview schedule fills up.

Scheduling open interviews embodies a “can’t hurt, might help” advantage for candidates. Alex Brown, who interviewed candidates for almost six years while a senior associate director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, points out that, “There is really no scenario where taking advantage of the open interview policy can hurt a candidate. Those who choose to participate in an interview before applying are signaling to the admissions committee that they are fully committed to the process—showing the appropriate initiative and interest in the school.”

Invitation-Only Interviews

Because open interview programs cost universities so much to operate, most business schools only offer invitation-only interviews. At these schools, an interview invitation signals that school is seriously considering extending an admission offer to a candidate.

At some schools like New York University, an interview invitation virtually predicts admission because almost three-quarters of NYU’s applicants who receive these invitations eventually receive admission offers. Although the probabilities vary widely depending on different variables, a majority of MBA candidates who receive these invitations win admission.

Blind Interviews

There are only three schools where admission committee members interview candidates after having reviewed their complete admissions files: the Harvard Business School, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Stanford Business School.

Stanford’s alumni interviewers (and interviewers working on behalf of most other schools) conduct what are known as “blind” interviews because they’re only based on the candidate’s resume. For that reason, and as we discuss below, it’s not surprising that the most common lead-off question in most of these interviews relates to their CV.

MBA Admission Interviews Differ From Traditional Job Interviews

Interviews for admission to MBA programs differ from typical job interviews. Traditional job interviews tend to ask how the candidate might solve hypothetical problems.

By contrast, MBA admission interviews tend to be behavioral interviews. Schools use such conversations to learn how candidates behaved in situations at work. In the behavioral approach, interviewers seek to elicit examples of actions that might predict how a candidate will respond when faced with similar situations in the future. More open-ended questions that ask candidates to tell stories and share anecdotes from their jobs frequently appear in these interviews.

In this respect, MBA applicant interviews are stylized, structured conversations. Admission officers do not hide the fact that they’re testing candidates’ abilities to succinctly showcase skills and performance by applying structured, highly-focused techniques to organize their stories. One such interview response technique that winning candidates employ to construct examples is the STAR approach:

  • Situation: Context about a situation or challenge
  • Task: The role or responsibility within that situation
  • Action: Steps taken to overcome the challenge or manage the situation
  • Results: Quantifiable measures of the outcomes achieved or concrete examples of the success attained

Some experts and interviewees prefer one of the related three-component response techniques, PAR, which stands for Problem, Action, and Result, or CAR, which stands for Challenge, Action, and Result. These simpler approaches lend themselves to anecdotes recounted during interviews under time pressure.

But irrespective of which structured technique the candidate selects, consistent application of these techniques helps interviewees stay focused, speak efficiently, discourage or rapidly recover from interruptions, and deliver powerful, compelling and memorable conclusions.

The Most Common MBA Interview Questions

Questions asked in MBA interviews are not secret. For many years, MBA applicants have disclosed debriefing reports about the questions interviewers asked them on their blogs and in interview discussion forums at sites like Clear Admit. For some schools, the site even offers an honorarium of a ten dollar Amazon gift card for each interview report a candidate posts.

Several sources have compiled statistics and offer insightful analysis based on interview reports at such sites. For example, New York University MBA graduate and McKinsey associate Wayne Atwell compiled the most frequently asked questions at each of seven top schools. He then posted these distributions on his blog, MBA Data Guru. Attwell’s surprising analysis reveals that although different schools do ask the same questions, each school’s rank-order profile of its most frequently asked questions differs radically from the others.

Furthermore, Metro MBA writer Kelly Vo conducted a meta-analysis of the questions most frequently asked by interviewers from the top ten MBA programs ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Although Vo didn’t specifically cite her source, her data probably originated with Clear Admit or similar online forums. She studied the questions asked by these schools:

  • University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business
  • University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
  • Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Sloan School of Management
  • Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business
  • University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
  • University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business
  • Harvard University’s Harvard Business School
  • Columbia University’s Columbia Business School
  • Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business

Vo found five key questions most frequently asked by interviewers. These questions were:

  1. Why did you choose this school or program? (Eight schools)
  2. Why are you pursuing an MBA now? (Seven schools)
  3. Walk me through your resume. (Six schools)
  4. Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership. What did you learn from it? (Six schools)
  5. Are there any questions you’d like to ask the interviewer? (Eight schools)

Response Strategies for the Most Common Questions

The question “walk me through your resume” often appears in reports as most interviews’ first question. In this podcast, Clear Admit’s Alex Brown suggests that a reasonable response strategy would be to provide a highly focused, three-minute oral executive summary of the resume that presents the candidate’s most significant career highlights along with rationales and outcomes.

“Why did you choose this school or program?” is not a question that matters to Harvard interviewers, presumably because Harvard remains the most prestigious university in the United States. Nor does it matter to MIT interviewers. But according to Vo, all the other schools asked this question. Brown suggests that this question provides a candidate with an opportunity to demonstrate the research they’ve done on the school and to link what they learned through business school visits about the ways the program fits their career objectives and interests.

The more an applicant can support a convincing argument about why the interviewer’s school best fits the candidate through specific references to aspects like the school’s alumni, professors, classes, research, centers, and events, the more likely the candidate will impress the interviewer.

Similarly, the “Why are you pursuing an MBA now?” question provides an opportunity to explain career plans upon graduation, as well as explain why the degree is essential for the candidate to accomplish long-term goals.

Admission consultant Sanford “Sandy” Kreisberg of HBS Guru reports in this video that Harvard interviewers rarely ask about the leadership topic. Nevertheless, Vo found that this prompt matters to interviewers from most other schools. It provides candidates with an opportunity to demonstrate what they learned from projects where they exercised leadership. The question also enables them to show using the STAR method the challenges their leadership overcame, and optimally cite measurable, quantifiable results that their leadership achieved.

How Should Candidates Prepare?

We believe that a slightly modified version of a procedure Attwell recommends for interview preparation seems reasonable. His recommendation is reminiscent of methods to prepare for speaking engagements taught by university speech communication courses. In summary, for each school this procedure entails:

  1. Write down responses for each of the school’s ten most common questions.
  2. Each story should follow one of the interview response techniques discussed above. Instead of the STAR method, Attwell recommends the simpler PAR approach. He recommends allocating only ten percent of speaking time to the problem and 15 percent to the result, allocating three-quarters of the “air time” to the action component.
  3. Record answers to these questions using a webcam.
  4. Watch the videos and critique the responses. The videos should convey friendliness, excitement, and passion about the school.
  5. Rehearse by conducting mock interviews with as many folks as possible. Attwell suggests that the best rehearsal interviewers are current students or alumni of the school. Other potential practice interviewers are MBA graduates or those in more senior roles at work.
  6. Revise the responses, incorporating the feedback from the rehearsal interviewers.
  7. Finally, it might make sense to repeat the steps above with the revised answers.
Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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