The Business School Interview - Unusual & Challenging Questions

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Our guide to interviewing principles, “How to Crack the Personal Interview for the MBA,” focuses on the admissions interview questions MBA candidates will most likely face. Readers who have not already done so would be wise to study our analysis, frequent question list, and recommended response strategies in that report before reviewing this one.

For those readers familiar with the fundamentals in that piece, this guide focuses on uncommon questions in MBA admissions interviews. These questions didn’t make the list of the most common MBA interview questions in our guide to interviewing fundamentals. But they nevertheless deserve attention because they will likely surprise and throw candidates off if they aren’t prepared to answer these less common, but important questions.

Here is the methodology we used: experts on MBA admissions publish articles containing lists of what they consider to be the most challenging MBA interview questions. Our research compared a sample of these lists and tallied the number of times we found a topic cited by different experts. Then we ranked the number of times an expert had cited each topic. Moreover, we also included the experts’ response strategy recommendations in our tips. Reference links to the articles we reviewed appear within our analysis as well as below this guide.

Why Interviewers Ask Uncommon Questions

According to Judith Silverman-Hodara of Fortuna Admissions, interviewers ask uncommon questions mostly to understand how a candidate might perform under stress. Accordingly, some interviewers may also intend these questions to help them:

  • Observe how a candidate can think on their feet and respond extemporaneously
  • Witness an applicant’s reactions when directly challenged
  • Shake an overly rehearsed candidate from their memorized scripts
  • Add depth and substance to the interaction
  • Clarify points the interviewer doesn’t understand
  • Elicit honest and authentic responses from certain candidates

Most Frequently Cited Subjects: Inadequacies and School Alternatives

Seven experts cited inadequacies as the most challenging subject, followed by school alternatives. Among such shortcomings, questions focused on weaknesses and failures. Because the experts most frequently mentioned questions about failures, we consider that topic first.

Inadequacies: Failures

Should applicants have time only to prepare a response for one atypical question, they should rehearse an answer to this one.

Four experts—the most in our sample—cited questions about failures. Interestingly, three top schools—the Columbia Business School, Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, and INSEAD—also used this topic in recent essay questions. MBA admissions expert and Fortuna Director Matt Symonds believes that essays in this category ought to be titled, “What I learned after I drove my car into a tree.”

This question is a tough one that’s fraught with traps. Moreover, “it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the best candidates often have the most awful and memorable failure stories,” according to Fortuna Admissions’ Caroline Diarte Edwards, INSEAD’s former director of MBA admissions.

Candidates need to choose a failure example wisely. As we’ll see, they can win much of this question’s battle by first selecting an anecdote that’s effective to discuss, because not all incidents meet this test.

Moreover, the precise language a school applies to phrase this question raises interesting points about response strategy. Consider these examples:

  1. Describe a failure in which you were involved.
  2. Provide an example of a team failure of which you have been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently?
  3. Give an example of a failure.
  4. Describe a situation where you failed and how the experience. . .impacted your relationships with others.
  5. Tell me about a time you failed.

First note that none of these prompts specifically asks for incidents while a candidate was at work. Personal situations might be acceptable, especially for the last two “you failed” prompts. But for the first two examples, it’s a safe bet that most interviewers expect to hear about business incidents.

Also note that the first two prompts don’t ask about a time where only the interviewee failed. Those first two ask about the applicant’s involvement in team failures and the third one is nonspecific about the context. The fourth and fifth ones specifically ask about a time that the interviewee failed, but of those two, only the fourth asks how the incident impacted others.

Choose Failure Examples Wisely

We raise this “who failed?” issue because avoidance, or question-dodging, can be a particularly insidious risk with failure questions. That’s not surprising, given that some applicants may understandably experience discomfort while recalling these experiences. But candidates never want interviewers who ask about a failure to perceive that they just failed to answer a tricky interview question.

In selecting incidents, two avoidance mechanisms exist which candidates need to prevent. The first kind involves selecting a failure in which the candidate played only a minor role. An applicant needs to select an event in which they played a significant role that they can acknowledge to interviewers.

The second (and riskier) means of avoidance involves selecting an inauthentic “pseudo” failure, one that ostensibly seems like a failure but turns out to be a disguised success. Clear Admit offers this example: “We missed one deadline (failure) but we shipped an outstanding product (success).”

At the same time, Clear Admit also recommends that candidates avoid:

. . .picking a failure that is so substantial, and recent, that the interviewer genuinely worries that you might make the very same type of mistake again—either due to incompetence or because you just simply haven’t had time to learn from it yet.

Avoid Negativity Traps

Besides selecting a failure that works well in an interview, candidates need to frame their discussion of the incident in a positive context.

A hallmark of good business writing and speaking involves reframing explanations of adverse incidents into narratives that accentuate positive aspects. Much like the cognitive reframing techniques applied by psychotherapists and personal coaches, emphasizing positive aspects comprises a valuable skill that will serve future business leaders throughout their careers. And most likely, by asking about difficult topics like a failure, the interviewer is looking for indications that the candidate can demonstrate this skill during stressful situations like interviews.

In particular, interviewees need to sidestep two potential negative traps when explaining an incident:

  • First, applicants need to avoid portraying themselves as unredeemable.
  • Second, and above all, candidates need to tactfully and diplomatically steer clear of blaming others in any discussion about responsibilities.

Failure Questions: Optimal Response Strategies

Now that we’ve learned what applicants should not do when answering failure questions, what should they do?

Candidates should:

  • Select a real failure in which they played a part—one in which they can acknowledge their direct role.
  • Choose an incident arising within a meaningful initiative that delivered impact.
  • Ideally, select an incident which wasn’t detrimental—and certainly not catastrophic—to their organization.
  • Explain their reactions while maintaining a balanced, positive tone.
  • Spotlight “pivot points” where events or realizations led to course corrections.
  • If possible, frame a response as overcoming adversity or challenges. Framing such a response frequently offers an effective technique, not only during interviews but also when writing essays.
  • Describe their subsequent process of deconstructing and analyzing the incident.
  • Explain the lessons learned from the incident.
  • Demonstrate growth steps, like how they applied those lessons to one or more recent successes. In other words, demonstrate redemption—how they’ve bounced back. Conrad Chua, head of MBA admissions at Cambridge University, told Fortuna Admissions that:

We really like to see where students have failed and bounced back from it. And that’s becoming quite difficult to see because a lot of the younger generation really seem to have this drive towards being perfect. I think the key thing is we want to see how you’ve bounced back from failure because when you’re on the MBA it’s going to be tough.

Inadequacies: Personal Weaknesses

Our experts next most frequently cited questions about weaknesses. Here are two examples:

  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What is your biggest weakness?

As with responses to questions about failure, candidates need to frame their narratives in positive ways. For example, anecdotes should similarly highlight what applicants learned from situations that identified weaknesses. Moreover, applicants should also frame discussions of personal initiatives and changes by emphasizing their dedication to continuous improvement and growth.

Similarly, candidates need to select an example of a weakness carefully. Former Harvard Business School associate admissions director Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder and CEO of Expartus MBA Admissions Consulting in New York City, says, “You want it to be genuine and believable, but not so detrimental that it will hurt your candidacy.”

Fortunately, applicants have more leeway when selecting weakness examples than failures. Silverman-Hodara suggests that a more advantageous way to talk about a weakness might not be to present a character weakness, but a situational weakness instead.

Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman told U.S. News and World Report that candidates could capitalize on questions about weaknesses: “When you convey an honest assessment of weaknesses, any of your strengths mentioned during the interview will have more credibility,” she says.

Competing Schools

Admissions consultants consider one interview question in particular to be not just difficult, but unfair because a candidate can never be sure how the school will use their response.

Here’s the question: “To which other schools have you applied?

Surprisingly, just as many experts cited questions about competing schools as questions about personal weaknesses on their “most difficult questions” lists. But why?

“This is a tricky question! Anyone who is asking you to answer this question is putting you in a difficult situation,” says Isiadinso. “But the reality is that this question comes up from time to time in business school interviews.”

Ostensibly, the interviewer might merely wonder whether a candidate seems more ambitious than conservative in their choices of target schools. Or the interviewer might be attempting to discern whether the applicant only decided to apply to the six highest-ranked schools—or instead chose targets in a way that demonstrates more thoughtfulness.

But the real reason for asking this question is usually that the interviewer’s school has significant yield concerns. “The interviewer wants to know more about who they are competing against should they offer you an admissions offer,” says Isiadinso. Asking that question implies that the interviewer’s school intends to preclude offering entry to candidates who—in the likely event they’re given a choice—will select another school.

Are MBA Interviews “Stress Interviews?”

Except at a single business school, MBA admission interviews aren’t generally considered “stress interviews” like some job interviews—particularly in the tech industry. For example, in Silicon Valley, interviewers have been known for decades to ask even non-technical applicants to write computer programs from scratch on office whiteboards.

As we point out in our guide to interviewing fundamentals, MBA admission interviews are very different from typical employment interviews which intend to evaluate competence for a specific job opening. Moreover, because the objective of MBA interviews is instead to predict a candidate’s suitability for top management roles decades in the future, interviewers from most schools have higher priorities than intensifying a candidate’s stress level during an undertaking that’s already stressful enough. Many of those interviewers who believe interviewees disclose more about their true, “real” personalities while they’re relaxed consider formats that subject a candidate to protracted stress to be counterproductive.

Harvard Business School Interviews: Format, Style, and Uncommon Questions

According to many reports posted online, the single stressful exception seems to be the half-hour interview format typically conducted at the Harvard Business School. Although not every HBS interview follows this format, several unique features characterize the majority of HBS interview reports.

These are typically panel interviews conducted by two-person teams, with one admissions officer asking questions and the other observing the conversation. Unlike most MBA programs which conduct “blind” interviews where interviewers only have access to a resume provided by the candidate, Harvard’s interviewers have access to the applicant’s entire admission file. They select questions knowing the candidate’s weaknesses along with strengths.

Then there’s Harvard’s unique interviewing style, which alone can throw candidates off-balance. Interviewers reportedly fire off questions at a rapid pace, occasionally interrupting candidates. Some reports describe as many as 20 questions asked in only 30 minutes. Isiadinso describes the style in this way:

The style of a typical HBS interview tends to be very rapid-fire, even aggressive in some cases. . . Questions in an HBS interview often come in a rapid-fire manner that can feel almost like an attack if you’re not prepared for them. This is intentional, because of the constrained time frame, and because the admissions committee wants to get a real sense of who you are and how well you perform under pressure.

Finally, Harvard’s challenging subset of uncommon questions seems almost philosophical. To encourage candidates to think quickly on their feet, HBS interviewers have asked:

  • How would your middle school peers describe you?
  • What is a firm you admire and what do you think makes them stand out from their competition?
  • What do you think makes someone a good leader and what kind of leader are you? How do you lead?
  • What is the most overrated management skill?

The thorough preparation steps and video-recorded rehearsals that we recommend in our guide to interviewing principles are useful for applicants interviewing at any business school. But these techniques are crucial for candidates who receive interview invitations from HBS: the best-qualified 20 percent of Harvard’s 10,000 MBA applicants who brave this ordeal each year.

Sources Reviewed for This Report:

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

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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