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MBA Admissions Edge step 10: Acing the admissions interview

Matt Symonds Fortuna Admissions - January 16, 2018

MBA Admissions Edge step 10: Acing the admissions

January is the month when thousands of MBA candidates submit applications to the world’s top business schools. If you’re among them, there’s certainly reason to celebrate: Despite your demanding day job and competing commitments, you’ve nailed the GMAT, polished your essays and résumé, and carefully solicited letters of recommendations in time to meet the round 2 deadline.

Now you’re hoping the next time you hear from your target schools is with an interview offer. This is a major milestone in the admissions process, worthy of pause for quiet self-congratulations. While not yet time to put champagne on ice, an offer to interview is a clear signal you’ve captured the attention of admissions and that they believe in your potential.

Admissions acceptance rates for the top 10 schools fell to a record 14.5% selectivity last year, while application volume rose by 4.4% with some 54,694 candidates to top 10 schools vying for 5,100 seats. But, secure an interview, and your shot at acceptance leaps to about 1 in 2. You now have a great chance of getting in, suggesting that the programme at this stage is looking for reasons to accept rather than reject you. At the very least, adcom wants to know more about you, and it’s not too early to prepare accordingly.

So what do you need to know about the MBA admissions interview, and how can you make the best impression?

Here are 10 essentials for acing the MBA interview, from my colleague Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director Harvard Business School and Head of Interview Practice at Fortuna Admissions:

1. Preparation is vital. It’s not just thinking about answers to the standard questions – why an MBA and why an MBA from this school, describing your career aspirations and goals, what you’ll bring to the school community, specific examples of leadership – but training yourself to give concise, confident and informative answers.

Review your application thoroughly, and reflect on five key messages you wish to convey during the interview. Considering this in advance ensures you won’t leave the room regretting that you’ve not mentioned something just because it didn’t arise in the Q&A session. It allows you to be proactive with your key selling points as opposed to passive, hoping the interviewer will pull it out of you.

Preparation is also the best way to get the most from your interview - and feel confident about how you present yourself and your story. Consider responses for some of those more specific and tougher questions, such as why you didn’t ask for a recommendation from your last job or about a career change you made.

2. Practice, then practice some more. Interviewers are skilled at quickly identifying whether you’re enthusiastic and sincere or simply reciting phrases from your essays. Find someone to conduct mock interviews so you can practice and refine your responses. Get to the stage where you feel clear about the point you want to make, but are no longer preoccupied by finding the right words so you don’t come across as overly-rehearsed. This will help you to interact more authentically with the interviewer. If your motivations and goals are clear, you can anticipate a lively conversation with lots of good questions.

3. Answer the question that’s asked. A lot of eager candidates tend to leap ahead to share the great answer they’re prepared to give, rather than responding to the actual question posed. Listen for what is really being asked and stay on topic; it’s okay to take a moment to prepare your response. While you’ll be looking for openings to share your key selling points, avoid taking over the interview because you have an agenda to push.

4. Set the right tone. A friendly atmosphere shouldn’t encourage you become overly chummy or lower your guard and inadvertently share certain doubts about the programme or yourself. And, in the spirit of presenting with confidence, note that humility always trumps arrogance. It’s about responding to questions candidly and honestly, offering specific examples of character traits you wish to emphasize. These might include achieving objectives, influencing others, relationship building – and should be considered well ahead of time.

5. Stay on your toes. While the interview invitation itself is a very positive sign, keep in mind there might be an issue that admissions wants to clarify. If you notice that questions keep circling back to a certain issue, stay poised and continue to deliver confident responses. Some schools also like to see how you think on your feet or how you react when you’re directly challenged, so be ready for confrontation or pitches from left-field. Sometimes you’ll be asked to deal with tricky questions like a probability scenario; it’s okay to take notes, especially for these queries.

6. Stay on topic. Most programmes provide word lengths for their essays, and the answers you give in-person should be similarly succinct, and directed to the question. While you want to come across as somebody who is thoughtful and engaging, avoid rambling or over-sharing. If you feel flustered, it’s much better to pause than to just start speaking. Use relevant examples to underscore what you’re sharing.

7. Create windows of conversation. The strongest candidates can deftly guide parts of the conversation, often without the interviewer realising it or disrupting the flow of conversation. To this end, you can use a technique of creating “windows.” You answer the question, and in doing so also gently dovetail your answer so you can briefly refer to another subject – thereby opening a window. While some schools structure interviews to concentrate on areas that are important to them, there is a good chance that most interviewers, if intrigued, will ask a follow up question. Choose your key selling points wisely, thinking about what they reveal about you, and you’re poised to make a great impression.

If you don’t get the chance to mention all your points while answering questions; at the end, you’ll likely be asked if there is anything else admissions should know.

8. Ask thoughtful questions. Remember the MBA interview is a two-way process, with schools expecting you to assess for fit as well. This is your chance to learn more about the programme, beyond what’s readily available online, and your failure to ask interesting questions can work against you. Perhaps you can ask about faculty research, the school’s approach in an area that concerns you, or ask about community activities or special interests and how the school may help you pursue them. The questions should be relevant and related to your professional and personal goals and your business school experience.

9. Plan your time. Most interviews will last around 45 minutes, though shorter and longer interviews are common. For Wharton and Michigan Ross, you’ll be invited to participate in a team-based activity where observers are assessing your interpersonal and communications skills in a dynamic setting. Research each school’s expectations. Then, try to engage the interviewer with your enthusiasm and providing strong, clear answers that set the tone for the remaining time. Feel free to ask them to repeat if you aren’t sure what is being asked of you.

10. Presentation matters. Don’t forget the basics such as dressing in appropriate business attire and looking the part. As with any professional interview, arrive in advance to collect your thoughts. Following up with a thank you note is a nice touch – email is fine – but again, make sure to cite a specific example of what you appreciated, not just generalities, to impart your sincerity.

Have fun! After your thoughtful preparation, give yourself permission to stay curious, be present, and enjoy the experience. Easy to say of course, but in the end, your sincere smile and genuine enthusiasm carry as much weight as what you actually say. 

The Fortuna Admissions team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Johnson Cornell, Yale SOM and Berkeley Haas.

This is the ninth in a 12-part series for Prodigy Finance by Fortuna Admissions on how to boost your chances of getting into a top business school (see below). Stay tuned for more.

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