While your focus now is probably on deciding where to apply and starting your applications, it’s not too early to start thinking about your business school interviews. Being offered an interview from a business school is a very positive sign. It shows you’ve made the first cut; only a modest percentage of the thousands applying to a top MBA program receive the call. Of those, generally half will be offered a place, so your chances of success have improved considerably. The time to start prepping for your interviews is before you receive an interview invitation, as sometimes you only have a few days after being invited before the interview itself.
Your interviewers will likely be an admissions officer, an alumnus who’s been selected to represent the school, or current second year MBA students who work with admissions. You need to be well prepared and have well-thought out and strong answers to questions about yourself: your strengths and weaknesses, why you want an MBA from this school, what you can contribute to the school, and what your future career goals are. You also need to practice giving natural, well-structured, and confident answers. Particularly with alumni interviews, the person in front of you may not have reviewed your entire application, so your job is to capture the essence of what your experience and accomplishments say about you. Rehearse with a coach or suitable friend until you’re no longer just delivering lines from your application essays, but can comfortably and clearly make your point. This should also help you to be more comfortable with someone on the other side of the desk.
Making a personal connection in the beginning should get you off to a good start. If you can find a common ground, or show a genuine interest in them, they’ll be more likely to feel favorably disposed towards you. In advance, you could research the background of your interviewer, perhaps on LinkedIn or by searching their name in search engines to see what comes up. It might help you to find that common ground, such as a place you’ve both lived or an interest you share. Remember that any subject you bring up could lead to a follow-up question, so if you’re going to bring up a shared passion for vintage wine or scuba diving make sure you can intelligently pursue the discussion. At the very least, some background research should help you feel more comfortable meeting with someone who you already know something about.
What to share
We suggest that you prepare four or five pieces of information that you want to share. Although it’s important to focus on the question you’re being asked, maintain a proactive rather than passive approach to ensure that you represent yourself well. Be consistent with how you pitched yourself in your written application, and have answers for some of the tougher questions that may probe a career decision you made, how you react to feedback, why you need an MBA, or what makes you stand out among other candidates. If there’s a part of your application that the school might question, have a solid explanation, not an excuse. If questions keep coming back to one issue, stay calm and continue to give confident and poised responses. Be ready for confrontation. Some schools want to see if you can think on your feet, and want to see how you react when you are directly challenged. If you’ve worked at the same company for a long time and haven’t experienced an interview in years, now is the time to engage with others so that you can practice and be well-prepared.
How to share
Given that MBA interviews tend to last no longer than 30 to 45 minutes, be concise with your answers. If you find yourself rambling on and going off topic, take a breath and try to wrap up your point. It’s better to admit to over-enthusiasm for a subject (other than yourself!) than lose the interviewer’s attention and leave the impression that you can’t stop talking. The bottom line is to respond honestly and candidly, and give specific examples of the point you’re making, or the character trait you want to highlight.
Beyond your own answers, don’t forget to ask intelligent questions yourself. While the interviewer is leading the dance, this is your chance to find out more about the program, with questions that are pertinent to your plans, such as details about particular clubs, study trips, or centers of research. Just avoid asking questions that have been clearly answered on the school website.
As with any professional interview, you should look the part in suitable business attire, arrive ahead of time to compose your thoughts, be polite and enthusiastic with all the people you encounter, and send a thank you note with a specific example of what you appreciated. For those applying to the Harvard Business School you’re now required to submit a “post interview reflection” within 24 hours. There’s no right answer, just something thoughtful that gives your genuine reaction to the interview experience.
As the next and final step of this series, we’ll discuss what it means to be waitlisted, and what your next steps should be.