If you receive an MBA interview invite from an M7 business school, it’s a clear signal the school believes in your potential.
At the same time, competition is fierce among prospective students, and in a year of record-breaking MBA application volume across the top business schools, the interview has never been more important. Nowhere is this truer than with the M7 MBA programs, or the top 7 graduate schools in the country based on rankings. These include prestigious institutions like Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Among M7 MBA programs, your prospects of admission are generally between 1 in 10 and 1 in 18. But secure an interview and your shot at acceptance at any of their MBA programs has just improved to about 1 in 2. You now have a great chance of getting in, and now is the time to prepare with gusto.
Even if you’re confident in your interview skills, you have a short window to impress, and the added complexity of making a personal connection in a virtual format. (HBS, Stanford GSB, Wharton, INSEAD and Berkeley Haas are among the top schools to confirm virtual interviews this season due to the Covid crisis.) You need to focus on the essentials, get to the point quickly, and prepare to adapt to various MBA interview styles. Schools will be looking for your leadership and communications skills, your ability to articulate your career ambitions within the context of the MBA, and whether you’re a good fit for the school. Says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Harvard Business School Associate Director:
“The interview is essentially a search for authenticity. Do you seem like the person we thought we met on paper? Are you who we think you are?”
Here are 7 essentials to keep in mind for acing the M7 MBA interview
1. Know the M7 MBA interview landscape.
You can expect to have very different kinds of interviews depending on the program you are applying for. As former admissions directors and business school professionals from the world’s top business schools, my Fortuna colleagues and I are fully aware of how different schools are looking at new interview formats and using a wide range of interview techniques. You should become acquainted with each kind of interview format and prepare accordingly.
At Stanford GSB you may have an hour-long, blind interview with an alum, meaning the interviewer has only seen your resume. GSB places heavy emphasis on behavioral questions, so expect to speak to very specific examples of what you did, why, what was going through your mind at the time, the outcome and impact on others. The GSB is among the top schools that will be conducting virtually interviews only.
“Stanford is looking for evidence of intellectual vitality and demonstrated leadership potential, your personal qualities and contributions,” says Fortuna’s Tatiana Nemo, a Stanford GSB alumna and former admissions interviewer. “They’re looking for personal character, they’re looking for traits and potential. And they’re certainly looking for sound analytical skills, creative instincts and strong performance – these are a must and a constant across their application process.”
For an HBS interview, on the other hand, you have just 30 minutes to make a great impression. While HBS confirmed its interviews will still be conducted exclusively by its interview board – who will have read your entire application in depth – its interviews will also be virtual this year. HBS and MIT are the only M7 schools in which the interviewer will have studied your entire application (others typically reference your resume only). HBS tends to concentrate less on behavioral questions (although these could come up), in favor of delving into your resume to discern your motivations, experience, understanding of your industry (current and future), and decision-making process. They speak of approaching the interview like “a case discussion.” You’ll also need to send a post-interview reflection within 24 hours.
“It’s not so much where you’ve worked, but why you worked in those different places, and getting an understanding of your role within different organizations at different levels,” says Karla. “They’ll push you in terms of trying to understand your rationale for making different moves, for example. They want to see, too, how you handle unexpected questions.”
Wharton and Michigan Ross invite you to participate in a Team Based Interview; Wharton conducted its most recent round of Team Based Discussions virtually on Zoom. The school brings together a group of candidates and gives them a real-world business scenario to work through together. This dynamic format allows admissions to observe how you’ll operate in a team setting and gives them a sense of how you’ll perform in an MBA setting where interaction is extremely important. At Michigan Ross, the Team Based Interview is in addition to a traditional interview, while at Wharton, the activity is followed by a 10-minute one-on-one debrief with an admission representative.
“Individuals who present themselves with a closed leadership style rather than a facilitative one, or a style lacking in team-orientation, will be at a disadvantage in terms of being granted admission,” says Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara, former Wharton head of Admissions.
At Yale, Kellogg, INSEAD and London Business School – in addition to the traditional invite interview – your application includes a video essay component, which prompts you to spontaneously answer a question with little or no prep time. Interestingly, Berkeley Haas is offering a pre-recorded option this year as an alternative to participating a live, virtual interview this cycle.
“The trend of MBA video essays means that candidates face a combination of the most challenging aspects of live interviews and written essays with the added pressures of camera, time limits and technology concerns,” says Fortuna’s Cassandra Pittman, who worked in admissions at INSEAD and LBS. “The lack of any real-time feedback that you would get from a face-to-face discussion is perhaps most challenging of all.” You only get one chance to convey your poise, confidence and clarity.
2. Make time to prepare and practice on camera.
You’ll want to be proactive (versus reactive), and practice is the best way to build your confidence and train yourself to give informative, natural and confident answers. You’ll need to speak without hesitation about why you’re pursuing an MBA degree, what your career goals are, and why you’re interested in this particular school, versing yourself in responding to the most common MBA interview questions.
Be ready to offer how you’ll contribute to the community, with examples of your leadership and teamwork. This includes having a two-minute MBA elevator pitch to “walk me through your resume” or “tell me about yourself.” Beyond the standard questions, you’ll want to prepare to be calm and poised in the face of tricky or unexpected questions.
First, sketch out some thoughts on paper. Then practice with video, recording yourself as you walk through sample questions. What type of impression are you conveying? Are you friendly and approachable? Find someone willing to put you through your paces in a mock interview, as well as offer candid feedback on your performance (check out Fortuna’s MBA Interview Prep service). Practicing aloud will also help reduce your chances of rambling – you want to focus your response on the question being asked and stay on topic.
3. Identify your key selling points and supporting stories.
The content you prepare should include at least five key selling points to offer during the interview. Each selling point should have a couple of short stories to illustrate your point. Your selling points and stories should relate to your strengths, your personality or soft skills (leadership potential, teamwork skills), your contribution to the school, and your MBA career vision.
Keep the program’s core values in mind, and identify stories that include behavioral examples that support your points with specifics. And while I can’t overemphasize the importance of practice, you need to be savvy about not sounding overly rehearsed, or crossing the line to pushing your agenda and trying to take control of the interview.
4. Anticipate how to approach tough questions.
Despite your preparation, you’re likely to get a question that you didn’t anticipate. Whether you’re asked about an area of weakness, an example of a failure, or why you left a certain position or industry, the key is to respond with honesty and humility. Present yourself in a positive light by focusing on your personal growth, lessons learned and ability to be introspective. Showing how you’ve stretched yourself in the past can be a compelling success story.
And if you gave a bad answer? Don’t lose confidence. Take a breath, carry on and, at the end of the interview, ask to clarify your response to the earlier question. This shows self-reflection and confidence, and most interviewers will let you do this. (A recent client was recently asked to solve a probability question in an interview with a top school – and was admitted despite answering incorrectly.)
5. Prepare thoughtful questions for your interviewers.
Be ready with meaningful questions to ask at the end of the interview (with answers that can’t be found on a spin through the school website). This kind of thoughtful preparation demonstrates your genuine interest in learning more about mutual fit. If you know your interviewer’s name ahead of time, do your research – look him/her up on LinkedIn for example. Considering your interviewer’s profile will help you tailor your questions accordingly.
For an alumni-led interview like Kellogg’s, remember that you have a valuable opportunity to learn from their experience and glean insights that can help inform your decision. For admission representatives, you might ask questions specific to the strengths of the school community, or logistical questions about support for partners and families.
6. Maximize the advantages of this year’s virtual format.
As mentioned, the vast majority of M7 MBA programs appear to be doing virtual admissions interviews this fall. And while that may seem like a disadvantage – especially for the extroverts among us – a big upside to interviewing from your own space is that you can create the conditions to feel more relaxed. As Fortuna’s Karen Hamou cites in What to Wear for the Virtual MBA Interview, this includes embracing “mullet dressing” with gusto (business on top, party on the bottom). Awkward as it may be to wear a suit jacket in your living room, no one has to know you’re also wearing fuzzy slippers or essential oils.
There are special considerations you want to address in advance, such as lighting, sound, Internet connection and potential technology concerns. Do a test call with your coach or a friend to work out any technical issues ahead of the interview, ensuring your audio is excellent and your connection is flawless.
“Attention to both engagement and environment are a must when interviewing on video,” says Judith. This includes awareness of your nonverbal cues like maintaining eye contact with the interviewer (not watching yourself) and making sure your background is clean and uncluttered. (Judith recommends turning off the pesky self-view to avoid the temptation of watching yourself speak.) Adds Fortuna’s Sharon Joyce:
“A big upshot is that you have the opportunity to place things outside your interviewer’s field of vision, such as sticky notes with key words or messages on your wall. Just a couple of ‘cliff notes’ in the background to help you get unstuck if necessary.”
7. Stay grounded.
Try to approach the interview as a conversation. Admissions wants to know what makes you unique, what you care about and what fuels your career aspirations. This means sharing your story with enthusiasm and personality, while keeping the general tone calm. You’ll want to come across as a sincere, grounded and thoughtful candidate. Whether it’s your only MBA interview or one of several, you’ll want the interviewer to feel their school is your first choice.
Finally, your interview is also an important moment to assess fit – not just you for the program but the program for you. Once you enter the interview itself, allow yourself to enjoy the opportunity to bring your candidacy to life. You’ve captured their interest, and the most compelling way to win them over is to let your authentic self shine.
Fortuna Admissions expert coach Malvina Miller Complainville is former Harvard Business School Assistant Director. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success from an elite business school, sign up for a free consulting session. If you already know what you want, you can sign up directly for MBA interview prep with a Fortuna expert coach or explore all services.