The MBA interview is a relational process, and the sphere of influence goes well beyond your assessor.
It’s vital to recognize that every interaction before, during, and after your interview can impact your candidacy.
As a coach at Fortuna Admissions, a Columbia Business School alumna, and a former recruiting lead at Deloitte Consulting, I’ve seen both sides of the coin.
Below are five classic mistakes to avoid, along with useful tips for taking a holistic approach the MBA interview, from lead-up to follow-up. When it comes to maximizing your chances of admissions success, the details matter.
5 Common Mistakes to Avoid + Tips to Keep in Mind
1. Don’t just make the connection, build the relationship.
As much as you want to impress your interviewers, make the effort to also cultivate relationships with former and current students who may be part of your future community. Sleuth out contacts who share similar interests and initiate frank conversations that give you perspective beyond a school’s polished brand. If your plans for visiting campus are hindered by the pandemic, pursue meaningful connections online. Whether you send messages on LinkedIn or other social networks, ask for 15 minutes of their time to glean advice and to learn about their experience. When you’re sincere about asking for someone’s insight and perspective, especially when demonstrating a point of synergy or connection, it’s very likely they’ll say yes.
Having been in your shoes, a student or alumnus can also serve as a helpful advocate. If someone is particularly impressed by their interaction with you, they can send a note to admissions – which isn’t uncommon (just remember this scenario also works in the opposite direction). I had a client recently who was invited to a social outing at CBS by a student she’d met on campus, offering her an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and a unique vantage point to assess fit for the school and what it might be like to go there.
2. Don’t get overly familiar.
Even when you feel like your interactions are going well, whether a conversational Zoom chat with a recently graduated alumnus or a relaxed exchange with a current student, don’t make the mistake of being too casual. “No matter how comfortable you feel with an interviewer, AdCom member, or student ambassador, always treat them with the same respect you would treat the CEO of your company or your grandmother – whoever inspires you to maintain your manners!” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal in her article, MBA Admissions Etiquette. “Even if the person seems like a peer, don’t be misled. You should still address them with the care of someone who is in a position of evaluating you.”
3. Don’t just wing your introductions.
Alternatively, have your tailored MBA elevator pitch prepared. In a couple of minutes, you should be able to succinctly explain who you are, what you’re passionate about, and some key drivers inspiring you toward pursuing your MBA at that specific school. “Authenticity is key, so as you draw these connections within your pitch, stay true to yourself and your personal style,” advises my Fortuna colleague, Sharon Joyce, in her article, 5 Tips for Your MBA Elevator Pitch. “Remember that your goal is to both create a positive impression and open the door to further conversation by generating interest, not to tell your life story.” With ample practice, you’ll be able to avoid sounding scripted and articulate why this steppingstone in your education and career is meaningful with poise, confidence, and clarity.
4. Don’t neglect the unique considerations of a virtual meeting.
While most of us have become accustomed to Zoom interactions during the pandemic, keep your audience in mind when setting up a video call. This means bringing some attention to your environment by ensuring the space behind your camera is clear and uncluttered. “Video is just as much about what you see as about what you hear,” emphasizes Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara in her essential article, How to Prepare for the Virtual MBA Interview. (Although your audio and connectivity should be flawless, too.) To keep the focus where it should be – on you – position yourself against a plain wall or use the zoom setting to “blur” your background. Any larger shot of your room in the background should be clean and organized.
“I have no recollection now of who he was, what he said, or what he wore, only that I could not stop fixating on his messy, unmade bed in the background. That tidbit went into my writeup post-interview,” reflects Fortuna’s Jessica Chung of a particular Skype interview during her role as UCLA Anderson’s Associate Director of Admissions. As with your attire, you want to be memorable for all the right reasons (view my related article, What to Wear on Video).
5. Don’t forget to convey your appreciation.
Whether your interaction was a 15-minute virtual coffee or an hour-long MBA interview, a follow-up to people within 24 hours should be one of your top priorities. While a thank you email is an efficient and expected gesture these days, make it timely and gracious. (If you favor typing something out on your phone, take the extra time to ensure your note looks polished and considered.) “Among the most vital ingredients to your future success as a business leader are the relationships you nurture along the way,” says Fortuna’s Malvina Miller Complainville in this related article on the power of giving thanks in the MBA Admissions process.
This includes circling back to thank your recommenders for their support at decision time, no matter the outcome. If you’re accepted to the MBA program of your dreams, they’ll want to celebrate with you, and if not, you’ll want to secure their continued support if you choose to reapply.
Updated January, 2023
Fortuna Admissions expert coach Karen Hamou is a Columbia Business School alumna and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.