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MBA Interview Prep: 3 Key Qualities of ‘Professional Presence’

There’s an awkward coaching moment that most of us hope to avoid when preparing our clients for the MBA interview.

As former senior admissions professionals at top-tier schools, my fellow MBA Admissions coaches and I are seasoned at navigating sensitive subjects while guiding candidates to convey their greatest potential as future business leaders. But anything in the realm of an individual’s appearance is tricky, as it’s fraught with potential for misunderstanding, hurt feelings, or even unconscious bias.

For example, we had a strong candidate whose untidy personal grooming was distracting, and my colleague—a former admissions director at an M7 school—worried it would be equally distracting to an interviewer. She fretted about how to open the conversation without putting him on the defensive. The concern wasn’t about fitting a type, we agreed, it was about something more. So what was it, precisely?

I since discovered this article in Columbia Business School’s Ideas and Insights dissecting the qualities of professional presence that affirmed my intuition with data. According to author Karen Gray, “Research shows that even with the right qualifications and skills, people often fall short of meeting their career aspirations—unless they also have presence.”

Gray qualifies ‘presence’ as an alchemy of three key ingredients, citing research from leadership expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett: gravitas, communication, and appearance. She writes, “Together, these elements form an impression of trustworthiness, competence, and authenticity.”

Frankly, conveying your ‘professional presence’ is the secret sauce of any great business school application. It’s what allows your best self to shine in the MBA interview.

How to embody the three key elements of presence for your MBA Interview

1. Gravitas

Think of gravitas as the quality of confidence without arrogance. It’s a combination of poise and self-awareness that allows you to deliver your ideas in a way that’s convincing, authentic and coherent. “Gravitas is signaling that you have the confidence and credibility to get your point across and create buy-in,” says Gray. That buy-in, in MBA application terms, is the admit.

2. Communication

This includes what you say, of course, but also how you say it. Closely connected to gravitas, communication includes your body language, attentiveness, and of course, how you choose your words and timing. The MBA interview is a relational experience, not a pitch meeting. Establishing that you are who you say you are on paper means staying alert and curious, maintaining eye contact, and asking thoughtful questions when given the opportunity.

3. Appearance

‘Appearance,’ Gray qualifies, represents how we present ourselves more than how we look, and the nuance matters. For the MBA interview, it’s not about subverting your sense of personal style, but knowing your audience and practicing situational awareness and discernment. My Fortuna colleague Karen Hamou says it best in her article, Dressing For The MBA Interview: “Dressing for the MBA interview is about being memorable for the right reasons. In the business school interview context, this means standing out for what you say versus what you wear.” (Karen, a fashion industry veteran as well as a Columbia Business School alum, advises that you save the bold fashion statement for welcome week, and I agree.)

“The interior life of a person and their external presence are deeply connected,” notes Gray. “When people pay more conscious attention to this connection and embody presence, they can expose their unique talent to the world in ways that will enhance their happiness and success.”

When I sense the elements of professional presence in harmony, that’s likeability at work. I want to admit candidates who are likable, genuine, and that I trust.

On the flip side, when someone presumes an unearned familiarity or addresses me as “hey”; presents themselves as a taker rather than a giver (to use Adam Grant’s terminology) i.e., their communication is one-sided; or who comes across as lacking or worse, over-confident angling toward entitled, I might not trust them or perceive them as competent.

Sometimes the most professional thing you can do—especially when you’re an MBA admissions coach—is to get personal. But next time anyone feels defensive, I’ll have this research at the ready.

Updated November, 2022

Brittany Maschal is an expert coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and a former member of admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton & Johns Hopkins. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation. 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

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