Last year’s MBA interview questions were notable for veering into tricky topics like the US election, politics, and social justice, all of are on the table again this year.
What can you expect for your MBA interview this season, and how should you prepare to respond with authenticity and professional presence?
First of all, your goal is to remain calm and focused, and pleasant to engage with. Some schools want to see if you can think on your feet, while others want to know how you react when you’re directly challenged. The HBS interview, for example, is notorious for having a “poker face” interviewer – and it can be unsettling when you can’t read someone’s reaction to validate whether your answers are resonating (or not). While you can’t know what your interviewer will ask, you won’t feel as flustered if you practice delivering concise, calm, and thoughtful responses to all manner of unexpected questions.
I spoke with several of my Fortuna Admissions colleagues about what they’re hearing from both schools and clients about interview topics this season, and how they’re preparing candidates. Below are their insights, followed by six top tips on “how to navigate this admissions minefield” (as one anxious client put it) and stand out for the right reasons.
Politics, pandemic response, Black Lives Matter? It’s all on the table.
“This is tough. Like at work, or on a first date – unless you’ve met on BankersForBiden.com or something – politics don’t have a place in MBA admissions interviews,” admits Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal, former member of Admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton & Johns Hopkins. Yet given the current moment, Brittany admits that it’s far better to be prepared than caught off guard.
“It is OK to have an opinion (if asked),” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, Stanford GSB alumna and former GSB interviewer. “At the end of the day, the schools are looking for leaders, and leaders have opinions.”
To Heidi’s point, ‘if asked” is key: by all means, don’t voluntarily veer the conversation into politics or other potentially tricky territories. Adds Fortuna’s Julia Brady, who previously served as managing director at Kellogg and senior associate dean at Booth: “In terms of politics, I would encourage candidates not to proactively bring it up unless it’s an important part of their story, such as a key volunteer role they play in a campaign. There are ways to discuss the political process without getting political, reflecting on the importance of inclusion and representation, for example.”
This is a great example of how topical subjects can serve as an opportunity for you to share your values and thoughtful perspective related to the topic of the day.
“I had a client who was asked about his thoughts on BLM in his Duke open interview last year,” says Fortuna’s Trisha Nussbaum, former tech-consultant and NYU Stern alumna. “While he was initially thrown off by the question, he said he felt prepared because a lot of his overall story is about diversity and inclusion. He responded by talking about how he thinks it shows that these issues are at the forefront and there is even more opportunity to have important conversations and continue his work towards promoting diversity and inclusion.” He was able to connect it to why he wanted an MBA, so it was the perfect segue.
This a great answer. Why? The candidate shows he’s seeing this topic as part of a bigger picture that has been important and relevant to business for a long time. Ultimately, it’s one good strategy to answer these kinds of questions – by thinking about your values and the overall values of the school that you will interview with.
“I think topics of diversity and inclusion are important for candidates to be prepared to discuss given how timely they are. And all manner of companies and institutions are showcasing their commitment to it,” adds Julia. “A candidate should reflect on how the visibility of the issue has spurred them to learn more, take perspective, develop greater empathy, etc. And for some for whom the matter is more personal, it can still be discussed professionally. Similar for matters of gender equity, as that’s also been in the news a lot with RBG’s passing.”
Below are six practical tips I’ve culled from conversations with the Fortuna team as you prepare for your MBA interview amid the US election and worldwide pandemic.
6 Tips for Responding to Tough MBA Interview Topics
1. Focus on the positive. On the topic of the recent US election, for example, focus on how more people were energized to participate in it, get out to vote, take a stand. No matter what happens, these are all positive elements to focus on if asked about “the election” broadly. Always keep it positive. But if needed…
2. Using “bridging” techniques to steer the conversation. Know how to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand: YOU and the school and why you should be there. Have 1-3 pre-prepared ways to bring politics back to business in the realm of your own goals. Identify related ‘political topic’ to pivot to if asked to speak to something that matters to you specifically. If you can, make it something no one can argue – therefore make it personal and related to your goals. In this way, you make it about you and not the politics of the issue itself.
3. Prepare for issues that affect international business. This is especially true for those whose career ambitions may be affected. “I have a Chinese client who works on technology commercialization (currently in Australia) who is interviewing soon with an M7 school. We are preparing for her to answer questions around China-US trade issues and policies and how she sees this affecting technology commercialization issues going forward,” says Heidi. Similarly, if you’ve worked on a political campaign or a specific social/environmental issue, be prepared to give thoughtful analysis or opinion on your areas of expertise, and how the political environment will shape the future of these issues.
4. Know what you stand for.
Whether the topic is how you’ve been affected by the pandemic or protests for racial justice, consider it an invitation to speak to your values, what you care about, and how recent and current circumstances motivate you to drive change in a way that serves a greater purpose. How does it shape your drive, your motivation, and your vision of the world?
5. Keep your audience in mind.
This is a business school admissions interview after all, and your words are directed to the admissions committee. You should be well versed in your schools’ values and commitments, and any current event or issue is a chance to exemplify the values or qualities they’re seeking in a community. How do your own stated values tie back to that of the school?
6. It’s okay to clarify your response.
If you give a bad answer and you know it, don’t lose confidence. Keep going, and at the end of the interview ask to clarify your response to the earlier question. This shows confidence and self-reflection, and most interviewers will let you do this. You might also weave in your clarification into an artful thank you email.
Remember that the purpose of the interview is to get a stronger sense of who you are and how you think, so your authenticity and presence is key. Your goal is to remain calm and focused, and pleasant to engage with. As I mentioned in my related article, 10 tough interview questions and how to respond, try to enjoy the challenge and keep your perspective. Your goal is to articulate clear and concise answers, and, more importantly, allow your authenticity, self-awareness, and character to shine.