MBA Interviews: Prepare for Battle

by on April 30th, 2010

SoldiersNearly every interview, whether it’s a job interview or a school admissions interview, has the following (loose) tripartite structure:

Step 1. Someone says, “Hi, you must be [NAME]. Thanks for coming in today.”

Step 2. (Some stuff is discussed.)

Step 3. Someone says, “Well, thanks for coming in. We’ll definitely let you know.”

Step 2 is generally what people are most interested in, and rightfully so. Accordingly, I tracked down several folks who have been accepted to some top business schools (Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia), and asked them about their personal experiences during Step 2.

Do your homework

Many interviewers will leave a few minutes at the end to see if you have any questions. This is not a casual invitation. It is a measurable gauge of how enthusiastic you are about attending this particular school. A response of “No, I don’t really have any questions” or “Yeah, I got a question – where’s the bathroom?” will not be received favorably.

Additionally, do some research about the person interviewing you. Is she an admissions officer? Is he an unaffiliated alumnus of the school? Does she work for a company that is of interest to you? Erring on the side of being prepared (while not revealing so much data as to come off as a cyber-stalker, of course) is a good thing.

Everything is fair game

Beyond mentioning the formalities (showing up on time, dressing appropriately, knowing how to shake hands, and the all-important “etc.”), everyone noted that you should be prepared to “defend” literally everything that you mention on your resume.

“[Interviewers] can smell bull**** a mile away,” one of the interviewees said. “So don’t have any for them to smell.”

One applicant listed hiking under his personal interests, and he was caught off guard when an interviewer grilled him on where he likes to hike, the names of his favorite trails, why he goes hiking, etc. If it’s important enough for you to list, then you shouldn’t be a charlatan. If the school senses that you’re inflating yourself a bit too much, they may ask you to, ahem, take a hike.

Your Interviewer is pretty smart too

Another interviewee shared a similar story, in which he mentioned that he was currently reading a certain novel because he enjoys postmodern literature. The interviewer proceeded to ask him about Pynchon and DeLillo, which authors write similar books, which ones he likes and doesn’t like, and why. The lesson: don’t fall prey to the mistaken belief that a line on your resume is so esoteric that no interviewer would dare tread into that territory.

Identify your vulnerable spots

Did you get a C in a statistics class? Did you leave a job after three months? Did you amass $4,000 in unpaid parking tickets?

“Note any weaknesses in your application and know how you will respond when the interviewer asks you about them,” one gent told me, “because he/she will ask.”

Get down to business

Treat the interview like it is a sales pitch, applicants have said. The only difference is that you’re not selling a product; you’re selling yourself.

If you were selling a new type of vacuum cleaner, you wouldn’t spend ten minutes discussing how it can clean a floor. Vacuums already do that. Instead, you would focus on the fact that your vacuum is quieter or more efficient or able to run on children’s laughter. Ask yourself: what are the two or three elements in your product (you) that would make a customer (MBA program) want to buy (admit you)?

Cite your sources

One question that several folks said they were not expecting was “Where do you get your news?”  There’s clearly no right or wrong answer to this question, but it’s not a bad idea to have something intelligent to say. Current events could easily come up in your interview. You don’t want the interviewer to mention some huge merger, while you haven’t even heard of the parties involved.


  • great one! hope u guys would supply more...going 2 steps back...what about recommendation letters and essays?

    • You've given me a great idea for a future post, Angie! Will do! In the mean time, I would encourage you to get your recommendations from people who know you and trust you. Occasionally, people try to get the most famous industry leader they can access. Unless you worked closely with that person, you do run the risk of having that famous person writing essentially a form letter to the effect of "Business Candidate X really is a swell human being, because of all that, uh, work and stuff that he or she did for and/or with me..."

  • I had an experience where an interviewer asked me where i got my news from. I have to admitt it through me off. He asked me to give him an overview of the macroenvironment of business in the last 6 months. I wasnt really prepared for that question, so i feel i didnt answer it well. Now i expect to be asked that question from every interviewer and i have bcome more prepared.

    • Great call, Marc. It's not something that you'd necessarily think would come up, but your news aggregation practice really does say something about you. Are you "just gimme the headlines" Drudge Report fiend? Do you peruse the farthest left and farthest right blogs you can find to see if they cancel out in your brain? Whatever it is, be proud of it, but as I said in the article, definitely be prepared to defend it!!

  • Very nice tips. I think making an interview more like a discussion helps to make it smooth !

    • Absolutely, keep things smooth. However, I would warn against letting yourself be too informal. Discussion is great; chit chat is not.

  • if one of the students at the university of my choice has offered to help me with my application, should I warn him that he might be the one to interview me and thuse should refuse his help?

    I am applying at stanford and i am offered the help...what shall i do?

    • Well, I can't speak for every program in the world, but I imagine that most would consider it a conflict of interest to have you be interviewed by your friend. I think asking a friend, if s/he is willing, for application advice is a great thing to do, and a great way to learn some subjective specifics about student life, something that does not necessarily show up in published guide of business schools.

  • *thus

  • oh, he is not my friend...he is a student i met at an information session of Stanford's and we talked on the phone and he offered to help...he doesn't know for sure if he will be interviewing me...but should i bring this up to his attention or just consider it a God-given chance to receive direct help and hope that someone else would interview me?

  • Hi David, I wanted to know what should you mention or talk about when the interviewer ask you to run him through your resume? Is there anything to watch for?

    • Hey Kunal. I maintain that you should really target your top two or three characteristics as you walk through your resume to give a strong and consistent narrative of who you are. It's the same when you apply for a job.

      Let's say you're applying to be a math teacher, but you have a line on your resume that you worked as a stand-up comic. (This actually happened to me.) You truthfully bend the resume line to suit the purposes of the current interview, i.e. "My experience as a comic demonstrates my ability to speak fluidly in front of a room filled with people, and quickly come up with intelligent things to say on the spot." Point to anything on my resume, and I can tell you exactly why it makes me a better math teacher, even if the two do not seem to be directly connected.

      Make sure you have something to intelligent to say about each line on your resume regarding how it has shaped you into the fantastic B-school applicant that you are!

  • leuk chatten

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