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The Who, Why, What and How of the Business School Interview Process:  Part I, Who

This is part I of a four-part series about the business school interview process.

There is perhaps one position more privileged than that of being on an MBA program: being the person who interviews those applying to them.  If you’ve been reading the Inner Circle MBA blog you might remember from the previous entry, Admissions Committees, from the inside, that the cost of getting it wrong for an Admissions Committee is more than just looking a little silly.  Get it wrong once and you can adversely affect the culture of a whole intake.  Get it wrong consistently and the lustre of the entire brand is what suffers.  As such, you would expect some level of consistency in how interviews for MBA programs are conducted.  Often there isn’t.

Who will it be, now?

This lack of consistency begins with the very first step: who is conducting the interview.  Let’s get one thing out of the way straight off the bat.  It probably won’t be faculty.  Most business schools conduct entry and exit surveys for their programs – the entry survey largely to assess the recruitment and admissions process, the exit survey mostly revolving around the program and career service experience.  At London Business School we did the same and what surprised me was that in every intake there would be several candidates questioning why they weren’t interviewed by faculty.  In the interests of debunking this myth once and for all (at least for those of you reading), most top schools interview thousands of candidates a year across their programs, in locations all over the world.  Their faculty are generally occupied in ways that are not conducive to interviewing someone who might make it onto a program.  It just doesn’t happen.  So, with faculty out of the way, who is it that will be conducting your interview?  This is where the inconsistency begins.

Let’s cut to the chase.  Your MBA or Executive MBA interview will almost certainly be conducted by someone from one of two categories: the Admissions Committee, or the alumnus community.  There is usually some consistency in whether one category or the other is used exclusively throughout (Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan and IESE use the Admissions Committee model, while Chicago Booth, Stanford GSB, Columbia and Kellogg tend to use alumni), but not always.  Columbia Business School uses alumni for its full time MBA program but Admissions Committee members for its EMBA.  London Business School uses alumni for its full time program, but a mix of alumni and Admissions Committee for its EMBA interviews.  To confuse things further, some schools use group interviews and others use panels.  This means that if you apply to Wharton you’ll find yourself being interviewed together with other MBA aspirants at the same time, but if you are also applying to CEIBS then you would find yourself alone, but facing a panel of alumni, Admissions Committee members and faculty.

Woman in a virtual interview for an MBA program

Now throw format into the mix.  In the pre-COVID word you could be relatively sure you’d be in the same room as your interviewer.  If the pandemic taught Admissions Committees one thing it was that a lot of the onboarding process, including interviews, can be done virtually, so you still might find yourself being interviewed from the comfort of your own home.  You can be pretty sure of one thing though; unless someone’s internet connection drops you almost certainly won’t be doing this by phone.

What does this mean, for you?

Now that we know that different types of people hold your future in their hands, let’s see what that means for you in a practical sense.  It means quite a lot, really.  Again, consistency can’t be guaranteed, but generally if you are being interviewed by an Admissions Committee member they will have read your application, and if you are being interviewed by an alumnus they might not have.  When it comes to alumni it really does vary, and it depends on the culture of selection at that school and the level of training put in place.  At London Business School there is training to ensure consistency in approach which allows for a fairer, more comparative selection process.  At some other schools there is less structure to the interviews conduced by alumni which means that they can be pretty free-flowing and more conversational.  What does that mean?  It means that for some schools you had better come prepared with thoughts on all the question categories (experience, academics, career objectives, team skills, self-awareness, school knowledge, logistics, but more on that in the upcoming What article), whilst for others you need to be prepared to go anywhere the interviewer wants to.

But that needn’t be a problem.  As anyone who has taken media training can tell you, it often doesn’t matter what the interviewer wants to ask you.  What really matter is the story and the supporting points you want to get across to the interviewer.  And if you are a good interviewee, you’ll be able to do that, and probably without anyone even noticing.  If you have a compelling view of success, built on strong, supportive, evidence-based arguments, and standing on a solid values-based foundation, then you can use techniques like bridging to bring the line of questioning back to what you want to say.  But much more about that in the upcoming How article.  Suffice to say at this point that there is almost no consistency from school to school in who will be facing you across the interview table.  But if you bring consistency, in the form of your compelling message, well, who is facing you hardly makes a difference.  What makes a difference is you.

Find out more about how Inner Circle MBA can help you get your story straight. If you are interested in applying to an MBA program, we’ll help you get there.

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