This is part IV of a four-part series about the business school interview process.
So far in this series we’ve explored who might be interviewing you for a place on an MBA program, why they are interviewing you, and what the motivations are behind their questions. This final piece puts it all together as we discuss how you can put your best foot forward and really maximise your chances of being admitted. What follows, therefore, is a kind of hints and tips piece. The best possible advice on what you should do before, during, and after your MBA interview.
Let’s begin by refreshing your memory on what an MBA interview is. That differs, depending on the perspective. From a business school’s perspective the interview is two things: an opportunity to probe on key areas in your application, and an opportunity to assess fit. How this manifests itself will depend on who is interviewing you, but it helps to know what the goal is from the point of view of the interviewer before you step into the room. From your perspective, as interviewee, the MBA interview is also two things: an opportunity to address the interviewer’s concerns or gaps in your profile, and a platform from which you can define and clarify your vision, your personal brand, your values, and your value add to the program.
So how do you do this? First of all, you need to control what you can control, and prepare as best as you can for what you can’t. In an environment as ambiguous as the interview it might seem like far more is out of your control than within it, but if you take the time to break down the process you’ll find it’s the opposite. So let’s take a look at what you can control.
The reason you have been invited to an interview is because the school you have applied to wants to hear more about your story. What’s great about this is that your story is yours. This is your area of expertise, and you need to treat it like any other specialist would treat their subject area; with the confidence of an expert. Having gone through the MBA application process who you are will probably be pretty prominent in your thinking. You should take the time to form a narrative that supports your end goals, but also – and this is the really important bit – supports the school’s end goals too.
Your gaps and weaknesses
The missing bits are pretty scary, right? They’re where you’ll miss out on a place on your chosen program because others already have them? If you go in with that mindset, you’re probably right. But gaps or weaknesses are an opportunity to make a significant impact in the interview room. Addressing them thoughtfully, pointing out how they are an opportunity to grow, how they are linked to your objectives, and emphasising how you will be able to fill these gaps or improve the weaknesses when surrounded by others who already have these skills will position you as someone who is willing and able to learn from others. Authenticity and vulnerability is important to an interviewer as it shows self-awareness. Remember, everyone who does an MBA has gaps and weaknesses, otherwise they wouldn’t spend the money, time and effort involved to fill them. Come prepared to talk about not only what is on your resume, but also what’s missing.
Your story is about what you say. Your attitude is part of what you communicate to the interviewer non-verbally through the way you act and behave. A lot of this is actually verbal – what you say can peg you as being confident or anxious, warm or challenging, open to ideas or dismissive, trusting or cynical, dutiful or avoidant. But really what gives this away most is how you come across. It’s really important to know who you are so that you can address this and really tag it on to your personal brand, and a psychometric test is best for this. In the absence of a test, though, you should at the very least ask those who know you best where you stand on the big five personality traits – just make sure you ask people who really know you and who aren’t afraid to give straight answers.
Knowing everything you can about the school you are interviewing for is not just a courtesy; it is essential to your chances of creating a compelling link between who you are and where you are going, and how the school can help you with this. Doing your MBA is a huge investment. The tuition fees alone for top tier programs range between around $100K to over $200K, and when you add in other expenses and the opportunity cost of forgoing a salary for a year or two you could be approaching $500K. In no other realm would you be considering making such a substantial investment without doing substantial due diligence. Do the same with your MBA application. It’s important, and your level of engagement will show.
Your personal brand
This is where it all comes together, and where you show what value you add. Think of it in terms of corporate brands. Different brands appeal to different people. The same is true of your personal brand – how you act, what you say, how you position yourself is all taken in and interpreted by those you interact with. Think about the schools you have applied to, find out about their values and the kind of MBA students they usually recruit, and what their alumni stand for. Then ask yourself if they would be interested in engaging with a brand like yours. Just as importantly, you need to assess whether you want to engage with a brand like theirs. You are a student with a school for a year or two, but an alumnus for life. If you feel there is a fit then go for it, but make sure you polish up that brand to make sure it really resonates with your interviewer, and wind it in throughout your story.
So what don’t you have control over in this process? Really only a couple of things. They are important, but with the right tactics you can stamp a little control on these, too.
You can’t choose your family, and you can’t choose your MBA interviewer either. You won’t have any say in the process, really, other than to request a change if you happen to know him or her. What you generally will know, though, is who will be interviewing you. Use this information. Find out everything you can about your interviewer – LinkedIn is an obvious first step as is a general web search, but also see if anyone you know knows him or her. If they do, you’ve hit a treasure trove of potential information – get in touch with your contact and try to see what makes your interviewer tick. Then use the information you have to your advantage. At the very least you should try to see where your interests match so that you can create a little rapport early in the interview. If you have a lot of information then you might be lucky enough to know what they value, what their causes are, what keeps them motivated, and how they work best. If you know this, then you are far better able to predict the kind of questions they will ask, and how best to link them to your overall message.
You won’t get a copy of the questions you’ll be asked before your MBA interview. You probably won’t even get any sample questions (although some schools do provide these). It doesn’t really matter though, as there are a couple of tactics here, too, where you can reduce ambiguity. First, try to find out about the general interview style of the school you have applied to. Part of this will be big picture – does the school use Admissions Committee members for the interview, or alumni – and this will give you an idea as to whether the interview will be more likely competency based (Admissions Committee interviews) or more conversational (alumni). This was covered in more detail in my previous article on who will be conducting your interview. Also try to find out about what kind of questions have been asked of previous applicants recently. An internet search might give you a few, engaging with an admissions consultant will give you a lot more. And then there is the second tactic – getting absolute clarity on the message you want to put across, and learning how to bridge from the questions you are being asked to that overall message. As I said previously in the article on what you will be asked, it doesn’t really matter who is interviewing you as long as you bring it back around to your future and what that means for the school. They all want to hear about that.
There’s a lot more to interview skills, but this is a good framework to keep in mind. Put simply, you should go into every interview you have with a detailed knowledge of the school, and a good knowledge of your interviewer. You should go into the interview with a view of what success looks like way down the line, and an understanding of how the school will be able to help you achieve this. You should make sure that you know who you are from an outside perspective. You should have three or four pillars on which your view of success stands – these are the things that will help you get there, and then three or four examples which support these pillars. You should think about your values, and how these have made you who you are, and why they are the foundation of your success. And then you solidify all of this into your business school interview personal brand. Now that you’re prepared, you just have to do the interview. Turn up early. Dress professionally. Establish rapport early. Be humble. Be curious and engaged. Answer their questions with confidence and bridge them to the relevant pillars. Use examples. Make sure everything points to your main message – your view of success. When given the opportunity, ask insightful questions which are linked to what you found out in your research about the direction the school is going. Take an interest in your interviewer. Smile, be appreciative, be in the moment, enjoy it. You’ve just engaged with someone from the school of your dreams.
Oh, and send a thank you email after. People like that.
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.