How to prepare for b-school interviews

If you are invited to interview at one of your dream b-schools, congrats!  Not many candidates will get to this point, and the fact that you’re being invited indicates an already strong interest in you on behalf of the school.  Now it’s time to seal the deal.

Pre-interview

When I found out I had an interview at Yale SOM, I was first ecstatic, then panicked.  “What if I mess up?  What if I blank?  What if I seem like a much better applicant on paper than I do in person.”  These are all completely normal responses to have.  The key is to use that anxious energy positively in preparing for the interviews rather than negatively by crippling yourself with fear.

How to practice 

The first thing I did was scour the internet for the most common MBA interview questions.  Here are some of the obvious:

  • Tell us about yourself,
    • Keep this short, sweet, and on topic (no talk about family, hobbies, etc.)
    • Undergraduate major chosen and why
    • Career experience
    • Future goals and how the MBA will help you in achieving those goals
  • Why do you want to earn an MBA?
    • You must show why an MBA is necessary for achieving your desired career goals
  • Why are you interested in this school?
    • Do.  Your.  Research.  What makes this school different from others?  The class size?  International program?  Expertise in entrepreneurship?  How does that fit in with your career goals?  Why is this the perfect fit for you?
    • I tried to reach out to one student leader/correspondent and 2 club leaders from clubs I intended on joining once on campus per school.  This gave me more substance in answering and by naming the club leaders when responding, it was easy for me to show that I did my research and that I was especially interested in the school.
    • I also looked over each school’s course catalog and wrote down all of the courses I was interested in.  If a school offered an online sample class of one of its courses, I watched it.  This exposure made talking about the program that much easier because, to the slightest degree, I had experienced it.
  • What are your short- and long-term goals?
    • Again, why is an MBA necessary to achieve these?
  • Talk about your accomplishments as a leader (Usually asked in a behavioral question format).
    • More on the STAR method below
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
    • Back up strengths with mini-examples (don’t take away from your behavioral question responses too much).
    • Never ever ever use a positive for a weakness (e.g. “I’m a perfectionist,” “I’m overly organized,” etc.).  It’s passively braggadocious and not what the ad-com is looking for.
  • Do you have any questions for us about the program?
    • You must.  Ask questions (I shot for 4 per interview) that cannot be answered via an easy internet search.  Ask probing questions.
    • Some examples of questions I asked are:
      • What, in your opinion, is the best aspect of the ABC MBA program?
      • What have you observed to be the biggest difficulty in earning an MBA? What do people do to mitigate this?
      • What is it like living in city X?
      • If you had to sum up the ABC school culture in one word, what would it be?
      • Why did you choose to become involved with the ABC program?

I popped these interview questions into Quizlet.com (you may recall this strategy from my Landing Big Name Internships post), along with specific questions that the schools I was applying to were known to ask.  I turned the Quizlet flashcard audio on, put the cards on shuffle (so I would get used to answering questions randomly rather than in a set order), and then clicked the view next card button.  I set myself up in an office chair facing a mirror so I could practice making eye contact with myself while answering the questions (strange, but effective).  Also, I found it advantageous to not look at my laptop at all while practicing in order to get myself used to only hearing the questions and not reading them, too.

Since, at most schools, you get to schedule your interviews yourself, try to space them out as much as possible.  The reason for this is it allows you to “get in the zone” completely for one interview at a time.  If you had all your interviews back-to-back-to-back, you might slip up and name drop someone you had correspondence with, talk about a club you liked, or mention a course you were interested in… FROM THE WRONG SCHOOL.  The good news is that once you’ve prepared for one school, a lot of your answers will stay the same (career goals, why you’re pursuing an MBA, strengths/weaknesses, etc.).  You’ll just need to adjust your more specific answers about the school itself.

One last tip about practicing:  try to practice naturally.  What does that mean?  Don’t work off of a script of any sort.  If you approach your interviews with a script in mind and somehow fall off of that script mid-interview, you’ll panic.  Not only that, but even if you nail it verbatim, you’ll probably sound too rehearsed.  Rather, have a set of ideas that you want to touch on.  Don’t focus on the exact phrasing; let the wording come naturally based on those ideas.

Pre-interview

In some cases, you will be offered the choice between an in-person interview or a Skype interview.  Unless there is some extreme circumstance barring you from being able to swing it, choose the in-person option.  It shows a certain dedication and commitment to the school that settling for a Skype interview does not, especially if you have to travel a far distance.  In fact, if you are rather close in location to the campus, it may reflect poorly on you if you opt to do a Skype interview rather than make the commute.  I’m not saying people who choose the Skype option don’t get in, because they obviously do.  It’s especially understandable if you’re from another country (or continent). However, if it’s possible for you to do the in-person, do it.

Tips for a Skype interview

Sometimes circumstances prevent you from attending in person.  For me, it was a snowstorm that hit my city and left it with seven feet of snow.  Trapped in my apartment, I had to switch gears and request a Skype interview for my Yale interview.

One thing to realize about Skype interviews is that notes aren’t “against the rules.”  You can have your resume next to you or a few key examples that you’d like to touch on.  However, you cannot blatantly read these notes, you should only glance at them if you get stuck.  I have even heard of applicants writing things they want to touch on on a white board behind their laptop.  If you choose to use notes, you need to practice discreetly referencing them.  Film yourself with your webcam and practice glancing at your notes if you were to get stuck.  If you can’t do it without looking like you’re reading right from the notes, then just don’t do it.  If you can, though, then maybe have a few things jotted down just in case.  From my experience, the people who do this end up not even looking at the notes, but they are a confidence-boosting safety net.  

Additionally, even though it’s a Skype interview, you should still dress professionally, and do so all the way down despite the fact that only your torso is showing.  Being professionally dressed down to the shoes puts you in the professional mindset, something that rocking pajama pants and slippers with your suit coat might not do (no matter how comfortable).

Lastly, and I’ve already touched on this, practice by filming yourself answering questions speaking into the webcam.  You need to see if you’re doing right.  Are you fidgeting or swiveling in your chair?  Stop it.  Are you looking directly into the webcam to simulate eye contact?  It’s pretty unnatural, but you can get good at it through practice.  Are you smiling?  You should be!  Practicing in the element of the interview will make it feel much more natural once the time comes and I cannot recommend it enough.

Tips for the in-person interview

Obviously, if the interview is in person, you’ll want to wear business professional.  Make sure your clothes are ironed and you look well-groomed.  I went as far as wearing a tie of the school’s color in a attempt to “subliminally” hint that I’d fit in well with the school.  Did that work at all?  Probably not, but it made me feel better.  If you want to freshen your breath, opt for mints and not gum (no chomping). 

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the location.  Being late might be a fatal blow to your application.

When you first interact with your interviewer, stand up to greet them if you aren’t already standing.  Give them a firm (though, not hand-crushing) handshake, look them in the eyes, and smile.  First impressions aren’t everything but they’re definitely something.

When you’re first starting the interview, try to get a feel for your interviewer and respond accordingly.  If they’re more serious, be more professional.  If they’re joking around, be more friendly.  This is especially true of the Stanford interview, which is conducted by alumni all around the country and can vary greatly from interview to interview.  Personal bias shouldn’t play a role in interviews, but it does.  A slight shadowing of your interviewer helps.  People like people who are like them.   

In either case…

  • SMILE!  Be friendly, be enthusiastic, and let your excitement for the school show through.
  • Have five or so “power stories” ready.  These are substantial stories that show different aspects of your personality (e.g. a leadership example, a teamwork example, etc.).  However, make sure to be flexible with your usage of the stories.  Don’t think that you can only use your leadership example if you hear “leadership,” as “time you took control of a situation,” “time you were in charge of others,” etc. should also bring your leadership example(s) to mind.
  • Don’t panic if you lose your train of thought or can’t think of a response immediately.  During my Cornell interview, I had a pause of around 7 solid seconds where I just thought through my response.  While this might be unnatural at first, it’s a much better alternative than jumping right in and regretting your choice.
  • Answer the questions, but be concise.  Don’t ramble.  Use the STAR method when responding to behavioral interview questions.
  • The night before interview, relax!  Don’t try to go to bed earlier than normal.  The nervous energy will keep you awake and then the whole “I’m not falling asleep…oh god I’m going to mess up my interview now” thing might kick in and REALLY keep you up.
  • On the day of interview, do everything that you would normally do.  Eat your normal breakfast and workout if you typically do.  Act as if it’s just another day.  This will help keep you relaxed.  Right before the interview, turn your phone off, cut out distractions, and just calmly focus on the task in front of you.

I’ll leave you with something that I read while I was freaking out over one of my upcoming interviews.  It was from Stanford GSB, and went something like, “Don’t view this interview as a make-or-break or a final hurdle that you have to leap over.  View it as a chance to tell us more about yourself and learn about us, as well.”  That’s what the interview is.  The school already likes you, just help them confirm what the application can’t show, that you’re confident, friendly, and excited to attend their school.

Be on the lookout for upcoming posts about my personal interviews with Stanford, Yale, and Cornell, including the difficulty, format, types of questions I was asked, and a review of the overall experience! 

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