“What if I don’t know the answer to a question I’m asked?” This is probably the number one anxiety among business school candidates facing an admissions interview. Thankfully, however, it is largely an unnecessary one, because your interviewer will always be asking questions about a topic you actually know very well—you!—not questions that require applied knowledge or research. So, in an MBA interview, you will not need to know how to calculate a discounted cash flow or express your opinion about the U.S. interest rate policy. Instead, you must be able to reflect on and discuss your life experiences, why you want an MBA, the value you can add to your target program and how you expect to engage with it, and your reasons for wanting to attend the specific school at which you are interviewing.
When mbaMission spoke with Bruce DelMonico, the senior associate director of admissions at the Yale School of Management, he was clear that the program’s interviewers are not asked to create a stressful situation for candidates, explaining that the interview is instead a “fairly standard behavioral interview.” He added, “The purpose is not to trick you or throw curveballs but [to] really get a sense of the applicant.” Similarly, Kurt Ahlm, the associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told us, “Whether [conducted by] current students, alumni, or staff members, we approach interviews as a dialogue between two very interested parties who genuinely want to get to know each other.”
As you prepare for your interview, start by reviewing your entire application in depth, paying particular attention to the stories you presented in your essays. Be sure to reexamine your reasons for targeting the specific schools you have chosen and get comfortable speaking out loud about your short- and long-term goals and ambitions. In addition, take some time to think about the inflection points in your life and how and why you made the particular choices you did at those important times. Finally, consider instances when you have performed as an individual or a team player. In short, your goal in preparing for your interview is to be ready with anecdotes that highlight important aspects of your personality, capabilities, and experience and to be thereby equipped to engage in a thoughtful conversation with someone who is there to listen to and learn about you.
MBA interviews fall into two categories: blind and comprehensive. In a blind interview, your interviewer will not have read your file and will come to the meeting with very little information about you beyond, perhaps, what is listed in your résumé. As a result, you can expect to be asked primarily open-ended questions. For example, your interviewer may start with a fairly basic question like “Can you walk me through your resume?” or “Tell me about yourself—who are you?” As you answer this opening question, your interviewer may interject with a few questions along the way in response to certain topics as they arise. Or, he/she may just sit quietly and allow you to finish your response, then follow up with additional questions about why you feel you need to go to business school and why you have chosen this specific school. Later, your interviewer will likely ask you about your leadership and team experiences—both successes and failures—and may finish with questions about your personal interests and community activities. Blind interviews follow no real standard form. Your interviewer will pose the questions, but you can control a lot of the direction and tone of the interview by selecting the nature and content of your responses.
In a comprehensive interview, your interviewer will have read your entire application file and will already have questions in mind, most often ones that focus on how you make decisions or respond to certain situations. For example, a question for someone who was transferred for a promotion might be “What were the differences culturally between the Los Angeles office and the Boston office—and how did you adjust?” Or, alternatively, someone who gained an early promotion might be asked, “Why do you think ABC Consulting made the choice to promote you ahead of others?” Although you will not be able to control the agenda of a comprehensive interview as easily as you might that of a blind interview, you will probably end up feeling challenged but not as though you had been “grilled.” Your interviewer is not trying to poke holes in your stories or trip you up in any way, but rather to better understand your choices, motivations, and personality by probing into your experiences in more depth.
Regardless of the interviewer’s approach, many business school applicants still worry that they may be asked a single challenging question during the interview that will leave them awkwardly silent and that this moment will ultimately mark the end of their candidacy at the target school. We understand that such an experience would certainly be uncomfortable—and we suggest, of course, that you prepare as best you can to avoid this kind of predicament—but we can assure you that an uneasy pause in the middle of an interview is not enough to cancel out all the positive elements of your application. Still, we offer the following tips to help you mitigate any uncomfortable moments:
Resist the urge to launch into a story. Your instinct may be to just start speaking, hoping that you will find the right story as you progress. This is a high-risk strategy, because if it goes wrong, it can compound the problem. Instead, pause for a moment to form an appropriate response. You can even say, “That is a good question. I am going to have to think about it for a moment,” before answering.
Take a sip of water, if available. Many interviewers will offer candidates a glass of water at the beginning of the meeting. Take the water, if offered, and use it throughout the interview as a buffer to buy time or force yourself to slow down. If you get stumped, the water can offer a brief opportunity to pause naturally, alleviating any awkwardness before you begin speaking again.
Maintain your poise. If you absolutely cannot answer a question, do not become overly apologetic or grovel. Simply acknowledge that you are having trouble with the question and politely ask if you might come back to it at the end. This is not a best-case scenario, but it is certainly far better than rambling and apologizing. A confident approach during a tricky moment may even impress!
Forget about it. If you cannot answer a question, accept the fact and move on. If you spend the rest of the interview thinking about that moment, you will be distracted and struggle with any subsequent questions.
Many MBA candidates try to predict what their interviewer will ask them and memorize their interview responses in advance. Unsurprisingly, they later find themselves fumbling as they struggle to adapt their well-rehearsed answers to fit slightly different iterations of the questions they had expected—not a formula for a smooth, effective interview at all! Instead, we suggest that you compile a mental list of stories that you feel are important for you to share and then imagine different opportunities through which you might incorporate those stories into your interview. In other words, think about possible prompts to which you can “hook” the key points you hope to make. For example, if you spend one afternoon per week tutoring inmates to take the GED, you could include this story in your interview by adapting your response to different cues as follows:
Tell me about a time when you demonstrated initiative.
“I wanted to make a difference in my community but was looking for an opportunity to move beyond helping just high school students. So I researched where the biggest need was in my area and found a program that brings volunteers to prisons to tutor inmates who want to earn their GED…”
Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond.
“For the past few years, I have been engaged in some meaningful service—teaching GED prep in a local prison. I was surprised to find that inmates were only allowed to attend one hour of extra tutoring per week. Recognizing that my students needed additional help, I devoted extensive time and effort to developing a series of math and vocabulary flash cards for them to use between sessions…”
Tell me about a time when you had to motivate a reluctant person.
“I believe my best example occurred outside the office, as part of my volunteer work with inmates studying to take the GED. Although most of the inmates I tutor are very motivated, once in a while I work with someone who needs a little extra prodding. One inmate I worked with was not very willing to do the practice exercises, so I…”
We are not suggesting you respond to three different prompts with the same story, of course, merely illustrating how the same core story can be used for multiple types of questions. By identifying your key personal stories and examining them from several different angles before your interview, you can better ensure that you will find a way to share them during your interview.
mbaMission offers even more interview advice in our FREE Interview Primers, which are available for 17 top-ranked business schools.