Managing the MBA Interview: What If I Am Stumped?

With the release of first-round interview invitations and the subsequent increase in pressure on MBA candidates, we present a five-part series with our friends at Vault to help applicants decompress and thoughtfully manage the MBA interview process. In this third entry in the series, mbaMission founder Jeremy Shinewald explains what you should do if you find yourself “stumped” by a question your interviewer asks.

In our first entry in this series, we were very clear that admissions interviewers are not seeking to stump you.  Still, regardless of the interviewer’s approach, many business school applicants still worry that, during their interview, they may be asked a single challenging question which leaves them awkwardly silent and that such a moment will be the symbolic end to their candidacy at the target school.

Although such an experience would certainly be uncomfortable—and we suggest, of course, that you definitely do your best to prepare for your interview so as to avoid this kind of predicament—sometimes even well-prepared candidates can be “stumped,” and we can assure you that an awkward pause in an interview will not cancel out all the positive elements of your application. Still, being ready for such a situation, should one occur, is important, so we offer the following tips on how to mitigate an awkward moment:

  • 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, you might consider a pensive pause and take a moment to search for the story internally. You might 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. Many interviewers will offer you a glass of water at the beginning. Take the water and use it throughout the interview as a buffer to buy time or allow yourself to slow down. If you get stumped, the water can offer a brief opportunity to pause naturally, alleviating any awkwardness before you begin.
  • Maintain your poise. If you absolutely cannot answer a question, you should not get 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 it 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.

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