Mission Admission: How to Handle “Tough” MBA Interviews

Mission Admission is a series of MBA admission tips; a new one is posted each Tuesday.

With MBA interview decisions continuing to arrive this time of year, we thought now would be an appropriate time to discuss challenging interview situations. Most business school interviews are straightforward opportunities for an interviewer to learn more about a candidate’s personal and professional backgrounds, goals, reasons for selecting a specific school and leadership/team experiences, yet interviews can vary dramatically from school to school and sometimes include a few peculiarities. So, what constitutes a “tough” interview, and how can you best navigate one?

Stoic interviewer: Some interviewers can be unemotional, refusing to give the candidate any indication as to whether he or she is making a positive impression or not. Of course, when an applicant is under intense pressure, this perceived lack of approval can be misunderstood as a sign of disapproval. The key in managing such an interview is to tune out the interviewer’s lack of emotion. Focus on your answers and do your best to not be distracted by anything about the interviewer, tuning out everything except the questions he or she is posing. “Reading” the interviewer in real time can be challenging, and you should instead concentrate on showcasing your strengths.

Philosophical questions: Most candidates are ready to discuss their experiences and accomplishments, but many are not prepared to discuss their values and philosophy on life. Harvard Business School in particular likes to understand applicants’ motivations and will ask questions like “What is your motivation to succeed?,”  “What drives you?” and “What gives you purpose in life?” The key to answering these sorts of questions is pretty simple: expect and prepare for them in advance (after all, you are being warned right now).  You cannot assume that all the questions you will receive during your interview will be experiential.

Persistent questioning: Sometimes a tough interviewer will continuously delve deeper into a subject, such as by repeatedly asking, “Can you be more specific about [the topic under discussion]?” after posing an initial question. These kinds of unusual pressure tactics can be disconcerting, but the key is to simply stay on topic. No matter how persistent, the interviewer is always essentially asking you about a subject that you know quite well—you! So, again, by avoiding the distraction of the tactic and sticking to your agenda, you should be fine.

mbaMission offers even more interview advice in our Interview Guide, as well as through targeted one-on-one mock interview sessions and group Wharton team-based discussion simulations, so check those out!

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