Let’s face it: interviews can be scary. For all other parts of your application, you control the pace, you have time to reflect and refine, and if you plan well, you can submit your package knowing that you did your absolute best to present yourself as a compelling, qualified, and interesting candidate.
But interviews are dynamic and unpredictable, and you’ll often get questions designed to either trip you up or force you to reveal how you think through a problem. Here are eight tips for acing your MBA interview.
- The kindergarten stuff. You’ve heard the old adage, “all I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten”? This applies to interviews. It’s sad that I have to emphasize this, but you’d be shocked at the number of times I have conducted academic or hiring interviews and people fail at basic acts of politeness and thus sink their applications. Be nice and polite to everyone (even people like secretaries who won’t be interviewing you), smile, shake everybody’s hand, avoid inappropriate topics, and afterward be sure to thank them for their time and send a short, polite, thank-you email or (preferably) short hand-written note.
If this all seems patently obvious to you, that’s fantastic. If not, here’s a cautionary tale. One of my first professional mentors was the company’s CEO, but he would work the front desk on interview day, and any candidate who was rude or condescending to him would get an awful surprise when they sat for the interview, he walked in, and asked his first question: “if you treat people like that, why should we hire you?” Your interview might not pull this particular trick… but trust me, I’ve seen many an *impressive* CV get tossed in the crash can or application get put at the bottom of the stack after an exasperated interviewer said of an impolite candidate, “man, that dude sucks.”
- Do your research. You can usually predict some -and probably most- of the questions that you’ll be asked. Know the school’s mission, strengths, values, best programs, and how you fit in with them. Have some particular examples ready to talk about. For instance, if a club or program aligns perfectly with something you’ve done in the past, be prepared to talk about that alignment and maybe some ideas that you have for ways you could contribute.
- But don’t memorize your answers. I will occasionally work with clients who want to memorize their answers to questions they anticipate. Don’t do this. First, unless you’re a trained and skilled actor, a memorized answer will come across as forced, canned, and limp. It also introduces unnecessary stress as you try to recall, word for word, your reply. I like to make outlines or sketches of answers, and if I do practice interviews, I’ll try different wordings, etc. This helps to keep things fresh, conversational, and natural.
- Answer the question you’re asked! One of the dangers of memorizing your answers is that sometimes you won’t quite get the question you anticipated, so you’ll try to shoehorn in a response to a question that wasn’t asked. Not answering a question can annoy an interviewer and you’ll come across as evasive, uncertain, or perhaps unknowledgeable about what they’ve asked you.
- Practice. If your school or company offers mock interviews, use them and, if possible, record yourself. If there is no set structure like that for you, you can find lists of common interview questions. Give them to a friend and have them ask you them, again making sure to record your responses. It can be cringe to watch or listen to yourself, but pay attention to both your content and your presentation. Are there things you feel like could say better? Details to add? Are you calm, relaxed, smiling with good posture? Do a self-critique and ask your loved ones to do the same, then repeat the process.
- Have questions. Almost every interview will end with some version of “do you have any questions for us?” A candidate who replies with, “nope, all good,” will come across as unprepared, uninterested, or otherwise uncompelling. If you do your research, you should be able to identify some areas of interest and / or concern that can serve as grounds for questions. Have 4-5 questions ready to go when asked.
- Stay positive. It's important to be honest during the interview, but avoid complaining or being overly negative. Focus on the positives and what you have learned from any challenges or setbacks.
- Being too casual. It's important to be yourself and show your personality, but remember that the MBA interview is a professional setting. Avoid using slang or being overly casual in your language and be sure to dress appropriately.
- Curate your Zoom box. As more / most interviews are moving online, take the time to clean and curate your background. I know that there are artificial filters that you can use, but I actually prefer to take 15 minutes, clean the space behind me, and think about what you want to show about yourself. Have one or two items that say something about your personality in the background, and take the time to think about what your aesthetic says about you. In the same way that you devote time to selecting a suit, blouse, tie, or eyeglasses, make sure that you curate your working space as well.
- Don’t humblebrag. You’ll often be asked for your biggest weakness or biggest failure. Resist the temptation to turn this into a thinly veiled success or strength. So, don’t talk about how “I care too much,” or “I work too hard.” That shows a lack of self-criticism. Everyone has real weaknesses. Find one that is a genuine weakness or misstep, BUT in your answer also talk about how you have or hope to address it. I used to have a real problem with deadlines, so I took a class on time management and use the pomodoro system. It will always be something that I struggle with, but I feel like I have a system in place to manage it.
BONUS: If you have a Zoom interview, and if there are no rules against it, tape some notecards above your camera where you put 3-4 questions that you’d like to ask, some main points you’d like to remember to hit at some point, and maybe even some affirmations like “smile,” “breathe,” or “relax,” to help you stay in a good place mentally during the interview. It’s also a good idea to write down your interviewers' names if you learn them beforehand. Calling people by their names in conversations helps to build rapport. If you prepare well for the interview, you probably won’t need them, but just having that safety net can make many people feel calmer.
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