Learn how to impress MBA admissions committees during interviews and get into your dream program
If you’ve been invited to interview with a business school, you’ve made it really far. Congrats!
In MBA applicant pools, only about 20-40% of applicants (depending on the school) will be invited to interview before the programs make their official acceptance decisions. An interview invite tells you that you’ve presented strong work in your application thus far, and now all that stands in the way of gaining access to the ivory halls of your top-choice program is this single, important interview.
While every program’s interview works differently, there are some common approaches you can take to prepare yourself to make a strong impression on your interviewer. Below, we’ll delve into some “best practices” for the MBA interview and explain what you can expect before taking your seat at the interview table.
MBA Interview Format
Since different programs use different interview formats, there is no one size fits all preparation strategy. For example, Stanford typically uses hour-long blind interviews, meaning your interviewer will not have read your essays and will only have reviewed your resume prior to your interview.
Other programs, like the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), invite you to participate in team-based interviews in which you work in small groups to solve case studies and are watched by interviewers to see how you collaborate and solve problems within teams.
Just as there’s no uniform style of interview across programs, there’s also no way to know who will be interviewing you. Depending on your location, the program’s preferences, and the luck of the draw, you could be interviewed by an admissions committee member, a recent graduate of the program, a not-so-recent alumna of the program, or even a current student.
Ultimately, you don’t have a say in who’s across the table from you, so take a deep breath and focus on the only thing within your control: your own preparedness.
What MBA Interviewers Look For
It’s important to remember that the fact you received an invitation to interview in the first place means someone liked your application. You’re off to a great start.
In many ways, the MBA interview is the best test case for the admissions committees to see how you’ll perform in the business world in the future. Very rarely do you get the chance, in a business setting, to write a thousand-word essay communicating your views. More often, deals are done in person, and how you handle yourself and control the narrative under pressure is an excellent testament to how you’ll succeed as a business leader during your MBA and beyond.
MBA admissions committees are looking for the next big player in tomorrow’s business landscape. They want to admit applicants who they believe can make a big impact on the world through business. They aren’t fortune tellers, so they can’t actually know who’s going to be the next Steve Jobs and who isn’t, but there are three main metrics they gauge in these interviews in order to best place their bets: passion, authenticity, and impact.
The number one metric any MBA interviewer is looking for is passion. MBA programs want to accept applicants who really care about something. If you received an interview invitation, you probably did an excellent job communicating your passion for solving a particular problem in your career goals essay.
Now, you won’t have the written page to hide behind. Be ready to genuinely discuss your passion with conviction and expertise. Why do you care? Why does this goal matter to you personally?
The interview is the admissions committee’s opportunity to get a better idea of who really cares about making a difference in the world, so be sure to know your career goals essay inside and out and prepare multiple talking points around your area of interest.
From your application, the admissions committee has formed an idea about who you are based on how you’ve presented yourself. The baseline goal for the interview, from the interviewer’s side of the table, is to make sure who you are is the same as how you appeared on the page, and how you appeared on the page is likely as a leader in business (or else you wouldn’t have been invited for the interview).
To make sure you actually have the leadership potential they believe you do, they’re going to rely heavily on what you’ve written on your MBA resume to gauge how authentic you’ve been in your application. Expect your resume to be the launching pad for your interview.
The resume is the what of your past accomplishments. During the interview, they’ll want to delve into why you made the choices you made that led you to your resume’s listed accomplishments. They’ll dig deep into the problems you overcame to reach each bullet point’s achievement, so be sure to know your resume entries by heart and, before your interview, try to prepare an explanation for each item you listed in the document.
Note that your interviewers have a keen eye for spotting exaggerations and will want you to be able to prove your quantified claims–if you said you increased revenue by 10% through a particular innovation, be prepared to talk about how that innovation actually worked, the systems in place before your innovation, the hurdles you had to jump over to execute your vision, and the nitty gritty numbers associated with your results.
Resist the urge to refer to your resume during the interview. The interviewer will be referring to the document–you shouldn’t need to.
Finally, beyond passion and leadership authenticity, your interviewer wants to see how you’ll contribute to campus life over the course of your MBA. They’re looking for high-impact individuals who are a good “fit” for their program, and they’ll want to get a feel for how you’re going to add to the program’s curricular and extracurricular offerings while there.
In your career goals essay or other essays, you likely discussed the question of “why this school.” Your interviewer may ask you about what activities and courses you plan to take advantage of if admitted, so take some time ahead of your interview to further familiarize yourself with the program’s offerings and be prepared to demonstrate how you’ll make the most of campus life.
Lean on the past experiences listed on your resume and the expertise and business skills you’ve already gained from past leadership positions in order to focus your campus involvement toward how you’ll contribute to your peers as you take part in classroom activities and extracurricular clubs and organizations.
How will your being on campus make the campus a better place than it would be if they admitted someone else? How can you contribute in some unique way?
Now that you have an idea of what the interviewer is looking for, let’s take a look at some strategies for preparing yourself to deliver on those objectives.
Preparation for the MBA Interview
The obvious advice of “be yourself” only goes so far, and though it’s likely the most apt advice we can give, it isn’t so useful for someone who’s stressed out about wanting to prepare for an important interview.
You’ll be nervous, and reasonably so, but you’ve likely had a great deal of experience arguing business ideas in board meetings and client meetings throughout your professional past. Instead of thinking of this as a personal interview, try reframing it as just another business meeting through which you’re trying to sell an idea.
The MBA interview is a sales pitch and you are the product.
Because interview types are so varied, in order to best prepare to sell yourself no matter the interview format, follow these universal steps before stepping into your interview:
Identify your core traits
Think of yourself as a product. What are the five core traits that you possess that make you a great business leader? Are you an innovative thinker? Are you particularly collaborative? Are you a big-picture strategist? Do you shine under pressure? Are you analytical?
Whatever traits make you into a good leader, list them in concrete terms. These are the building blocks for the sales pitch you’ll give in the interview.
Craft a compelling story
Now that you know the focal points of your sales pitch, it’s time to craft an argument in support of those traits.
Just as in your career goals essay, a good argument requires evidence. If you want to argue that you are a team player above, come up with a story or two from your professional past that shows how you collaborated with a team to accomplish a result.
The story should work as any strong narrative would–there was a problem affecting you and your team, you employed your leadership trait (in this case, collaboration) in a specific way to overcome the obstacles in your way in order to solve that problem, and your solution resulted in a measurable impact.
The best stories will not only argue that you possess a particular leadership trait, but they will also tie back into accomplishments listed on your resume. When thinking up stories to support your traits, refer back to your resume for achievements you made by utilizing that trait and build your stories from there. In this way, your application will seem tied together and sound, and you’ll be putting your best foot forward for an interviewer who’s looking for authenticity.
For each leadership trait you hope to argue above, write out or talk through a story that stands as evidence for your possessing that trait. Know these stories inside and out so that you can sound conversational while working them into questions an interviewer may ask and be ready for follow-up questions about why you made certain decisions in the story and the particulars or those decisions’ executions and results.
Most interview questions will be quite general. “Tell me about yourself,” “walk me through your resume,” “your greatest professional accomplishment,” “a professional failure” – all of these questions, though general, provide excellent opportunities for you to argue an above leadership trait using anecdotal evidence.
Remember what you’re trying to sell (your leadership traits) and use these general questions to impart upon your interviewer your top selling points.
Write out your own questions
It’s likely that you won’t be able to naturally argue all your top leadership traits through your answers to the interviewer’s questions. Don’t worry, because at the end of the interview you’ll get the chance to ask your own questions, and this part of the interview is an excellent opportunity to subtly highlight any leftover leadership traits you haven’t gotten the opportunity to address.
Maybe you got to talk about your collaborative nature in response to an interviewer’s prompt, but you didn’t get to delve into your innovative spirit. If, in this example, innovation is a top selling point for your leadership potential, you’ll certainly want the interviewer to know that about you.
Before your interview, think of ways you can work the theme of innovation into a particular question about the program. Does the program have an innovation lab or a start-up incubator? Are there ways you hope to utilize innovation on campus? Think about how your trait applies to the program for which you’re interviewing and design a question for your interviewer that at once provides evidence that you possess this trait while also conveying that you’ve done your homework about the program.
For example, keeping with innovation as our leadership trait of choice, you could prepare a question like this: “One of my most meaningful professional experiences involved innovating a new product for the Widget Company in order to diversify our market penetration. The experience meant a lot to me, as a future international business leader, because I wanted to be sure Widgets reached more countries worldwide and I’m hoping to continue this kind of innovative thinking at HBS. Can you tell me about the “Harvard Thinks Big” incubation lab and how first-year MBA students can get involved?”
Our example here is admittedly a little clunky, but the idea stands–if there are leadership traits crucial to your sales pitch that you haven’t been able to work into your previous answers, it’s possible to work them into your questions.
While preparing for your interview, take each leadership trait you wrote down above and design a question arguing for that trait. The more tailored you can make your question to the specific program for which you’re interviewing, the more impact the question will have.
What surprise questions can you expect?
Though the vast majority of MBA questions will be general, giving you the opportunity to mold the interview into the kind of sales pitch you need it to be, you might be thrown a one-off surprise question.
Some programs, like Wharton, have been known to toss in a probability question to test your math skills. We don’t suggest devoting much time to practicing for these kinds of questions. First off, they’re quite rare. But even more importantly, the interviewer isn’t necessarily looking for a correct answer. Sure, if you ace the probability question, that’s nice, but what’s absolutely crucial is how you handle the curveball that’s been thrown to you.
Remember that if you get a strange question, it’s probably a test to see how you handle yourself under pressure. Even if you get the probability answer wrong, the interviewer will remember how you approached the question and how you handled getting it wrong–were you personable, gracious, or even humorous about it? Or did you shut down and go cold? The interview is all about seeing your potential for future leadership, and future leaders will make mistakes. What will separate you from the pack is handling your error with grace.
A quick Google search into MBA interviews will result in dozens of lists of “most common MBA interview questions,” and you might think it’s important to try to prepare an answer for every possible question you could be asked.
We advise against this kind of preparation.
Instead, focus on the sales pitch. Focus on the message you’re trying to communicate–what kind of leader are you? If you know the core traits you want to argue in your interview, and you have experiential evidence (stories) to convincingly argue that you possess those traits, you’ll very likely be able to sculpt your responses in such a way as to leave the interviewer with a solid understanding of what kind of a leader you are.
And that’s the ultimate goal–show them who you are and what drives you. Demonstrate passion, prove that you’ve been authentic in your application, convey knowledge of that particular program’s offerings, and stick to the message that you possess unique and well-honed leadership traits. Accomplish that, and you’ll nail the MBA interview.