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Acing The MBA Interview: A Comprehensive Guide

January 02, 2024 :: Admissionado Team

mba interview

Is the MBA interview really that important?

Yes it is! Interviews are the final piece of the puzzle. The admissions committee has all the numbers, the accolades, the resume, and the recommendations, but what they don’t yet have an up-close-and-personal understanding of YOU. The interview is your opportunity to convince the adcoms that all the information that you provided on paper is in sync with the person sitting in front of them.

First off, remember that universities have different interview protocols, so it’s important to find out how your specific interview will be conducted: Will it be a series of questions and answers or will it be open ended (i.e. “tell us about yourself”)? How long is the interview? Do you have 30 minutes or an hour? What is the focus of the interview? How much should you know about the school? (We can actually answer that one right here right now: A LOT.) Just do your research and be prepared for anything!

The interview is NOT a test

Doing an MBA Interview may not always be easy, and sometimes it can even be a bit stressful, but it’s good to keep one thing in mind – it’s not a test. No alumni or adcom is there to interrogate you, and nobody is trying to trip you up. There are no trick questions. On the contrary, the people you interview with WANT you to succeed. They want you to be as unique, awesome, and interesting as you are in your application – that’s why they went through the effort of setting up your interview in the first place. So keep cool! Your interviewer is excited to hear how perfect you are for their school.

Alumni Interviews vs. Adcom Interviews

There are essentially two groups of people you could potentially interview with – alumni or members of the adcom. Although the essential content of the interviews tends to be very similar, there are some fundamental differences between the two:

  1. Alumni interviews are most often blind (they haven’t read anything other than your resume), whereas adcom interviews are not. That means that the adcom members will already have a more profound understanding of who you are and what you have done, and as such the interview can get deep very quickly. An alumni interviewer will be more curious to discover who you are, personally as much as professionally, and may spend more time on the basics of your profile.
  2. In alumni interviews you will want to find out as much about the person as possible. You can talk to them about their lives, their experiences, etc. – part of the idea is for you to learn more about the school. These conversations can be fascinating in and of themselves, especially with alumni from elite schools like Harvard, Wharton or Columbia who have gone on to do amazing things in their fields. Adcom members, on the other hand, are there more as ‘official’ representatives of the school, so you likely won’t get as personal with them.
  3. The adcom interview carries a bit more weight. They aren’t evaluating a report of your interview, but conducting it directly. A good adcom interview can really seal the deal!

Basic Interview Strategies

The purpose of the interview is to find out who you are. Of course you want the interviewer to come away from the meeting feeling that you are an amazing candidate – but you can’t just go ahead and tell them “Hey! I’m an amazing candidate. Trust me!” You’ve got to PROVE it to them. So how can you do that?

Impress them with Your “Greatest Hits”

As a candidate, you likely have only three or four stories that truly stand out from the applicant pool, and those are the ones you want to make sure the interviewer hears. They are your “greatest hits.” Since most interviewers are alumni who have NOT read your work, your interview is your only chance to impress them with those “greatest hits.” So do it, and don’t let the interview get bogged down on less important stuff!

Even adcom interviewers familiar with your essays have read THOUSANDS of others, so go ahead and remind them about yours. And while you’re at it, blow them away. Do not be bashful about repeating the stories in your essays – the idea is to build off that admissions argument, not create an entirely new strategy in the interview. Be nice and clear, just as you were in your application.

Give the interviewer access to your stories

Time is limited, so you won’t be able to get into long spiels about your entire life story. At the same time, you do want to make sure that you aren’t missing anything significant. A good strategy for this is to at least give a hint of all of your major stories, activities and characteristics near the start.

Remember, an interview is a dialogue! And by giving the interviewer access to all of your stories, you allow them to talk about what interests them most: “Whoa, you’re a Star Wars Fan too? I named my baby boy ‘Luke’. What?! You too! No way!” This example may sound silly, but we’re paraphrasing from a real-life, successful Harvard MBA interview!

Luke Skywalker

What makes a great MBA interview?

Interviewers talk to applicants for many hours each day during interview season, so what are they looking for in an applicant? Someone who grabs their attention, who captivates their interest and, truthfully, keeps them from drifting off into thoughts of what they have to do when they get home that day. Walk in with confidence and a purpose, appreciative of the opportunity to interview at the school of your dreams. Show some energy, life, passion and enthusiasm!

You have a very short amount of time (seconds, really) to “hook” your interviewer, so put some time into thinking about what you want to say. What are the main things they need to know about you? Your interviewer doesn’t want everyone to be the same or perfect—they just want you to be articulately authentic, poised and able to weave together a cogent story.

The most common MBA interview questions

Sure, interviews can always have surprise twists and turns (more about that later), but for the most part MBA interviewers are all interested in the same things. It’s a bit of a no-brainer – they want to know about your work experience, why you want to do an MBA, why you fit the school, etc. So without further ado, here is our quick list of most common MBA interview questions:

  • Walk me through your resume.
  • Why are you pursuing an MBA?
  • Why are you pursuing the MBA now?
  • Why at our school?
  • What are your short- and long-term career goals?
  • What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
  • What is your single greatest achievement?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

> Recommend Reading: The “Why MBA?” Series

Tips for when you’re asked to “walk me through your resume…”

  1. It’s all about your GOALS – There is ONE single reason you are going to B-School and ONE alone. It is so that you can reach your professional goals, whatever they are. So when you go through your resume, you should think not just about shooting off a list of great achievements, but also about how you can link everything together to weave a story that will lead you closer and closer to your goals. The closer you link your career past with your career future, the more realistic your goals will sound. This applies even to career switchers. Okay, you want to go to Wharton so you can move from IT to Education? Cool! Now, in the Wharton MBA interview, show how IT will be relevant in your new field.
  2. Show them you are a “shooting star” – Other than getting out your greatest hits, the most important thing when laying out your career history is to show how, from job to job and from company to company, you have been moving constantly and speedily UPWARDS. Schools like to see candidates with quick ad high upward mobility – they consider it a sign of future potential.

How long should your answers be for normal MBA interview questions?

When it comes to everyone’s favorite, “Walk me through your interview,” you shouldn’t spend more than 4 minutes total. You should practice that with a stopwatch. You don’t want to spend the entire interview rehashing a resume the interviewer has probably already seen.

And for all the others… 2-3 minutes. MAX!

You don’t want to bore the person interviewing you. A good interview is a conversation. It’s relaxed. Informal. It feels less like a back and forth Q&A and more like two people hanging out, talking.

Much like your essays, the best stories and answers are concise. Use your words wisely and, well, say the most stuff in the least amount of words. Make your interviewer laugh. That’s always a good sign! And ask questions. Get them talking about themselves. MBAs LOVE talking about themselves. Why just the other day I was talking to this MBA and the funniest thing happened to me…

>>> Recommended Reading: How To Connect With Your B-School Interviewer (During The Interview)

Questions to ask during an MBA interview

The adcom interviewer

Quite honestly, one of an interviewer’s most annoying pet peeves is applicants walking into an interview unprepared. The adcom, in particular, expects you to come in having done extensive research into all facets of their school. That knowledge helps you have a comprehensive and cogent discussion with them and gives you the ability to ask intelligent questions. The adcom generally doesn’t want to answer basic questions about how many students are there in each class, what clubs the school has on campus or what winters are like in their city. All of that information is on their website — a website you should have thoroughly reviewed prior to meeting with them.

The alumni interviewer

This interview will likely be a lot less formal. You’ll dress more casually, meet in a café, maybe even become best buddies. Find out who they are, what they have done, and what they are interested in. Find some common ground, and the whole thing will sail a lot smoother. For that, you should do a little research on the interviewer. Thanks to social media and the ever-increasing number of online locations for people to post professional and personal information, you may have found profiles ranging from your interviewer’s LinkedIn to their Instagram… or even their Tinder.

So, should you mention your findings during the interview… or would that be weird?

Obviously, there are some things you might stumble across that you should not bring up in in the interview (the Tinder profile is an excellent example of that). But as a general rule of thumb, it’s good to have some knowledge about the person sitting across the table from you and to mention it when the time is right. Focus on their career – that’s the line between networking and cyberstalking.

Finding Common Ground With Your MBA Interviewer

OK, sure, the purpose of the interview is for the interviewer to interview and get to know you. But the best way to leave a mark on your interviewer is to do more than just answer their questions and impress them with your background, it’s really about forging a meaningful connection with them on a human level.

To forge that connection you’ve got to find some sort of common ground to stand on. And to do THAT, you of course have to know something about this person, like their current job and professional background. That specific knowledge gives you multiple angles to pursue:

  • Something about one of the companies they’ve worked for.
  • Something about the type of work or projects they’ve done.
  • Something about the city or industry one of those companies is in.

Start by doing some basic research about your interviewer’s professional background. For the most part, you’ll be able to find them on LinkedIn and get an idea of where their careers have led them. What companies have they worked for? What not-for-profits have they been involved in? What LinkedIn groups are they a part of? Does that give you some interesting insight on what makes them tick? Now that you have a professional overview, take some notes on where your career aspirations or personal passions overlap. And when I say overlap, I mean genuinely overlap – you don’t want to be caught with your pants down discussing a field you know nothing about.

Prepping for the Interview

Practice does make perfect. So recruit your Admissions Consultant (that’ll be us!), your husband, your wife, your mother, your niece, your grandchildren, and your pet goldfish and practice! Practice practice practice! You aren’t practicing to memorize the perfect answer, but to get your story down, to get into your flow, and if you are an international candidate, to make sure your English is smooth. You aren’t here to craft perfect answers for every possible question (that’s impossible), but if you know your story and can get three things down, you will ace the deal.

From our MBA Interview Guide:

  1. Know your greatest hits. – Prepare your 3-4 strongest stories and be able to adapt them to ANY possible awkwardly worded question.
  2. Know every detail of your resume. – Some interviewers will ask you questions about your resume; others will ask you to walk them through it and leave it at that. As long as you know your resume (which is really just a collection of your greatest hits), you’ll be golden.
  3. Know your backup plans. – People are always prepared to talk about their goals, but less so when it comes to what happens to those goals when things don’t go as planned. Don’t let them trip you up.

And that’s about it. Knowing these three things will get you through ALL the common questions that you could face in an MBA interview. The only exception is questions for school-specific information or “fit.” BUT since you’ve already written your essays, you should know all that information already.

As for what not to do, well… here’s a list of things to avoid.

What if English isn’t my native language?

The adcom understands that English is not everyone’s native language, so they’re not expecting perfection! Non-native speakers often freak themselves out and get VERY nervous about their English before the interview… which throws them off balance. The best way to get over those nerves is to – you guessed it – practice, practice, practice. You want to be comfortable in the interview, you want to engage the interviewer in conversation, and the more you practice your English, the more natural the conversation will be. Which is a GOOD thing!

DON’T memorize your answers, or else you’ll come off sounding like a robot. Which is a BAD thing! Instead, focus on talking in English, every single day, and describe your greatest hits in new and different ways. You’ll have to improvise depending on the questions you get asked, so you’ll want some flexibility in your stories. You want to get comfortable with the ideas and concepts behind your stories, as well as the English language in general (as much as you can!), NOT memorize a script.

>>> Recommended Reading: How To Improve Your English Speaking And Succeed In American Universities

Dealing with tough questions

At the same time, you can (and should) look through lists of interview questions online to get a general idea of what you could be asked, and if anything is stumping you, think your way around the question BEFORE you get to the interview.

Here are two tough questions that crop us quite a lot:

“What other schools are you considering?”

In general, omit any schools that would be obvious preferences to the school you are interviewing at (like if you interview at Haas, try to avoid mentioning you are applying to Stanford). Don’t say “none” because everyone knows that’s not true.

No matter what, if you are pressed, don’t lie. If you get caught in a lie, you’re done! Also, most interviewers can tell when you’re not being genuine.

Always make sure they know THEIR school is your preference. “Yeah, I’m also applying to Darden, but because of my desire to break into ZZZ field and YYY program at Ross, this is obviously my number one choice. I love the idea of joining AAA group and I’ve been a Michigan football fan since birth. I want to be at Ross.”

Get the picture?

“What’s your backup plan if you don’t get in?”

Answer with a backup plan, while showing absolute determination to do an MBA—if not now, then later.

What is that backup plan going to be? Don’t go in with the attitude of, “well, I’m going to get in so I’m not worried.” That just looks immature. Every smart businessperson has a backup plan, after all. So figure out that plan. Will you go back to your old job? Will you join a new company? Think it out, plan it out, and know that you’re going to have to talk it out.

“I’m gonna go back to my company and take on more leadership experience, take advantage of our expansion into blablabla market, etc. And I’ve been asked to lead project CCC. So I’ll do that, and I’ll join [insert group you’re interested in here], and then I’m gonna come back and apply next year. My goal is, and always will be, BLA. And THIS school is going to get me there for YYY reasons.” You show ‘em that you’re definitely gonna do this thing. It’s on your radar. It’s all a part of your master plan.

What are your weaknesses?

Obviously, we should avoid revealing ones that would be absolute deal breakers. Personal weaknesses are viewed as inherent characteristics—like being a jerk, being unkind, being angry, impatient, careless. So, yeah, don’t talk about being a jerk or having anger management problems. But everything else is totally fair game. As with everything, it’s all about how you case it.

The best weaknesses are ones that are also seen as strengths:

“I’m a big-picture guy. But because of that, I sometimes miss out on the details.”

“Or, I’m a people person… but because of that, I have a tough time disciplining employees.”

The Skype Interview

Nowadays a good portion of MBA interviews are conducted on Skype. And before you even get to the interview, first, think logistics. Make sure the technology works! Test out your webcam with a friend, get some good headphones, make sure your Internet isn’t going to drop out in the middle of the call. Practice on Skype so you’re comfortable with the format, and pay attention to the background. You don’t want last night’s beer and your One Direction poster in the background. Keep it clean and tidy, or better yet, set up in front of a white or neutral background. There should be nothing that distracts from you and your brilliance. And don’t forget to double- and triple-check the time difference!

Then, treat it like an in-person interview. Dress professionally (at least from the waist up!), get in front of your computer EARLY, and have your top 3-4 stories well prepared. Remember that it’s harder to build rapport on a Skype call than in person, so you’re going to have to work a bit harder. Your confidence needs to come through your voice, facial expressions, and posture because it’s much harder to read body language on Skype.

And that’s all folks – our guide to acing that MBA Interview! Before we go, here are a few more final tips from our resident experts.