Receiving an offer to interview is a major milestone in the MBA admissions process, worthy of pause and quiet self-congratulations. While not yet time to pop the champagne, an interview offer is a clear signal you’ve caught the attention of admissions and that the school believes in your potential.
Admissions acceptance rates among the top 10 schools dropped to a record 14.5% selectivity last year, while application volume increased by 4.4% – with some 54,694 candidates to top 10 schools competing for 5,100 seats. But land an interview, and your chance of getting in rockets to about 1 in 2. You now have a great shot at acceptance, suggesting that your target program, at this stage, is looking for reasons to accept rather than to reject you. At the very least, the admissions committee wants to learn more about you, and it’s time to prepare with gusto.
So what do you need to know about the business school admissions interview, and how can you make the best possible impression?
Here are 10 essentials for MBA interview success from my colleague Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director of Harvard Business School and Head of Interview Practice at Fortuna Admissions:
1. Preparation is key.
It’s the best way to get the most from your interview, and to feel confident about how you present yourself and your story. It’s not just about answering the standard questions – describing your career goals and aspirations, specific examples of leadership, why an MBA, why an MBA from this school, and what you’ll bring to the school community – but training yourself to give informed, confident answers.
Carefully review your application and reflect on five key messages you wish to communicate during the interview. Thinking about this in advance ensures that you won’t leave the interview regretting that you failed to mention something simply because it didn’t come up in the Q&A session. This allows you to be proactive, as opposed to passive, with your key selling points.
Also, consider responses to specific and tougher questions you might be thrown, such as why you made a career change or didn’t ask your direct supervisor for a recommendation.
2. Practice, practice… then practice some more.
Interviewers are skilled at quickly identifying whether you’re sincere and enthusiastic or simply parroting phrasing from your essays. Find someone to conduct mock interviews so you can refine and practice your answers. Get to a stage where you know the points you wish to convey but don’t sound as overly-rehearsed. This will help you to interact with more authenticity and poise. If your goals and motivations are clear, you can anticipate a dynamic conversation with lots of good questions.
3. Answer the question that’s posed.
Eager — or nervous — candidates are inclined to leap ahead with the great answer they’ve prepared for, rather than to respond to the actual question that’s being asked. Listen carefully and stay on topic. It’s perfectly okay to pause before responding. While you’ll be alert to openings for sharing your key selling points, avoid pushing your own agenda and taking over the interview.
4. Be on your toes.
While an interview itself is a very positive sign, remember that there might be an issue that admissions wants to clarify. If you notice that questions keep circling back to a certain issue, stay calm and continue to offer confident responses. Sometimes you’ll be asked to field a tricky question like a probability scenario. It’s okay to take notes or pause before responding, especially for these queries. Some programs also like to see how you react when you’re directly challenged, how you think on your feet, or how you respond to confrontation or unexpected questions.
5. Set the right tone.
A friendly atmosphere isn’t an invitation to become overly chummy, or lower your guard and inadvertently share doubts about yourself or the program. And while you want to present yourself confidently, avoid arrogance or any hint of embellishment when it comes to your abilities and achievements and abilities. Given the company you hope to keep, humility is essential. Respond to questions honestly and candidly, offering specific examples of characteristics you wish to emphasize. These might include relationship building, influencing others, or achieving objectives; these qualities should be considered well in advance.
6. Stay focused and succinct.
Most programs set word lengths for their essays, and the answers you give in-person should be similarly concise and directed to the question. While you want to come across as engaging and thoughtful, avoid over-sharing or rambling. Use relevant examples to reinforce what you’re sharing. If you get flustered, it’s much better to take a breath than to keep talking just to fill space.
7. Create windows of conversation.
Strong candidates can deftly guide parts of the conversation without disrupting the flow of conversation, often without the interviewer realizing it. To this end, you can use a technique of creating “windows”: As you answer the question, also gently dovetail your answer to briefly mention another subject – thereby opening a window. While some schools structure interviews to concentrate on areas most important to them, there’s a good chance that your interviewer, if intrigued, will ask a follow up question on the topic you’ve raised. You’re poised to make a great impression if you choose your key selling points wisely, considering what they reveal about you.
If you don’t get the chance to speak to all your points while answering questions, remember that you’ll likely be asked if there’s anything else you’d like admissions to know at the end of your conversation.
8. Plan your time.
The typical interview lasts around 45 minutes, though longer or shorter conversations are common. For Wharton and Michigan Ross, you’ll be invited to participate in a team-based activity where observers are assessing your communications and interpersonal skills in a dynamic setting. Take time to research each school’s format and expectations. Then, try to engage the interviewer with your enthusiasm and offer strong, coherent answers that set the tone for the remaining time. If you aren’t sure what’s being asked of you, feel free to ask them to repeat.
9. Prepare thoughtful questions.
The MBA interview is a two-way process, so schools expect you to assess for fit as well. Your failure to ask interesting questions can work against you, as this is your opportunity to learn more about the program beyond what’s readily available online. Perhaps you can ask about community activities, special interests and how the school may help you pursue them, the school’s approach in an area that concerns you, or a topic of faculty research. The questions should be relevant and connected to your personal and professional goals and your business school experience.
10. Presentation matters.
As with any professional interview, arrive in advance to collect your thoughts. Don’t forget the basics, like dressing appropriately (in business attire) and looking the part. Following up with a thank you note is a nice touch; make sure to cite a specific example of what you appreciated in order to reinforce your sincerity, rather than just include generalities (email is fine).
Enjoy yourself! After your thoughtful preparation, give yourself permission to be present, stay curious and have fun. In the end, your sincere enthusiasm and genuine smile carry as much weight as what you actually say.
Author: Matt Symonds is a co-founder and director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.