An interviewer will be trying to decide if you have the right qualifications for an MBA and if you will be a good fit with the school. As such, in the figure below we have divided our discussion of the typical interview questions into two categories: Qualifying Questions and Fit Questions.
Figure 23: Admissions Interview Question Guideline
We introduced the majority of these question types in the Write Your Essays section of the website. The discussion in the next two units will serve in part as a review, but we will also point out the nuances of answering these kinds of questions in the interview format.
You have also already been introduced to the concept of Fit Qualities in the Identify Each School’s Fit Qualities section of the website. We recommend that you reread that section in preparation for your interviews. After we discuss the Qualifying Questions, we will investigate a series of interview questions that are designed to elicit stories that interviewers will use to assess how well you fit with their school.
Qualifying Questions are your opportunity to tell your career story, share your career goals, explain the reasons you decided to apply to that school, and communicate your Points of Difference.
Most interviews will begin with the interviewer asking you to recount your Career Story progress. Typical questions include:
- Walk me through your resume.
- Tell me about your career so far.
- What decisions have you made that led to your current role?
Keep in mind, that your interviewer is perfectly capable of reading your resume. As we explained in the Discover Your Career Story unit of the website, a good answer to these types of questions will give the interviewer a sense of the career decisions you’ve made, your major achievements in each step of your career, and what skills or knowledge you have acquired along the way.
Your goal is to convey the connections and interrelationships between the jobs you have held and to bring your resume to life. To score top marks on Career Story questions, you’ll need to provide a one to two minute executive summary of your career that provides evidence of your general management potential, career readiness, and leadership capabilities. The most competitive MBA programs want to see distinguished academic and career performance in the top 10% of your peer group and plenty of potential for future advancement.
Your Career Story is about the past; at some point in the interview, the discussion will shift from the past to the future – your Career Goals.
These questions are fairly easy to recognize. They include:
- What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
- What is your career vision?
- Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
When it comes to your career goals answer, top marks are earned by having clearly defined post-MBA career plans that go beyond climbing the corporate ladder and earning loads of money. Interviewers will be assessing how much you’ll benefit from an MBA given the Career Capabilities you already possess versus those that you need to acquire. They will also want to hear about how you imagine your career progressing over time (i.e., your Career Action Plan).
The Content Building Blocks for your interview response will come from the exercise you did in Module 3 to define your career goals and from the career goals essays you wrote for your application.
To prepare for the career goals interview question, you need to reformulate your answer so that it will work in an interview setting. Always remember that the interviewer will be gauging your passion for the career you describe and looking for evidence that your career goals are fueled by a larger sense of purpose. You need to communicate your career vision clearly and with enthusiasm to send a powerful signal to your interviewer that you intend to be a leader who makes a positive difference in the world.
Why Our School?
Interviewers want reassurance that if they extend you an offer, you will accept it. Therefore, your answer to the “Why Our School” interview question is incredibly important to earning an acceptance letter.
The interviewer might ask you:
- Why do you need an MBA?
- How will attending our program help you to achieve your career goals?
- Why are you applying to his or her school?
As you learned in the unit about writing your essays, the best answers to these types of questions are both personal and specific. They are personal because they cover the unique challenges that you (as opposed to candidates with different career goals) need to prepare for in the future. They are specific because they draw distinct connections between your motivations for seeking an MBA and the specific resources that particular school has to meet your needs. An excellent response will show that you are sincerely interested in attending that particular school.
What Will You Contribute?
The final type of qualifying question is “What will you contribute?”
The question might be posed in a few different ways:
- What can you contribute to our program?
- How can you enrich next year’s class?
- What is unique about you?
Competition is fierce for seats in a top program; so your interviewer wants to know what you can bring to the table. Concrete answers about what you can contribute to the program are very important. Schools want to admit candidates who already have a plan for putting in just as much as they will take out.
The secret here is again to be concrete and specific. Too many candidates answer in vague generalities: “I plan to be student leader” or “I’ll be a team player” or “I can bring a diverse perspective.”
These questions are a perfect opportunity to share your Points of Difference (PODs). Remember that admissions officers won’t just accept you because you are different; they will accept you only if you have differences that will benefit your classmates, which is why we taught you to rank your PODs according to how valuable your unique background, life experiences, and talent would be to your future classmates.
You will score points by identifying a specific club you would like to lead or even one you want to start. This question is also an invitation to express your unique personality, perspective, and values. Your life experiences and how they could benefit your classmates are treasures that only you bring to the table.
Proving you qualify moves you one step closer, but is not sufficient to earn an acceptance letter. But because this final exam is graded on a curve, and many candidates are qualified, objectively speaking, it is critical to convince your interviewer that you are a better “fit” than the competition. Fit Questions are your opportunity to do so.
In Module 5, we introduced the concept of Fit Qualities, and by this stage of your application process, you need to have a solid grasp of the highest common denominators amongst candidates who are accepted to each particular school. If not, then we strongly encourage you to reread the unit about Fit Qualities and to do your research to identify the qualities and characteristics that the program(s) you will be interviewing with value most.
A firm understanding of the program’s Fit Qualities will help you to select the topics and stories to feature during your interview.
We have developed five categories of Fit Questions:
- Past Decisions
- Negative Experiences
- Personal/Conversational Questions
We will define each of them briefly, and offer you some tips on how to prepare for them, but the central idea is that you will only excel on Fit Questions by knowing what the school’s Fit Qualities are and telling your interviewer stories from your life that provide evidence that you possess the attributes that they are looking for.
Behavioral interview questions aren’t really questions at all; they are an invitation to tell a story. Examples include:
- Tell me about a time you led a team.
- Tell me about an accomplishment you’re proud of.
- When have you made a lasting impact on an organization?
The theory behind behavioral interview questions is that past behaviors are the best predictor of your future capacity. Your stories are, in essence, a window into the qualities you possess. Consequently, your interviewer will be listening for evidence of the Fit Qualities that prove you will fit with his or her program.
Self-evaluative questions require you to demonstrate self-awareness and these questions are some of the most difficult ones to answer in an interview, not only because seeing yourself objectively is tricky, but also because summing up what you know about yourself to another person can be particularly challenging.
Interview questions in the self-evaluative category include:
- Tell me about yourself.
- What are three of your strengths?
- What are three of your weaknesses?
The “Tell me about yourself” question is not an invitation to tell your life story. While it is expected that you will start with a few biographical details, you will want to transition fairly quickly into providing the kind of “evidence” that you know the admissions officers are interested in. As with all Fit Questions, you want to use the self-evaluative questions to emphasize the qualities that make you an excellent fit with the program.
To reiterate a warning we shared with you in the resume module, stay away from Fit Quality buzzwords in your answer. The interviewer will react negatively if they feel like you are quoting the website. For example:
“One of my strengths is intellectual vitality.”
Stanford, you may remember, uses the term “intellectual vitality” on their admissions website. If you use that phrase in your interview answer, you are probably going to get a very funny look from your interviewer. Instead, come up with your own synonymous phrase for that quality. Furthermore, as we instructed in the resume and essay units, the key is to quickly move from a statement about your strength to the story that provides evidence of that strength in action.
Also, a special word of advice on weaknesses questions: never try to get by with a “strength disguised as a weakness” like “I just can’t say ‘no’ to projects that are offered to me; so I work too hard.” Admissions officers see right through those answers and such gamesmanship will undermine your candidacy.
Instead, consider sharing a real weakness that attending business school will help you to address. For example, one of our MBA Prep School students was working in private equity and acknowledged that he had been so eager to have completed transactions on his resume that he had developed a dangerous tendency to look at every deal through rose-colored glasses. He needed to learn to see what could go wrong with an investment rather than always advocating what could go right. That is a good answer to the weakness question because it a weakness that is unique to him and his situation and one that business school would help him to address.
Past Decision Questions
Solid self-awareness extends to having an ability to evaluate your past decisions, which is another category of Fit Questions.
Past decision questions give your interviewer an insight into your decision-making abilities and how your mind works.
- Why did you major in economics?
- Why did you leave your first job?
- Tell me about a difficult decision you had to make.
Past decision questions require you to recount the steps you went through when faced with an important decision. When telling the story about a past decision to your interviewer, be sure to explain what options you considered, describe how you weighted the pros and cons of each, and the reason(s) for your ultimate choice.
By the way, these questions are also a good opportunity to talk about the values and principles that you draw upon when faced with an important decision.
Negative Experience Questions
One of the strengths that admissions officers are interested in is your ability to recover when things don’t go your way. Negative experience questions are your opportunity to demonstrate this capability.
You may have encountered a negative experience question when you wrote your essays. They include:
- What have you learned from a mistake?
- Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult team member; or
- Tell me about a time you failed.
Because many applicants really struggle with these types of questions, we have compiled a series of tips that should help:
- Try to choose a negative experience that you made the best of, or one that eventually had a positive outcome. For example, even if you made a mistake or failed, perhaps you discovered a new strength or learned an important universal lesson for the future.
- Even though the experience is, by definition, negative, try to feature a quality that you know the program values. For example, if you had a disruptive team member, tell the interviewer about ways that you handled the team member by drawing upon your emotional intelligence.
- Unless you have specifically been asked for a personal failure or mistake, avoid talking about situations that were challenging because you made them challenging.
- When discussing your own mistakes and missteps, never deflect blame or point fingers at others.
- Avoid situations that are still emotionally charged for you. Those negative feelings are best vented elsewhere – not in your admissions interview.
Personal and Conversational Questions
Personal and Conversational questions, our final category of Fit Questions, are a bit more light-hearted and fun, but they are still an important part of proving you fit.
When your interviewer asks:
- What do you do in your spare time?
- Tell me about a book you have read for fun?
- Tell me about one of your favorite hobbies?
He or she is really asking:
- Is this person interesting?
- Would I want to sit next to this person in class?
- Would I want to go out with this person for a meal?
Too many candidates forget to present a well-rounded picture because they think that business schools are “all business.”
These kinds of questions can be your chance to discuss community service and leadership outside of office hours. They are an open door to sharing some of your Points of Difference.
In terms of hobbies and interests, if you play the piano or sing in an a capella group or have a world class comic book collection, then you might talk about it when asked one of these questions.
For example, one MBA Prep School student was a professionally trained singer who had participated in musical theater her whole life. She didn’t think there was any point in mentioning this during her Wharton interview until after she did some research and found out that Wharton has an a cappella group called the “Whartones” and that the Wharton Follies, an annual student produced musical theater show, was one of the centerpieces of Wharton’s social programs. Suddenly, she had an interesting and memorable talent to talk about that could specifically benefit her future classmates.
By the way, we would like to add that if you know the name of Wharton’s a cappella choir, do you think your interview will leave any doubt that you are sincerely excited about going to Wharton? Probably not!
Unit Review: What Will They Ask?
- Interview questions can be divided broadly into two types: questions to determine if you qualify and questions to determine if you fit.
- Qualifying Questions are your opportunity to share your career story, career goals, reasons for applying, and Points of Difference.
- Your goal in telling your career story is to provide evidence of your general management potential, career readiness, and leadership capabilities.
- You will need to repurpose your career goals essay into an effective interview response.
- Answers to the “Why our school?” question must summarize the unique challenges you need to prepare for in the future and the unique resources that particular school has to satisfy your needs.
- “What will you contribute?” questions are an opportunity to share your most impressive Points of Difference.
- You will excel on Fit Questions if you know what the school’s Fit Qualities are and tell stories that spotlight the attributes that they are looking for.
- Behavioral interview questions are an open invitation to tell your Fit Stories.
- The key on self-evaluative questions is to quickly move from claiming a strength you possess to telling the story that provides evidence of that strength in action.
- If asked about a weakness, don’t try to sneak by with a strength masked as a weakness.
- When recounting past decisions, be sure to explain what options you considered, how you weighed the pros and cons of each, and the reasons for your ultimate choice.
- Negative experience questions are difficult to answer; try to focus on the learning and growth that resulted from a setback or mistake.
- Personal questions are a chance for your personality to shine through and to convince admissions officers that you would be an interesting addition to the class.