I sometimes hear people say that the best way to succeed in an MBA interview is to be oneself. I think these people are missing the point. The only question is whether you are ready or not. If you are, you will necessarily be yourself – the best version of yourself.
Here comes the truth about MBA interviews in three steps.
1. The looks – or why white socks with a dark suit are a non-starter
It seems obvious but to shine on the day of your interview, you have to feel confident. Get a nice haircut one or two days before the interview, polish your shoes, do your nails if you’re a woman and – please – get a decent suit if you’re a man. Rockefeller famously said that if he was left with US$1,000 only, he would buy a nice suit to feel invincible.
Looking good will not only make you confident, but also give a positive first impression to the interviewer. We all pretend to be rational but cognitive scientists have demonstrated for years that most of us have a bias towards the way people dress. Without even noticing it, we all tend to associate well-dressed people with power and intelligence. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman even showed that smart people – this will be the case for most interviewers – are not immune to bias. In some situations, they are even more vulnerable to it due to their overconfidence in spotting it.
I once heard a headhunter saying that he knew whether he would waste an hour of his time just by seeing the style and the body language of a candidate. Believe me, some MBA interviewers think the same way.
2. In the interviewer’s head – understand the enemy
To be the best version of yourself, you also have to understand what your interviewer is looking for.
Firstly, the interviewer will try to check whether you are who you pretend to be. He or she has read your essay, and gone through your résumé and the reasons why you pretend you want to go to business school. Interviewers may have different styles but this question will always be on his or her mind. Be ready to be asked tons of questions about your profile, the reasons why you want to do an MBA, your back-up plans, your dreams and so on. Some interviewers may ask very personal questions, so don’t be surprised.
Secondly, keep in mind that the interviewer is very often an MBA alumnus. As such the MBA you are applying for is a brand that the interviewer is using for his or her career. The interviewer will therefore wonder if your profile will add value to this brand. If the answer is yes, you will get positive feedback, even if the connection between you has not been the best.
Thirdly, as an MBA alumnus, the interviewer will wonder whether he or she wants you in the family. Alumni networks are very strong, so the interviewer will probably wonder if you are the type of person they would like to help or have a drink with. To get this one right, be a likable person (smile!), stay modest and listen to your interviewer. The more he or she is talking, the better it is for you. People love to be listened to. Do not interrupt your interviewer, and have questions prepared to ask. Alumni and students will almost always enjoy talking about their business school experiences and appreciate it when applicants are engaged in the conversation.
3. Mental preparation – training like Rocky
Like anything, practising is one of the best ways to get ready for an MBA interview. It is, however, not easy to find someone to practise with. Friends and family are usually too nice and know you too well but if it’s your only option, go for it. Another possibility is to find an MBA alumnus (maybe a friend of friend) or someone who has experience in selecting students. But again, practise, practise, practise.
You also have to be able to anticipate the questions. Make a list of all the possible questions you can think of and get ready to answer each of them. Group them by categories (studies, pre-MBA career, MBA expectations, post-MBA career, back-up plans, hobbies, personality) and make sure to always give structured and specific answers. Keep your responses short and do not ramble on and on before getting to the point. Possibly, give specific examples of character traits that you want to emphasise to the school when answering the questions.
I would not recommend you to learn all the answers by heart – you do not want to sound like a bad actor in a TV series – but you should not be taken off guard by any question. Work especially on your lift pitch and a short but articulate conclusion of the reasons why you are a good fit for the school.
The questions about the pre-MBA careers are sometimes the trickiest ones. Unlike job interviews, the interviewer is probably not familiar with your field. Do not use jargon, and be ready to explain complex things in a very simple way.
Finally, be enthusiastic! I remember one candidate talking so passionately about his fondness for fishing that I almost wanted to join him on his next trip, even though I always thought this activity was boring.
Article published in the South China Morning Post on November 27, 2013