Of all the parts of applying to an MBA program, the interview is often the most nerve-wracking.
“It's a normal thing for applicants to be a little bit nervous, because they don't know what kind of questions they're going to be asked,” according to Gabriele Silver, the admissions manager for Mannheim Business School’s full-time MBA program.
And unfortunately for those who have their heart set on one particular school, “the keener you are on the business school, the more nervous you are.”
“Because you really want to make a good impression, and you don't want to mess it up.”
But, some admissions managers say, most MBA applicants have very little to fear.
“If you have managed to be selected for an interview, it means that we think that you have the necessary skills and abilities to undertake a very demanding program of study,” says Raquel Lison, associate director of MBA recruitment at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Indeed, an admissions interview is not a test, and preparing for it doesn’t involve acquiring a whole new set of skills. But it is an opportunity for applicants to set themselves apart from other MBA applicants, many of whom might have similar backgrounds.
In this sense, MBA admissions interviews tend to address the applicants themselves, including their background and goals.
“A lot of the questions are digging deeper on the candidate's application,” says Sarah Gill, director of recruitment and admissions for the full-time MBA at UC Irvine’s Merage School of Business.
Issues that typically come up can include gaps in work experience, as well as responsibilities and accomplishments; or even delving more deeply into topics covered in the candidate's application essays. But, according to Gill, the Merage admissions team will also be aiming to “get a sense of their goals, and how much they've researched and understand their goals.”
“There's a lot of money and time that goes into the MBA, and we're trying to make sure that people have really thought through this process.”
Why this school? Why now?
Often, a big topic in MBA admissions interviews is school fit. And for this, it’s useful to do some research on the specific qualities of the MBA program you’re interviewing for, and think about how well your experience and goals line up.
“This is usually a good indicator of how serious somebody is. How deep they delved,” says Mannheim’s Gabriele Silver.
Even if the school you’re interviewing at is a “back-up school,” you’ll want to take the time to know the program inside and out, and really understand why it would be a good place for you.
A related question is ‘why now?’ This can be especially important for those who have substantially less (or more) work experience than the average admit. Interviewees should take care to really have a grasp on why they’re applying now, rather than next year (or last year)
Get ready to mix it up
Today’s MBA admissions interviews are often more than just a one-on-one, question-and-answer event. Increasingly, some business schools mix in a case study, or other practical activity, to get a sense of how an applicant thinks through business problems.
The second of Mannheim’s two interviews, for example, which is with the school’s admissions director, includes a case study, given to applicants about three days before the interview. The purpose of the case study is to get a sense for how an applicant does research and how they approach a business problem.
“It's an indicator: are you following the instructions, are you answering the questions?” according to Gabriele Silver. The case study is entirely verbal—no PowerPoint presentations are allowed—so the interviewer can get a sense of an applicant’s communication skills in a business setting.
Some business school interviews also might involve a team or cooperative component. The admissions interview at Wharton, for instance, includes a session where applicants work in groups of six or seven to discuss business problems.
Likewise, the MBA application interview at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, involves an optional group activity, which, according to admissions director Soojin Kwon, is “designed to give us insight into your teamwork, interpersonal, and communication skills,” all of which are important in an MBA program:
Today, many business schools offer applicants the option of doing their interviews on Skype or through other virtual means. For international applicants, this is quite helpful: there’s no longer a need to travel around the world for a 30-minute chat.
Most business school admissions representatives say that those who choose to do their interviews on Skype will suffer no penalties for doing so.
“We normally tell candidates, whatever makes you feel more at ease,” says Oxford’s Raquel Lison.
“It's your opportunity to actually showcase yourself, so you should be well-armed, and in the most comfortable position,” to do so.
However, actually going to campus for the interview can be beneficial for some applicants.
Applicants who choose to do their interview on campus at UC Irvine, for instance, “have the opportunity to visit the campus and really get a better feel for our program,” says Sarah Gill.
“But if there are limitations with budget and things like that, it's certainly not a disadvantage to speak with us over Skype.”
In the end, what many MBA admissions interviewers say they’re looking for is a sense of who you are.
Along these lines, it’s useful to use the interview as a platform, not only to discuss your qualifications, but to showcase your personality.
For instance, Mannheim’s Gabriele Silver says that the interview can be a good place to show that they’re open and willing to participate in discussions.
“Somebody who comes across as confident, and doesn't hold back too much – that would be a good person in the classroom… That's what we're looking for; not somebody who sits in a classroom and just takes it all in.”
Bringing your personality to the interview table, along with drive and passion, might just seal the deal, even helping to offset other, not-so-good parts of your application.
“Communication skills,” says Irvine’s Sarah Gill, are the number one reason why recruiters are hiring MBAs.
“So if somebody's knocking it out of the park there, that's going to separate them, even if the other parts of the application aren't as strong.”