Thursday, February 21, 2013
Tell Me About a Time
Last year I interviewed with three schools: Kellogg, Booth, and Wharton. I self-initiated an on campus interview at Kellogg and was invited to interview at Booth and Wharton. The three interviews were very different but I felt that all three went well. I would say the most formal one was Kellogg's. I met with a 1st year student. The questions were very standard: "Walk me through your resume." "Tell me about a time when you had to convince a group of people." You know the drill. The interview lasted 30 minutes exactly.
For Booth I chose to interview off campus with an alum. I had already visited the school two months prior and didn't feel the need to come back for the interview. I didn't know much about my interviewer beforehand. I did look him up on LinkedIn prior to reaching out to schedule the interview, but that was because he has a unisex name and I couldn't figure out if I should address my email to Mr. or Ms. I wound up just using his first name and hoping I wasn't being too informal. We met in a coffee shop. I remember that one of the first things he said to me was, "I don't make the decision on whether or not you get in so let's just have a conversation." And converse we did. We spent nearly two hours talking about our suburban Philadelphia neighborhood, football (really how much I hate the Philadelphia Eagles), the dot com crash, and of course my interest in Booth. Although on paper we had nothing in common, my interviewer and I connected so well that he even sent me a thank you note the next day.
However, my best interview had to be with Wharton. A second year student interviewed me. It was only 30 minutes but it was very memorable. After the standard behavioral questions my interviewer asked me a question I wasn't expecting. "If you had a ticket to go anywhere in the world where would you go?" I took a second to mull it over and told him that I would go to Thailand because I wanted to see the places I'd learned about in Mr. Verno's 9th grade Global Studies class...and also because I wanted to eat my way through the entire country. My love of Thai food quickly led to us comparing our favorite Philadelphia eateries and discovering a mutual love for Sabrina's, a local cafe that serves amazing breakfast. Pretty soon he had whipped out his smartphone and we were examining the brunch special menu from the week that Whitney Houston passed away. If he didn't have a line of other applicants awaiting him in the waiting area I'm sure we would have skipped out of Hunstsman hall and wandered over to the Art Museum neighborhood for some stuffed French toast.
While all of my interviews turned out differently, I prepared for each of them the same way. I searched online for other people's interview debriefs and practiced answering the questions they were asked with a mock interviewer (one of my friends). I had stories prepared that could cover questions on leadership, working in teams, overcoming objections, and recovering from mistakes. I knew exactly why I wanted an MBA, why I wanted to go to that school, and what I wanted to do in my post MBA career. I figured if they asked me a question that didn't fall within any of the realms for which I'd prepared then I would just figure it out in the moment.
Having interviewed so much over the last 15 months (application and internship interviews) I'd like to share some of what I've found to be true.
1) Business school interviews are not like job interviews
Many applicants see the interview as all that stands between them and that coveted admit. If applying to business school was like applying to a job it would be. But the two processes are very different. For a job, your application simply gets you the interview. At that point your fate hinges on your performance in those interviews. In MBA admissions land your application does get you the interview, but it's also what gets you the admit. Here's the thing about those nice, shiny interview invites. They are not all created equal. Everyone is not starting from the same point and you don't know where you're positioned in the herd. The interview is only one piece of your overall application and is not evaluated in a vacuum. People who had great interviews still get dinged and others who had so-so interviews get admitted. While you don't want to fall flat on your face in the interview, don't put so much emphasis on its importance that you pysche yourself out.
2) It's not about "connecting" with the interviewer
I'm noticing that a lot of applicants spend time trying to figure out how to bond with their interviewer before they ever set foot in the interview room. I've had multiple applicants ask me to do reconaissance on their alumni interviewers so they could come in prepared to wow that person. I declined. Why? Because I honestly don't think it matters. Applicants aren't asked to interview in order to evaluate if you can bond with a stranger in 30-60 minutes. The interview is about seeing how you present yourself in person (are you professional, can you articulate your ideas clearly concisely, can you speak English, etc.) and digging a bit deeper into who you are beyond the paper application. You don't have to connect with your interviewer in order to do this. Besides, there really is no way to predict if a connection will happen no matter how much you do or do not have in common. Some interviewers are stoic, others are informal. You won't know what you're gonna get until you get in the room so why bother worrying about it ahead of time. And don't forget that some interviewers just have a really great poker face. MBAover30 thought that he didn't "connect" with his Booth interviewer the way he'd wanted to. When he met her again at an admit event he learned that she was very enthusiastic about his candidacy. My advice is to take the focus off of your interviewer and put it back on yourself.
3) Don't overthink it
A couple of months ago I pleaded with applicants to get out of their own heads and believe the information the adcom communicates. Please apply that same advice to the interview. I have lost count of how many questions I have received about whether or not it's better to interview on campus with the admissions committee or a student interviewer or to choose the option to interview off campus with an alum. I must have heard every rationale for and against both options. "What if the alum has an axe to grind?" "What if I get a student interviewer who doesn't like me?" "Shouldn't I go on campus again to show how interested I am?" "My friend had a horrible on campus interview with an adcom at school X, so I think I should interview with an alum for school Y." Here's the thing, if you ask 10 difference people who you should interview with (adcom or alum) you will likely get 10 different answers backed up by a 20 different stories that people will swear are gospel. My advice to you is to ignore it all and listen to the admissions committee. If the admissions committee says that both interview types are weighted equally, please believe them and choose the one that works best for your schedule, finances, and preferences. For every story you hear about a great alum interview you will hear another about a horrible one. The same goes for the adcom. It is impossible to predict how your interview will turn out based on who is conducting it so don't bother trying to hedge your bets either way. Do alumni interviews tend to have more variability in HOW they are conducted? Sure. But that variability can swing the pendulum just as far toward awesome as it does toward awful. And to be honest, I'd say 90% of interviews still stay within the fair to good zone.
4) Know yourself. Know your story
The most important variable in the interview equation is YOU. And that's great because you have 100% control over that variable. Be prepared to speak to your career path to date and how an MBA factors into your future goals. Be prepared to defend your career goals if pushed a bit. Don't look at follow up questions as something to be avoided. Just be ready to give a reason for why you want to make the move to consulting or brand management or entrepreneurship or whatever it is you're interested in doing. Know a bit about the industry landscape you purport to want to be part of. Interviewers aren't there to trip you up, but they are there to gauge how well you've thought things out. Just like your applications, your interviews will get better with the 2nd or 3rd one. I highly recommend getting help to prepare for the first one. Essay Snark offers a relatively inexpensive preparation service. You can also get together with a friend to run through your answers to questions. If you want to video tape yourself to see your mannerisms and speech patterns that's a great idea too. While you don't want to come across as over rehearsed becoming comfortable with answering common interview questions will definitely help.
I hope I've covered everything you'd wanted to know, but if I missed something feel free to shoot me a question in the comments or via email.