Before you’re accepted to your chosen master’s of business administration program, you’ll need to jump through multiple hoops. For many applicants, b-school interviews are the most stressful leap of all.
Typically, these sessions last 30 minutes to an hour and are designed to assess qualities that aren’t easily detected on your written application. “We’re using the interview to get a better feel for some of the more subjective elements of the applicants that are pretty difficult to get just by looking at the paper application,” says Mary Spreen, director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid at the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie College of Business.
Each school handles the interview process differently. “It varies dramatically from school to school,” says Sally P. Lannin, president of MBA Strategies, afirm in Edina, Minn., that coaches aspiring M.B.A.s who want to get into top schools. At Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, for example, interviews are practically nonexistent, while at Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, every applicant is interviewed. Between these extremes, b-schools have a raft of different interviewing policies, styles and techniques. Even at the same school, interview tactics may vary depending on whom you meet.
The weight of the interview in admissions decisions varies from school to school as well. Because of these variables, the best way to make a good impression is to plan ahead, prepare thoroughly and abide by some common-sense do’s and don’ts.
While most interviews are face-to-face either on campus or in your home city, you might also be interviewed by phone. “Many people aren’t able to visit campus,” says Ms. Spreen. “In those cases, we generally screen the and application and if we feel that they meet the minimum objective criteria, then we would hold an interview either off-site or by telephone.”
Three Types of Interviewers
Start by learning with whom you’ll meet in advance of the interview and know their role. Interviewers usually wear one or more of three possible hats, says Ms. Lannin. The most important hat is that of “evaluator,” someone who recommends whether or not you should be accepted.
The second role is that of the “marketer,” someone who’s primarily trying to try to sell you on the M.B.A. program, school, placement office, city or region.
“Originally, when schools first started interviewing, that was primarily the role the interviewer played,” says Ms. Lannin. “Kellogg and the Wharton School were really in the forefront there.”
The third role is that of “counselor,” someone who primarily provides information about the program, school and application process.
Depending on the school, an interviewer could be an admissions officer, current student, recent alumni or an “alumni of stature,” someone who’s at the peak of his or her career.
“This is the type of person Harvard uses,” says Ms. Lannin. Students, alumni and alumni of stature usually are trained by the admissions office in how to conduct interviews, so you aren’t off the hook when meeting one of these folks.
How Answers Are Evaluated
At Iowa, “the basic qualities we’re trying to assess are related to communication skills,” Ms. Spreen says. “So, for example, when we ask people to talk about their career vision, we’re looking for evidence that they’ve thought about this significantly and that they can articulate that vision — recognizing that that may change once they’re here.”
At Ohio State, interviewers are interested in how much preparation and research applicants have done, as well as the clarity of their answers. They might be asked why they’re specifically attracted to the Fisher School of Management and why they want to earn an M.B.A., says Ms. Jacobson. Vague answers are perceived poorly.
“If they say things about our small class size, cohorts, team building, mentoring program and faculty, [it's] something specific about why it’s a good fit for them,” says Ms. Jacobson. “We’d know that they’ve done their research.”
Answers or questions that zero in on the Fisher School’s team-building approach are important. “Because we have an emphasis on team building, they would know that about us, and they might talk about situations they’ve been in that involve team building,” says Ms. Jacobson. The school also emphasizes, so questions about it are a plus.
Examine “what in your past shows your team leadership, your ability to work with others or your ability to resolve conflict, [and] be prepared to either ask questions or talk about what you’ve done,” she says.