Categorized | Grad School

What to Expect in A Grad School Interview

Posted on 13 October 2009

While searching for the right business school, Barbara Rossmiller interviewed with a student member of the admissions committee at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, N.C.

Admissions interviews are recommended but not required at Fuqua. But Rossmiller’s experience was so positive that she decided to focus on studying at the respected b-school. She’s now a second-year student and a student interviewer at Fuqua.

At many top business schools, admissions interviews are optional. But realistically, you’ll probably participate in an interview, either at your request or the school’s. B-schools take different approaches to interviewing. For instance, interviews can be held pre- or post-application at the student’s or school’s request and may be conducted by an alumnus, student or school professional. Here’s a sample of different policies:

  • At Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston, Ill., candidates are “required to request an interview.” They meet with an alumnus, admissions professional or student interviewer. All 617 students in Kellogg’s fall 2000 incoming class were interviewed.
  • The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia doesn’t require candidates to interview. However, it recommends that applicants request and complete an interview prior to applying. Wharton received 7,382 applications for the 784 openings in its fall 2000 entering class. About 90% of the applicants were interviewed by an alumni graduate on site or in their home city in the U.S. or overseas.
  • The Columbia Business School in New York offers “invitation-only” interviews after candidates have applied.
  • At the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis, interviews aren’t required, but applicants can request them. The meetings are held with a member of the admissions staff. There were 1,400 applications for 150 openings at Olin for the fall 2000 class. Of these applicants, about 500 were interviewed.
  • At McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas – Austin, interviews are called “admission visits” and are optional. Applicants who request them meet with alumni, students or admissions staff. There were 2,800 applications for McComb’s fall class of 400. Of these 400 students, 200 were interviewed.

Make the Process Work for You

Since competition for openings at top b-schools is tough, applicants should know how schools treat interviews so they can take advantage of the process.

In most cases, admissions interviews are designed to ensure that students will fit into the culture of a school. Applicants want to find out if they’ll be happy in a particular setting, while b-schools want to see whether candidates have the “right stuff.”

“We feel that the interview gives us an opportunity to evaluate their interpersonal skills, professional paths, reasons why they want an M.B.A. and their values,” says Rose Martinelli, Wharton’s director of admissions. “We want to know what brings them to this particular place in life. We believe that the interview is a complement to the overall application.”

Pete Sather, a first-year student at UCLA’s Anderson School, was so impressed with the school’s interviewing process that he decided to reapply after being rejected the year before. At other schools, the application process seemed like “just take a number,” he says, but at Anderson, “there was a genuineness and caring that was far superior.”

Sather had attended the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and remained in active service. He lacked career focus when he first applied to Anderson. After being rejected by the school, he joined the Chesapeake Bay Organizational Development Network in Washington, D.C., to learn about organizational development. When Sather reapplied to Anderson and was reinterviewed, he felt more focused about his career goals.

“Other people going into the interviews know exactly what they want so you have to know, too, to be competitive,” he says.

An interview can help applicants decide against attending a school. Scott Bloomberg, a first-year student at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, investigated two other schools. At one, he interviewed with an alumnus who had graduated many years earlier. The alum was so uninformative that to Bloomberg, the meeting was a waste of time.

“I didn’t learn anything about the school,” says Bloomberg. “He was a high-level executive. It didn’t seem like he had much time or was listening. I tried asking him some questions about the program and he said, ‘I can’t answer that.’ ”

B-School Interviews vs. Job Interviews

Interviewing with b-school officials can be challenging after working professionally for a few years. Your last interview may have been for a job, and M.B.A. admissions interviews are distinctly different. In a job interview, you must stress the ‘”how” of what you’ve done. B-schools are looking at the “why” as well.

“An M.B.A. school [interview] is harder because you actually have to get across your ability,” says Rossmiller. “You have to articulate your motivations and goals.”

Just like you don’t want your first job interview to be with your first-choice employer, your first b-school interview shouldn’t be with your preferred program. “I wouldn’t recommend making your top choice your first interview,” says Bloomberg. “You need to get back into the swing of things.”

Camie Costa earned an M.B.A. in 2000 from Kellogg, where she was one of 25 student interviewers. She’s now a marketing manager at General Mills in Minneapolis. To succeed with interviewers, applicants should be able to avoid “why” pitfalls, Costa says.

“Some [interviewees] seem unprepared to answer basic questions such as: ‘Why am I a good fit at this school?’ ‘Why do I believe I’ll continue to succeed upon graduation?’ and ‘Why would the school want me to be an alumna?’ ” says Costa. “It goes back to, ‘What have you accomplished so far?’ ”

To be able to answer these questions, b-school candidates should ask themselves the following:

Have I completed my self-analysis? To interview competently, do some self-searching and know why you want to earn an M.B.A. “You aren’t going to get into a top M.B.A. school if you say: ‘I need that rubber stamp on my resume,’ ” says Rossmiller. “That’s not good enough.”

Jonathan Dabora, a first-year student at Anderson, advises candidates to examine their motivations and interests. They should be able to answer the question, “What am I passionate about?” he says.

Don’t expect interviewers to help you out. Rossmiller asked one candidate why he wanted to go to Fuqua. After a lackluster response, he then asked her, “So what should I have answered to that question?”

Have I done my homework? Research the school by attending forums and receptions it sponsors and talking with students and alumni, Martinelli recommends. If possible, visit the school. “The M.B.A. process is very collaborative. We’re looking for people who have something to add to the educational process,” says Martinelli.

Hillary Beard, a second-year student at Columbia, interviewed with officials and spent time visiting the campus to “see what the tone of the school was and understand its culture,” she says. She recommends talking to current students because they “have the best pulse of the school right now.”

Dabora has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but he wanted a graduate business degree so he could become a venture capitalist or start a business. He, too, was rejected from Anderson because he didn’t demonstrate enough knowledge about his desired fields. Before reapplying, he cold-called venture capitalists and was able to interview about 10% of them. His efforts taught him about the field and allowed him to discuss his career goals more concretely.

Am I flexible? Be prepared to be interviewed by phone or in person. Regardless of how the meeting is held, your preparation should be thorough. Also be flexible when scheduling your interview. Most schools will adjust to your schedule. “We interview where they live and we’ll accommodate them. We may have to do a phone interview,” says Linda Meehan, Columbia’s director of admissions. “If they’re unable to satisfy this, it sends a message.”

Have I rehearsed? Practice answering typical b-school interview questions until you appear focused, yet relaxed. Try to rehearse with someone who’s been through the process, not just with friends and family. “Don’t underestimate the competitiveness of the situation. You need to communicate,” says Costa.

Have I prepared questions for the interviewer? After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy and spending five years on active duty, Jack Benecke applied to Olin. He had leadership experience but needed strong core business courses. He asked about this aspect of the program and how the school’s career center would help him prepare a resume and interview with employers as he neared graduation.

How am I presenting myself? Marketing yourself includes your attire, resume, follow-up tactics and attitude. You must be able to state what you stand for and your benefits to a potential employer, says Costa. Dabora says one Anderson official says the school seeks applicants who are “confident but not arrogant.”

Am I positive? Candidates can project negativity without realizing it. Subtle ways include commenting about other schools or appearing overly self-involved.

Be sure to ask the interviewer questions about him or herself, such as their educational background and connection to the school. If the interviewer is a current or former student, ask about any challenges he or she experienced in completing the program.

Showing ignorance about the process — for instance, taking it too seriously or not seriously enough — also may transmit poorly. “You have to know yourself well enough to relax,” says Martinelli. “You have to know why you’re at the table.”

Do I fit in? You and the school must answer this question together. The school seeks candidates who will add an extra dimension to the mix of students, contribute to the program and succeed following graduation.

Your answer may be more complex. By taking a break in your career, you’re making an investment of both money and time. Will you earn an adequate return on your investment? Are you ready to make needed sacrifices and can you handle the change in lifestyle?

Consider whether you’ll be happy in the location, be able to work on teams with classmates, be comfortable in the environment and if the students and faculty will enhance your learning and enjoyment.

Am I ready? Ask yourself if you’re psychologically, academically and emotionally ready for the rigors of an M.B.A. program. If so, the interview will likely be a smooth component of the process.

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