Applicants to business school should prepare answers to the most common and difficult admissions interview questions.
ALTHOUGH EUPHORIA IS the first feeling applicants experience upon receiving an interview invitation from the business school of their dreams, what follows is often a mixture of anxiety, nervousness and, in extreme cases, dread.
If you tank your MBA interview, your odds of admission plummet. You can help ensure that doesn’t happen to you by thoroughly preparing for the exchange and the hardball questions that await.
Some schools are known for asking their applicants out-of-left-field questions such as, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” While you can’t prepare for every random query, here’s how to prep for five of the toughest yet most common MBA interview questions.
1. What is your biggest weakness?
No one relishes the notion of painting themselves in a less-than-flattering light, so plan to address your weaknesses in a way that shows self-reflection and a dedication to improvement.
If you have a shortcoming within your application, such as a lack of meaningful community service or middling undergrad academic performance, use the interview to remove doubt about any potential red flags. Explain how you have already begun the hard work of improving on your negative traits and that you have a plan for further betterment while at business school through specific classwork and activities.
Far from being a disservice, this sincerity can enhance your shot at admission into a top MBA program. When you convey an honest assessment of weaknesses, any of your strengths mentioned during the interview will have more credibility.
2. Tell me about a time you failed.
Business schools realize that failure represents a learning opportunity for everyone, from companies to individuals. In this case, the MBA interviewer is asking about a specific event, so choose your anecdote wisely – from a professional setting or your personal life – and refrain from sharing pseudo failures that ultimately show your poor judgment.
One applicant we worked with came from a country that has different ethical standards than the U.S. regarding plagiarism. While an undergrad in the U.S., he was accused of plagiarizing parts of a major college term paper. He failed the course and had to repeat it, an experience that was humiliating and humbling for him. Ultimately, he turned that negative episode into something positive when he later ran for student government and championed a change in plagiarism standards and communications at the school.
When you discuss a failure during an MBA admissions interview, acknowledge your role in the incident, explain your reaction and discuss what lessons you learned or what you wish you could have done differently. Don’t blame others; your overall tone should come across as positive.
3. Describe a poor manager you’ve had.
This question requires a delicate balance of assigning blame to another person with articulating your thoughts on good management and leadership. Your best bet is to briefly explain, with no bitterness, your issues with the manager and quickly move on to the positives: how you adapted, became empathetic, reached a compromise or confronted the situation to ultimately achieve a favorable outcome.
One MBA applicant we worked with previously had a manager with whom she got along well personally but who did not provide constructive feedback on mistakes and frequently opted to redo work herself rather than explain or delegate assignments. The applicant eventually discovered she was working in a bubble, unwittingly making several errors. This was not an environment where she could grow her competencies.
Keep in mind that the MBA interviewer uses this question to judge your fitness with the program. In business school as in life, you will encounter difficult classmates and colleagues. How you handle these types of situations shows your character and how you might behave with your cohort once admitted.
4. Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced.
MBA programs want to equip students with the ability to analyze business situations that raise moral dilemmas or appear to call for unpopular actions. The ethical dilemma question gives the admissions interviewer a glimpse of your unique moral filter and a gauge on how life has tested you.
Choose your ethical dilemma carefully to make sure the situation has no clear-cut answer – and remember, it doesn’t need to be a large-scale conundrum. Situations that rest in the gray area are most effective with this sort of question, as those circumstances require leadership, nuance and maturity.
For example, we consulted with an applicant who, in a previous position, had discovered that his bosses were fudging the numbers of valuation reports to make a client happy, but which were not accurate for investors. The applicant was running numbers and providing data, and he had to decide whether to confront his bosses or the client about the lack of integrity in the reports.
When answering this type of question, you should describe the situation briefly, explain how you responded and the action you took, and then reflect on what you learned from the experience.
Answering the ethical dilemma question on the spot can trip up even the savviest of applicants. Seek input from friends, family or your application adviser to ensure you appear both sincere and mature in the example you’ve chosen.
5. Tell me about yourself.
This seems like the easiest question, but because it’s so open-ended, applicants often ramble and get lost in the weeds. Structure your thoughts and come up with your “elevator pitch,” the one-to-two minute speech where you convey who you are and what motivates you, your education, work accomplishments and passions, why you want an MBA and what professional goals the degree will help you reach.
Your interviewer wants to assess whether you would contribute enthusiastically to the program, so practice your MBA elevator pitch with multiple audiences until it flows effortlessly and sounds conversational, authentic and, most of all, memorable.
A solid MBA interview won’t necessarily get you in, but a poorly conducted one might keep you out of your dream school. Do your interview homework and use these tips to boost your chances. The final step is simply to relax and enjoy the process.