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A MBA Applicant’s Guide To Behavioral Interviews

More and more, MBA admissions boards are faced with a large pool of impeccably qualified candidates- great test scores, great work experience, great transcripts. They need to differentiate, and they are using behavioral interviews to do so.

So, what is a behavioral interview?

Behavioral interviews focus on examples rather than factual overviews. The premise is simple: admissions board members will use your past behavior to project your future behavior.

Behavioral Interview

Questions might include:

  • Tell me about a time when a teammate disagreed with you. How did you resolve the situation?
  • Tell me about a difficult challenge that you overcame at work.
  • Give me an example of a controversial decision that you made, and how you managed it.
  • Describe a situation that challenged your leadership abilities.

interviewBehavioral interviewing became part of the business lexicon in the 1970s, as corporations were looking for a better way to screen job candidates. They were tired of simplistic answers, or answers full of corporate buzzwords. They wanted to know how candidates would really behave on the job, and they realized that past experience would be the best indicator. Today, I have heard the same complaints from MBA admissions board members. They don’t want buzzwords or jargon. They want a clear picture of who you are, how you think, and how you act. And that’s why more and more top MBA programs are turning to behavioral interview questions.

How should you prepare for behavior interview questions?

Going into behavioral interviews, you should have a mental “story bank” prepped and ready to go. Several weeks before the interview, begin listing out the traits that you want to display, and noting stories that exemplify those traits. Ideas include:

  • Leadership– Think about times when your leadership has been challenged, times when you have unexpectedly had to fill a leadership role, and situations that taught you valuable leadership skills.
  • Teamwork– You might discuss how you have built high-achieving teams, how you overcame a conflict on your team, how you helped your team turn a failure into a success, or how you made extraordinary efforts to support your teammates.
  • Integrity– Think about situations where you have had to stand up for what you believe in, even when it was not popular.
  • Risk– Interviewers might want to hear about the risks you have taken in business, how you made controversial decisions, and how you reacted to adverse outcomes.
  • High-pressure situations– Describe a time when you were under an extremely tight deadline, or dealing with a particularly difficult client, or faced with an extraordinary challenge.
  • Management– If you have supervised employees, interviewers might ask you to discuss what makes a good manager and how you have exemplified those traits. They might also ask about a time when you have dealt with a difficult employee.

Simply having these examples in mind is not enough. You need to be a good storyteller. Storytelling does not come naturally to everyone, but a bit of practice should help polish your skills.

How can you tell your best story?

The best behavioral responses pack a lot of information into a few sentences. You are on a limited time frame in an interview, so don’t waste your time with unnecessary words and explanations. Focus on condensing your stories into three concise sections:

  • Situation– Briefly explain the situation that you faced (i.e. a business challenge or personnel difficulty). Keep the explanation short, clear and factual, and avoid negativity- you do not want to sound like you are complaining.
  • Action– Explain what action you took or the decision you made, and give your reasoning.
  • Results- This is crucial. You must connect your actions with positive results. The most effective examples include quantitative results and statistics.

To give you an idea of effective storytelling, let’s consider this example response to the question, “Tell me about an unusual challenge that tested your leadership skills.”

“I was a junior consultant on a project with a South American mining company when the senior consultant on my project was called back to the States by a personal emergency. He asked me to lead our five-person team in finishing up the project. It had been a fairly straightforward project, but right after he left, one of the process changes we were focusing on proved too expensive. We had to drastically reevaluate our options to keep the project under budget. I called the team together right after we got the news from the client, and worked to calm their frustrations. We brainstormed other options, and I was able to draw parallels between this client and a past project I had worked on in the oil industry. Using those similarities I proposed a new process and worked with the team to craft a step-by-step implementation plan and cost analysis. We were able to present this new plan to the client within two days of learning of the change. The innovation that I suggested resulted in approximately 15% cost savings and now, a year out, production at that firm is up by 10%. The client was very pleased, and continued to request my participation in future projects.”

Do you see why this story is effective? It gets to the point quickly, keeps the action moving, and at the end, provides clear, concrete results. It gives the MBA admissions board member a great anecdote to hold onto as they leave the interview, and will be memorable as they review candidates later.

In telling your story, there are several pitfalls that you should avoid:

  • Failing to explain a challenge– The examples that you choose should have a clear and significant challenge. You do not want your interviewer wondering what makes your story exceptional.
  • Rambling– It’s easy to get lost in the details of your story, but you don’t have unlimited time. Keep your examples concise.
  • Failing to show results– Concrete, actionable results are crucial. You want to prove that you can act effectively and add value.

Behavioral Interview


Behavioral interview questions are a wonderful opportunity to show what you can do, but they often require more preparation than traditional interview questions. Practicing these types of questions should be a significant part of your MBA interview prep, as you will likely face several of them. Focus on developing compelling examples and articulating them well. Write out a script if you have to, or practice sharing your stories with a friend. If you practice well beforehand, you will be calmer as your interviewer fires of that first question and you will be capable of answering in a concise, compelling and memorable manner.

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