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MBA Interview Questions and What They Really Mean

The MBA interview is the final hurdle that applicants have to scale to get admitted to the business school of their dreams.

And for some applicants, the interview can be the most terrifying part of the application. Yet it doesn’t have to be.

Acing the B-School interview requires that you understand what MBA programs are really looking for. They are trying to get specific information that will help them get an accurate picture of who you are.

So why do admissions folks chose the questions they ask in interviews? I can assure you that the questions are not random.

In fact the admissions board puts a lot of thought into each and every B-School interview question that they ask.

MBA Interview Questions and What They Really Mean

Understanding the question behind the question

So here are some of the most common interview questions that many top MBA programs like to ask and my analysis of what they are really trying to find out.

Walk me through your resume

The interviewer can read so why are they asking you to walk them through your resume? They want you to paint a picture for them. This isn’t an invitation to read or regurgitate your resume. That is incredibly boring!

Rather step back and identify what your brand message is. What is the story line of your life? Who are you? What matters most to you? What motivations do you have? Why did you make the choices you made? These are the things to keep in the back of your mind when going through your resume.

Keep it short (two minutes or less) and see if they have questions and avoid rambling. You don’t have to touch on every bullet on your resume. Focus on the most important elements of your story and experiences that you wish to tell the interviewer.

What are your MBA goals?

How you answer this question will depend on the particular school to which you have applied. Some schools care a great deal about your specific short term and long term plans. Other schools care that you have a general sense of what you would like to explore but that you don’t have it all figured out.

Knowing what a school values will help you tailor your response appropriately. Lack of specificity when answering this question at schools like INSEAD and Columbia will be viewed negatively whereas programs like HBS can be fine with it.

Why us?

This question is assessing how well you know the Business School. No surprise there, right!

Yet, this is a question that can trip up applicants when they haven’t done enough research on the school.  It is very difficult to answer this question effectively without first doing thorough research about the MBA program and also doing a fair amount of reflection on your goals.

The school is looking for you to make a case for how the program will directly impact you given what it is you want to do with the degree. It’s not enough to rattle off general statements.

So saying, for example, that you wish to go to Columbia because it has a strong finance network, great faculty, and tons of student clubs isn’t compelling enough.

You have to drill down further because many top programs offer the exact same things. What is it about Columbia’s finance resources that are a cut above the rest? Which specific faculty are you most excited to work with and why? Which clubs will you engage with while you are at Columbia and how will you create a positive impact on those clubs?

What company do you like outside your industry and why?

B-Schools like candidates who are confident, good communicators and can think quickly on their feet. Being able to speak comfortably about other topics outside of your familiar professional experience is very important in the interview assessment process.

Your ability to defend your ideas coherently assures the interviewer that you can hold your own in their rigorous environment where you will be called upon often to have an opinion. This is particularly the case for schools with a strong emphasis on the case method.

Tell us about a time when….

These types of behavioral questions are designed by the adcom to evaluate your actions within a given situation. The adcom is also testing your judgment. The instances you choose to share can reveal a lot about you to the interviewer so choose wisely.

Behavioral questions are not theoretical. They want you to pick a specific instance and drill down into the details of When it happened, Who was involved, and How you were able to have an impact.

So to answer this question effectively in a business school interview you have to be prepared beforehand with concrete examples that address situations you have faced in the past where you overcame challenges, led a team successfully, went against the norm, etc.

It’s important that you don’t get mired in the details of setting up the story that you lose the interviewer.

Keep these behavioral interview questions succinct so you don’t get sidetracked and long-winded.

What type of leader are you?

Remember that admissions people want diversity. They recognize that there are different leadership styles. The question behind the question here is self-awareness. Be honest when answering this question.

And to answer this kind of question requires that you understand your strengths and shortcomings.

Are you aware of how you operate in a group environment? Do you have examples to illustrate your answer? It’s not enough to say you are a leader.

Going deeper to reveal your sensitivity about what you value and how you engage with people can tell a school a lot about you.

For example, are you someone who leads more from behind or are you someone who comes into every situation with tons of energy and rallies people towards a goal. Some people are charismatic and lead from the front. Others are more laid back. Both are welcome.

Knowing yourself and sharing an anecdote to help the interviewer get a sense of who you are and how you will operate on a team will help you effectively answer this question.

Where else have you applied to?

This is a tricky question! Anyone who is asking you to answer this question is putting you in a difficult situation. But the reality is that this question comes up from time to time in business school interviews.

What’s behind this question? The interviewer wants to know more about who they are competing against should they offer you an admissions offer.

They also can use this question to get a sense of how thoughtful you have been in making your school selection. For example, did you simply choose the top five programs based on rankings or were you more thoughtful in making your school choice?

So how should you answer this question? I don’t advocate lying. At the same time I don’t think you should be obligated to provide a detailed accounting statement of every single application you have submitted.

You could mention a few of the programs you have applied to but make sure you stress that the school is your top choice and mention a couple of reasons why.

No matter what question you face in your B-School interview make sure to reflect on the actual information the adcom is interested in finding out about you.