How to prepare for an MBA interview at an American school

It's interview season, so if you're reading this you're probably preparing for your business school interview. I know you're nervous, but these interviews aren't harder than college interviews or other grad school interviews. Just make sure you research your school's interviews because a few use special formats. Most, however, follow the same question-and-answer format that you typically think of when you think of interviews. 

So how should you prepare?

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How to prepare for your MBA interview: before, during, and after the interview

BEFORE THE INTERVIEW

1. Prepare your selling points (your strengths)

Your #1 job in your interview should be to show your main strengths, also known as your selling points. I recommend that you plan 5 or so key pieces of information that you want to talk about during the interview, the pieces of your experience or personality that show who you are. 

How you can highlight your strengths in your interview

Last week I was helping two students prepare for their MBA interviews. Look at what they said to get an idea of what I mean by "selling yourself" or "highlighting your strengths."

Student 1. When I asked her to "Tell me about herself," which is a popular interview question, she talked about how she was an accounting major in college, how she had three internships in banking and accounting during the summers, how at one of them she revamped the record-keeping structure to make it more efficient, and how her mother was a professor and how she planned to be an accounting professor after working at one of the Big 4 accounting firms in the US first.

While there were other things on her resume, this is what she highlighted when she talked (and it was the same things she'd written about in her essays). This was a good answer, because it was so targeted to accounting (and finance), a topic clearly related to an MBA. This targeted answer was her way of "selling" herself, which means she emphasized her main strengths, and made sure these were related to her goal of getting into an MBA program.

Student 2. When I asked her "How she would describe herself," which is another way of asking this same popular question, she told me she liked music, and math, and playing soccer, and she was in the French club, and she was a very friendly person. 

These are all good interests but there was no theme or main idea that grouped them together, so they didn't give me an idea of the type of person she was. Also, these aren't really the type of interests that explain why she wants to do an MBA, except maybe the math. For instance, being friendly is not the top quality you need in business school, so it didn't help her answer. 

Student 1 did better in the interview because she gave a targeted answer that highlighted her strengths and goals. You may be interested to know that her GPA and test scores were much lower than Student 2, but her good communication skills gave her a chance to get into the school. Student 2 may still get into the school because her grades were good, but her interview didn't help her at all. 

Prepare before the interview so you can target your answers like Student 1 did.

You could say that you were on the math team and won national awards; you could say that you were on the cross country team and learned discipline from running; you could talk about a summer job you had where you learned how to give presentations; you could talk about how you failed to get a promotion because you made a mistake and then say what you learned from that failure.

There are an endless number of possible strengths. It's your job to choose your own strengths, the ones that will be most relevant to succeeding in business school.

2. Research the school/schools you're applying to

Use the internet and the hard copy admissions materials. 

This will make you stand out from applicants who didn't do research and will help you answer the potential question: "Why do you want to go to our school?" This is a very common question.

Find specific information that you can use in your answer. For instance:

  • What is their mission statement?
  • What type of student do they like?
  • Do they have any classes that you want to take?
  • Any clubs you want to join?
  • Where is the school? If it's in a big city like Boston you can say that you're excited to have the chance to see such a great city. If it's in a rural location, like Cornell or the University of Rochester, you might not want to talk about the location unless you can say you like to go hiking or you like the outdoors. 

3. Practice answers to common interview questions

Write your answers down and then say them aloud in front of a mirror or video camera. If you write and speak the answers you'll know better how the answers sound and you can fine-tune them.

Do a mock (practice) interview with someone. This can be a friend or an interview coach. It really helps to practice with another person. Since you're going to be interviewing in English, try to find someone who speaks it better than you to practice with.

Here's a list of the most common MBA interview questions

Tell me about yourself

Your answer should be about 1.5 to 2 minutes. Include:

  • Where you're from. Unless you’re from a well-known city, say “I’m from X, a city in the middle of China,” or wherever it is. Make sure to say the name clearly and slowly.
  • Your undergrad education; why you chose your major – don’t say that you wanted to make money – say that you have always been interested in business (or another reason, but don’t mention money)
  • Any graduate education
  • Any work experience 
  • Give some examples of things you worked on during school or work and say how well you did on them. 
  • Your career goals
  • Why you're here now applying to this school

*If there is something about you that makes you different from all of the other MBA applicants, mention it here. 

Why are you interested in an MBA? / Why have you decided to apply to business school?

This should include your career plan and how the degree will help

What are your short- and long-term career goals? How do you plan to use your MBA? 

I assume you do have career goals so this question should be easy for you to answer. But don't talk about money.

Why are you interested in our school? / Why does our program appeal to you?

  • Location (you can mention this but it shouldn't be the only reason)
  • Faculty
  • Coursework
  • School’s connections with specific industries and companies
  • Any unique resources the school has

The answer should be very specific. Don’t just say “because this is a great school.” All schools are good – you have to say what about this school is so good it makes you want to go there. This will prove that you've done research (and not just looked at the website).

Where else are you applying?

Better not tell them any higher-rated schools, because they'll assume you'll choose them if accepted. 

Discuss a time when you were a leader. / What kind of leader are you?

Give one example here (show that you did something and then got results from it). 

Have several examples ready because they may ask you this question more than once. They won’t ask it with the same words, but they may ask you for examples of your leadership in different ways (tell me about a successful project you worked on, what was your favorite project in school or at work, how did you overcome a challenge, etc.)

When you answer these questions you should be highlighting the success and how you helped create the success.

Tell me about a time when you overcame a difficult challenge at work. 

These two questions are behavioral questions, which are the ones where you have to give an example of your past experience in your answer. Use the STAR method as a structure for your answers. 

There are other behavioral questions you might get asked too, so try to think of some stories about your past experience that you can use for questions about teamwork, leadership, challenges, successes, etc.

Why should we accept you?

Use academic/professional successes and how they make you a good fit

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

When you talk about your weakness, show that you have a plan to fix it. 

What will you contribute to our campus?

How do you plan to get involved in things, either academic clubs or other activities that the school has?

What are you most looking forward to in business school?

Your answer should have something to do with academics.

What have you read recently?

If you haven’t read anything, pick something that is relevant to your future field. And really read it. Imagine if you say you've read it and then they've read it too and ask you questions about it.

What do you think about (something that is happening in the news)? 

So many of my clients can't answer these questions. I always ask them what they think about President Trump just to test them and they don't even have an opinion they can express. This is terrible.

You're about to be in school (if you're lucky) with smart, informed people who know what's happening in the world. Start reading the international news now.

Your interviewer knows what's happening in the world, and in the US since this is where your future school is, so you should too. And just to be clear, I don't mean read your Facebook news feed. I mean read the Wall Street Journal and if you also want more news, the New York Times

Don’t get political in your answers, just say something neutral. Always remember that your interviewer may have the opposite political views from you. 

I'm not kidding. They will likely ask you a question like this. 

Other possible questions: 

You should be able to discuss each job on your resume and each degree you have. For each of these, think of:

  1. Which was your favorite (project/job/class)?
  2. What did you learn (in this class, in that job)?
  3. Did you ever fail (a class, in a project, at a job)? Everyone fails, so you should say that yes you failed, but then you learned how to do it better next time. 

Also, since you are a foreign student, you may be asked:

Do you think your English is good enough to succeed in our program?

You should say yes, you think it is. You can say you know it's not perfect, but it's good enough to do the work and you are continuing to improve it. 

4. Prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewer

You should have at least 3 questions to ask them. These should be things you can't find on the website.

5. Prepare for small talk

Interviews in America often begin with casual conversation called "small talk" — usually right after the greetings and introductions. 

The interview is testing your social skills and your communication skills and your personality. For that reason, the small talk part of the interview is just as important as the question part. 

it's important because the interviewer is evaluating you while you're talking.

How to be likable during small talk

  • Be polite
  • Be positive and enthusiastic – don't complain about anything, even something small like the weather
  • Smile
  • Listen to the other person (don't interrupt) and show that you're listening by nodding your head, etc.
  • Keep your answers short
  • Make eye contact
  • No phone – your phone should be on silent and in your pocket or bag. Do not look at it! 

There are thousands of questions that could be part of the small talk phase. Here are some of the most common.

Basic greeting

Interviewer: "How are you today?"

You: "I’m fine, thank you. How are you?" 

Weather

Interviewer: "Isn’t this great weather we’re having?"

You: "Yes, I love spring."

or

Interviewer: "Isn’t this terrible weather we’re having?"

You: "Yes, it won't stop raining. I hope it changes soon."

I realize these seem unimportant and they aren't important topics, but the interviewer is judging your ability to make conversation.

You ask questions

Answering questions is part of every interview, but asking them is also important, even during small talk. You don't want to have a long silence during the conversation. If your interviewer isn't talking, it's time for you to say something. A question is always good.

Write down a list of questions you can ask and look at it right before your interview starts or use the ones below.

10 topics you can ask questions about during small talk

*Topics to avoid: politics, religion, money, family

1. The school

Did you go to school here?

2. Location: neighborhood/city/state

Do you live near the school?

3. Sports

  • Don't ask about soccer (non-Americans call it football) since many Americans don't watch it
  • Keep track of what sports are played during which seasons in America, so you ask questions about the right one

Did you see the Red Sox game last night?

4. Arts and entertainment

  • Current TV shows or movies are usually safe although they may not watch it or have seen it — be prepared if they say "no"

Did you see the last episode of Game of Thrones?

5. News

  • Anything happening in the news can be a good topic but avoid politics.

Have you been watching the Olympics?

6. Travel

  • Since you're not from the US, you can ask them if they've ever been to your country.

Have you ever been to Argentina?

Are you planning to travel this Christmas/this summer/this Thanksgiving? — use this if there is a holiday approaching

7. Random

  • This can be about anything, as long as it's a general and acceptable topic and appropriate for the situation

I see you have a Starbucks downstairs. Do you like their coffee?

8. Comment about an object in the office or wherever you are meeting

I like your photo (something on the office wall).

9. How the day has been so far

Have you been busy today?

Are you usually busy on Fridays?

DURING THE INTERVIEW

Brag about yourself

The point of an interview is so that you can tell and show that you're the best person for the position. You show this by wearing the right clothes and having the right body language, etc., but you also have to tell.

I know for many people, especially women, it's difficult to talk about how good you are at something.

Also, in many cultures it's considered impolite to focus on yourself instead of the group.

American interviewers (and also ones from other English speaking countries) expect a candidate to be able to talk about their strengths and accomplishments in their interview. If you don't, they won't know how perfect you are for the opening.

Avoid negativity

Don't say anything bad about your past jobs or colleagues.

Stick to safe topics

No politics, religion, personal problems, or family issues. Don't bring up family unless you're asked a direct question about it. Here in America, we don't talk about our families with strangers (this definitely includes interviewers). Be aware of this, especially because it may not be the same in your country.

Obviously, if your interviewer asks you about an unusual topic, you're free to answer if you feel comfortable doing so, but don't bring one up yourself.

Ask questions

You don't have to wait until the end of the interview to do this. In fact, you should be asking questions as you go. If you don't ask any questions, you'll be showing a lack of interest. Even if the interviewer has already told you everything you want to know, you need to ask other questions. You should have prepared a list of questions before the interview, about the department, your future colleagues, or the school.

Pay attention to your language

  • Avoid saying um, uh, like, you know, or using other filler words.
  • Avoid slang.

AT THE END OF THE INTERVIEW

Ask any questions you haven't already asked

You should have been asking them during the interview, but you should probably ask one or two now, so that you seem interested and so that it's clear you did research.

Say that you're very interested in the program and ask about the next steps in the process.

Say thank you to the interviewer

If you don't already know their contact info, ask for it now.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

Send a thank you note within 24 hours

I suggest sending your note via email immediately, as they will probably be writing their comments in your file right after the interview is finished. 

Mistakes people make in interviews

1. Memorizing answers

Some people practice too much for their interviews. You don't want to say each word in the same tone because you will sound like a robot. I know you want to give a good answer, but good does not equal memorized. If you have this problem, throw your script away and make bullet points about the things you want to say but don't write each word down. Many Chinese students do this.

2. Being shy

They need to get to know you. Don't give yes or no or one-sentence answers or look away from the interviewer. This is particularly common with Asian students.

3. Not using facial expressions

Many Asians do not make large or noticeable facial expressions like Americans do. This makes you seem unfriendly or shy.

4. Phone on

Your phone should be off before you walk into the room. If your interview is online, your phone and all your computer notifications should be off before the interview starts. 

5. Forgetting things about your own life

I am always surprised when I ask someone a question about their favorite class or their favorite project and they can't remember. How can you forget the classes you took in college when you are still in college? How can you not remember what you did at a summer job when you are only 23? Please review your resume and college transcripts so that you can talk about every single thing that happened to you in school/at work before today. 

6. Being too honest

Here's an example of how you can be too honest:

Interviewer: "How are you today?"

You: "I’m pretty nervous actually. I need to get accepted to this program!"

This answer is bad for two reasons. (1) It is negative, and you should always have a positive attitude during an interview. (2) You sound desperate. Of course you need to get accepted, that's why you're there. You don't need to say it.

7. Asking the wrong questions

Don't ask about financial aid. You can ask about that some other time. Also avoid asking about the typical hours the students study every week. You can discuss this if the interviewer brings it up, but if you ask about it yourself you'll make a bad impression. 

I hope this post helped you plan your MBA interview strategy. 

If your interview is online (Skype, etc.) read these two articles about video or Skype interviews:

 

Checklist for Skype interviews

INSEAD video interview tips

If you need help preparing for your interview, you can email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers. We'll work together on answers to questions you'll be asked in your interview. From communicating with your interviewer before the interview to greeting your interviewer and how to structure your interview answersI'm focused on your interview success every step of the way.