The interview was going great, my friend said, until they got to the “How can you contribute to our program?” This was just last month, at an interview for the MBA program at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Booth’s interviews are by invitation only, and my friend’s interviewer had a similar background to his, so he felt confident discussing his professional background, career goals, and why he was seeking the MBA.
On top of that he had prepared well for all the core questions, including “How can you contribute to our program.” He had researched Booth’s clubs and other outside-of-class activities and drawn clear links between his past/present extracurriculars and potential participation at Booth. But when he said, “I’m really excited about joining Net Impact (a community service club) to build on my past work with several non-profits,” the interviewer caught him off-guard with a follow-up: “Great, so whom have you talked to at Net Impact about getting involved and which of their current initiatives are most appealing to you?”
Uh oh. My friend hadn’t communicated with anyone in the club, and couldn’t remember their current initiatives, though he had seen some examples online during his research. He stumbled a bit then mentioned that he was “in the process of getting that information.” They moved on, and the remainder of the interview went well, though my friend was concerned that he had “blown it.”
I reassured him that while it would have been ideal to have strong answers to the probing questions, he probably hadn’t killed his chances. But he’d learned a valuable lesson, one familiar to anyone who’s ever been part of the Boy Scouts of America organization: Always be prepared. While it’s impossible to talk to an active member of every club you’re interested in at every program to which you apply, it’s very reasonable to reach out to current students at several schools, especially those involved in studies or activities you’re aiming for and especially those at your top-choice programs. That way you can mention these specific interests with enthusiasm and confidence, knowing you can back up your statements with references to deep research and some communication with current students or alumni.
A little contact can go a long way: for example, if my friend hadn’t been in touch with anyone from Net Impact but had talked to someone in the Marketing Club, he could have said something like, “I’m in the process of making contact with students in Net Impact, just like I did with Joe Student in the Marketing Club, who told me about initiatives A and B, which would be perfect for my career goals.” That would have transformed his stumbling into a graceful and positive sidestep.
As a final note, you get extra credit not just for knowing a lot about what the school offers but also for knowing its lingo: for example, Kellogg’s Global Initiatives in Management program (through which students study international business practices) is abbreviated GIM but pronounced “gym,” not G-I-M; the school’s Friday happy hour, typically sponsored by student clubs, is called TIGI, but pronounced “tee-jee.” Like my friend’s stumbling on the Net Impact question, mispronunciations won’t take you out of the running, but they may let other, more lingo-savvy candidates pass you up.
For general interview tips and examples of recently asked questions from Booth, Kellogg, and other top b-schools, check out the MBA Interview section of our site. And if you want in-depth interview practice, any Accepted editor would be happy to help.