1. If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.
While you may not have control over the questions you’re asked, you can prepare a set of flexible responses. You should be able to discuss the following:
1. A walk through your resume (Focus on what you accomplished and learned at each job, and then why you transitioned to the next position)
2. Why you chose your undergraduate college
3. A story when you accomplished something extraordinary in the context of your job
4. A story when you influenced stakeholders to help you make an idea become a reality
5. A story when you led a team to produce quantifiable results
6. A story when you failed
8. Why you want an MBA (make it school specific)
2. How to tell your stories
I suggest loosely following the S-O-A-R framework: Situation-Objective-Action-Result. (I also suggest adding one more letter to the acronym: L for “Learned”.)
Situation: Give background and context to the situation such as where you were working, what your role was, and who were the stakeholders involved. Be succinct, yet specific.
Objective: Describe what your goal was, and any obstacles that complicated the situation.
Action: Discuss how you proceeded toward your goal, and how you overcame your obstacles.
Result: Quantify the impact that you had on the situation.
Learned: Tell the interviewer what you learned about yourself from the experience.
Your response should take no more than about 2-3 minutes. You don’t want to bore the interviewer with a lot of theory and tangents. Once you’ve got your top stories down, you have a reservoir from which to pull when you’re on the spot that will be easily adaptable to the interviewer’s questions.
3. Practice with someone who is not your significant other/family member. Then practice with a significant other.
A friend may notice something that a family member, who is closest to you, may not. A family member might be more willing to be frank with you than a friend. A family member might be willing to put in the time with you. An objective party can give you feedback about your first impression and body language. In any case, you want to practice, a lot. Use 2-4 people. (Of course, you are also welcome to do a mock interview or get interview coaching from an Accepted professional, including me.)
4. What’s your latest?
Let’s say they ask you what accomplishment you are most proud of. In your heart of hearts, it might have been working two jobs to put yourself through university. Now that is quite an accomplishment. But if it was more than say, 3 years ago, you need to pull from something more recent. The interviewer might think, ‘Why is he or she not talking about something that you’re doing right now?’
If it truly was a significant achievement from your past, you can use it. But bring that accomplishment into the present, say, by how it influences your values or interests right now.
5. Watch your tone. Focus on teamwork accomplishments, rather than academic results.
Business schools are looking to weed out arrogant, insecure and emotionally immature candidates. During your conversation, don’t pepper your responses with achievements such as high test scores, a high GPA, or a plethora of individual publications. The ad comm can look at your transcript to find out your grades. Alumni really don’t care. Also, don’t argue with them over a question they might have asked you. These types of responses are culturally off putting to US-based interviewers. You want to come across as friendly, at ease, communicative. Again, by preparing teamwork-based stories, you’re going to add to this perception.
6. Non-blind interviews
Schools like MIT and Harvard grant non-blind interviews. That means they’ve taken the time to review your resume and your essays. Most other schools rely on alumni and current students who generally serve as marketing tools for the school, comment on your English speaking skills, and indicate whether or not they would have liked you as a classmate.
In non-blind school interviews, they want to know the details behind the accomplishments you’ve mentioned. They also want to get a sense of the sort of person you are. They may throw some oddball questions your way, just to see how you handle pressure.
They are particularly interested in decision and turning points in your life. Take the time to have an objective person look over your resume to see if they can identify any holes or questions, or lack of link between your past and your future goals. Work on explaining these connections and transitions. Write down SOAR-L’s for all the pertinent bullet points on your resume so that you’re ready to discuss them. Don’t fudge over holes or “bad periods” from your past. Be honest! Say ‘Yes, that was a tough period, but this is what I learned from it. This is what it motivated me to do.’
7. Group interviews
Wharton and Ross now require group interviews. If you can, sign up for a group interview prep service. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time flies, and how you react in a group setting. This experience can prepare you to provide the group with a session framework, without sounding arrogant or pushy. Business schools want to see how you interact with others under pressure. You don’t want to steamroll the other applicants or turn into a shrinking violet. Strive to have your voice heard, but also to be inclusive.
Michelle Stockman is a professional journalist, former Columbia Business School admissions insider, and experienced MBA admissions consultant.