The Hard Part of the MBA Interview - How to Survive It

This article is a bit of a repeat from one we wrote last year, but it's key this time of year, when it seems like every day a client is getting ready to take on an MBA interview.  

This particular piece is about a harsh reality of that process, which is that every interview is going to take a dip, or hit a rough patch, at some point ... through no fault of anyone involved. Why is this? And how can you address it? Let's dive into it.

What do we mean by the "bad part" of an interview?

The "bad part" of an interview in the way we're referring to it is the part where things start to slide away from the interviewee. It's that moment where you feel like you start to "lose" your audience; where you go from being compelling and charming and totally on point ... to something else that feels distant and foggy and remote. It's a very unpleasant feeling that tends to evoke panic moves and counterproductive responses. It's kind of like getting caught in a rip tide or skidding out in your car - what you should do is go with the current or lean into the skid, but but of course people do the opposite and try to jerk against it and wind up with a crisis. What we are going to teach you today is how to go with the current, and how to turn into the skid. Please understand that we are not talking about total meltdowns here, which are rare. In all our years of doing this, we've only had one or two clients completely botch their interviews. One started crying and another refused to stand behind his own career goals. Other than those (and even both of those were more the fault of the interviewer, it seemed), we've never had people experience true horror stories. We're talking about something more subtle, but no less frustrating, far more common, and something that tends to derail even the best interview subjects.

When does this moment happen in a standard interview?

The moment you start to "lose" the interviewer is almost exactly the same, regardless of interviewee, interviewer (alumni, student, admissions officer, whatever), or school - it happens when the interview shifts from what we call the "nuts and bolts" section (the first 10 minutes after small talk, where you talk about your goals, your interest in the school, your job, etc.) and into the "behavioral" section of the interview. Nearly every school features a chunk of the interview where they ask behavioral questions. This is almost always after the nuts and bolts section and its the place where things tend to lose steam. So you are looking at arriving at the rough patch about 15 minutes into things, right after you've been crushing it, and right when they start asking you questions like "tell me about a time you led a team," or "can you share a time when you stepped in and resolved a conflict within a team," or "when did you have to persuade a group of people," or any other question designed to unpack key b-school traits (or "behaviors") such as leadership, teamwork, persuasive communication, and so forth.

WHY does it happen during the behavioral section?

This is pretty easy to understand if you've ever sat in the interviewer's chair for more than about 10 of these. Collectively, our team has hosted thousands of interviews. Personally, I did probably 500 of them in my past life as an associate director of admissions. Paul did dozens upon dozens as an alumni interviewer. One of our interview gurus did what felt like a million of these on the GSB campus for BCG. We KNOW what it feels like to be that person conducting the interview. And here's the dirty secret: it's almost impossible to be riveted by one of these behavioral stories. During the nuts and bolts section, everything is zipping and moving - your'e talking schools, goals, career paths, motivations, and all the fun stuff that is universal, elemental to the proceedings, and, therefore, interesting. Further, you are also discussing the school in question ("so tell me, why School X?") which is of course the best discussion point of all, because both parties have a mutual interest (one person wants to go there and the other loves it enough to either be working there, going there, or volunteering as an alum from there). However, when you transition to "tell me about a time you led a team," it's just impossible to really care. Schools (at a high level) feel they must ask and tease out these qualities, which is fine in theory, but in practice, it doesn't translate to interesting content. If I am interviewing you and you start telling me about Deal X and Person Y and Conflict Z, I just do not have a personal stake or interest in any of it. So what happens is that the interviewer - who does a bunch of these, remember - starts to drift out during this section. They start thinking about what they will have for lunch or how much longer this will be or maybe even the great stuff you were just talking about. Regardless of what they fixate on, it's probably not your answer to the question at that moment. Therefore, it creates a feeling that the interviewer is disinterested (they are), which creates the feeling that the energy level and dynamic is dipping (it is) ... and that the interviewee is at fault (he or she is not) and that there is something that can be done about it (there is not!). And that's where things start to go sideways.

How does it go sideways?

An interview goes sideways when the interviewee recognize this shift and tries to respond in an ill-fated attempt to get the magic back. Understand this: you are not going to get the magic back. Not yet, at least. However, many people - especially Type A personalities - believe everything is within their power, including dazzling an interviewer. So what they do is start to talk more. And more. And more. And what they talk more about is details. Facts, setup information, tangents. They just start piling on information and they turn a 60-second story about a leadership experience into five minutes of rambling. More facts and details do not make it more interesting. If you have read this post up to this point, you now know that it makes it LESS interesting! You are doing the equivalent of taking out your conversational shovel and just digging a deeper and deeper hole. And this is when an interview goes from "totally normal and good" to "rough."

Okay ... so what should I do?

Obviously, if we are saying that this happens in virtually every interview and that there is a wrong approach, it implies that there is a right one.

To find out that right approach, please contact us for our interview prep services.

Kidding, kidding. We're going to tell you what to do, in three steps:

1. Go in with prepared behavioral stories.

Have 3-5 stories about teamwork, leadership, conflict, and the like. You can use almost any story for almost any prompt, so narrow down what you are trying to keep track of in your head. Telling the right story in an interview is like playing the right song at a party - it's easier if you have a loose playlist ready in advance. Then, you can tweak and adjust based on the exact mood/question, rather than scrambling in a mad panic to find the right song/story from a sea of thousands of choices flying through your mind. Further, you should structure those stories using the same SCAR model we use for our impact essays, which is Situation (15 seconds setting up the scenario), Complication (this is the thing that raises the stakes and makes it interesting and is the specific response to the question they ask - "the reason I needed to step up into the leadership void was X"), Actions (15-30 seconds of what you did), and Results (how it finished up and what you learned about yourself from the experience). If you have that balance, it should take 60-90 seconds to tell your story and it will be clean, easy to understand, and - most of all - something you can stick to.

2. Ride out the rough patch. 

We talked earlier about going with the current or steering into the skid. Well, same thing here. What you simply have to do during this part of the interview is *accept that this is how it is*. It's absolutely unbelievable what we see when we do this job, which is a universe of people who believe that they can bend the world to their whims. Look, we get it - many of you are candidates at elite MBA programs because you have a certain amount of tenacity. However, some things just are what they are. If you try to fight this universal ebb in the interview experience, you will be the person digging away with that shovel and just burying your chances. You become the unlikeable person who patronizes the interviewer with way too much info, or the scattered person who just starts rambling, or any number of unflattering archetypes. And it's all because you can't just going with the flow and accept that which you are powerless to change. Besides, we still have step 3 here. (Between the "powerless to change" stuff and all the steps, it is starting to feel like a recovery program.)

3. Seize your chance to win it all back ... when it arrives. 

Think of it this way: rather than fighting the current to look like a hero in the face of an insurmountable rip tide, why not allow yourself to wash up on shore and then, full of energy, do a few backflips to impress people? That's how the interview works. With a few exceptions (HBS, to name one, which we approach with a slightly different lens with our clients), every single interview experience features a third part after nuts and bolts and then behavioral and it is this: "what questions do you have for me?" This is your chance to completely bring the energy back. Have questions ready to go. Make them good and smart questions (that will interest the interviewer). Show enthusiasm for the answers that they give to you (don't think about how you just did during the "real" interview; stay in the moment). Lean forward, be expressive, be charming. If you engage the interviewer in this last frame, that person will love you. Again, having done this job, I can tell you that it's so rare for people to end on a high note ... yet it's so easy to do! It amazes me how hard people will fight to be dazzling during the impossible stretch, yet they completely fold up their tent during the easy part. Just stay engaged and be a generous conversationalist, listener, and audience (yes, audience - everyone, including interviewers, likes to hear themselves talk and everyone likes to have people laugh at their jokes, humble brags, and self-deprecating comments). It's all there for you at the end and since it's the last part, it's the part they will remember. You will walk out of the room and they will write down "Loved him/her!" on their report. The five-minute lull where the two of you dutifully and robotically cranked out the behavioral section will be long forgotten.

We hope this post helps many, many people be their true selves in their MBA admissions interviews, rather than letting that nervous, eager-to-please side erupt to the detriment of their chances. Steer into the skid, everybody.

If you are looking for help in this process - with interviews or anything else - please email mba@amerasiaconsulting.com.