Category Archives: MBA Adcom

‘Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up’

I spent a few minutes today catching up with the Stanford GSB Dean’s “State of  the School, Fall 2010” message, which anticipates the GSB’s move into the new Knight Management Center in Spring 2011.

What caught my attention, from an MBA admissions perspective, is the inscription on the new cornerstone of the new center. How is that for clarity in what Stanford GSB is looking for? Dreaming up — and presumably then building — new things is, literally, the cornerstone of the institution.

So if you are applying to Stanford GSB, you need to have some idea of what (ambitious) business or organization or innovation you may dream up, why it’s important to the world, why you are the person to do it, why SGSB can expect you to succeed, and a sense of how they can help you.

Is this saying, “think small?” Is this saying, “comfortable career track?” “Sure, we want to educate you so you can be a trader in an I-bank, or telecoms strategy consultant…?” I think not. They are not demanding mainline entrepreneurship exactly, but they are demanding those ready, willing, and able to build big new things in the world.

It’s also worth spending the 4 minutes it takes to watch Dean Saloner’s presentation, below, because he integrates key elements in the business school education framework, from perspective to foundations to critical-analytical thinking to innovation to personal leadership in a very joined-up way. As an applicant, it’s worth pausing to think how this simple pattern can be used to structure stories and events in your own life that you are trying to tell Adcom about.

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Managing the MBA admissions interview as a fake fireside chat

As promised, more on MBA admissions interviewing. The difficulty with interviewing (of all types) is that it is a test of “total communication.” That is, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. And this how includes judgment of your expression, tone, confidence, body language, and so on.

The further difficulty is that interviewers “read” these communication signals differently in different contexts and cultures. Now, this is not an anthropology dissertation, and I have no expertise in interview styles across the world, so for clarity let me just stick to US cultural expectations and norms, which are often confusing for foreigners (and Americans too!)

MBA applicants interviewing for a US business school face a contradictory injunction. They are expected to be very formal in dress and politesse before and around the interview, but at the same time (read the guidance on the b-school sites if you don’t believe me) the interview is positioned in *very* familiar terms, as a get-to-know-you event, a conversation, a friendly chat, etc.

This is a “mixed message” if ever there was one. Do they want formal or informal? Both, in different ways. You need to be able to play the formal game, but also be “American” in your ability to be casual and egalitarian across age and authority lines. So while you are dressed like a stuffed chicken, you can still, with permission, call your interviewer “Bob” and so on.

This is, all-in-all, a hard thing to get right for 30 min. One of the images I like to use in interview rehearsal is to get applicants to visualize themselves in a “fireside chat.” That is, to strive for a balanced friendly conversation that bubbles along merrily as if one was having a totally relaxed 1-to-1 in intimate surroundings. This is fake of course, because underneath you have your agenda (transmitting admissions value) and they have theirs (judging you.)

The way get the conversation to bubble along is to make sure there is never a one-way question-vs.-answer dynamic. Bear in mind you can’t ask questions of the interviewer until the very end, when he or she will (formally) signal that this is now appropriate.

So how do you do that achieve a more balanced conversation? One way is not to stop dead when you’re done answering one question, but rather look for a natural segue between topics, ending your answer to one question by saying “which leads me to tell you about…” and then marching off onto new terrain you want to cover. For example, you can end your answer to a “why-an-MBA” question by saying “Which leads me to: why MIT-Sloan? …” Or you can finish a question about managing a tricky report by moving on to how this experience will benefit your team-building skills on campus, and so on.

It’s a technique that has to be used subtly, scanning for visual confirmation that you have permission and are on-topic in broad terms. But if used well, the interview will have a better “formal-casual balance,” and that’s to your great advantage.