Category Archives: MBA Interviews

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good” profile application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a cop-out.

What I mean is–putting it another way–the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you, it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question, using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative-writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything–you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

 

‘Fast-Thinking’ in MBA Admissions and How to Manage It

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, 2011) documents how decision-makers arrive at decisions, either instantly without a lot of mental hard work — “fast thinking” or by “slow thinking” which means full analytical process.

Fast thinking is going on when you have a “first impression” of someone, and of course when an MBA Adcom member forms a first impression of you.

On a similar theme, Blink (Little, Brown & Co, 2005) by Malcolm Gladwell, makes a further claim — that instant judgments oftentimes produce better, more accurate, conclusions than those made by way of exhaustive analysis.

Whether “blinking” provides a better basis for decision-making than formal analysis or not, the point is fast thinking and slow thinking are both at play decision-making, whether the decision-maker is aware of it or not.

The implication for MBA admissions is that, while b-school Adcoms everywhere would assert that they rigorously analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each applicant, there is also considerable “fast thinking” involved in how they choose.

Note that Adcom essay readers and committee members are not seeking to make an “impressionistic” judgment. In fact the opposite is true. But they will be picking up impressions at every turn. After all, they have to make a big call, fairly quickly, about a complex situation (you and your future prospects) and they don’t actually have that much analytical material to go on.

Fast thinking is the way the MBA admissions committee will get its working impression of your personality, motivation, determination, charisma, team orientation, and overall prospects, all of which will precede and then run in parallel with their more formal analysis.

Before Adcom even gets to fully considering your grades and scores, performance metrics, and work history, they will have formed an impression from the first things they see. It’s hard to know what they will see first of course, but very often it will be the file data and/or resume.

An impression will form almost immediately and build through the course of considering your application, as they continue to absorb first impressions about each part of it–the essays, particularly their erudition and tone; the tone and warmth of recommendations and interview report, and so on. (The interview itself is of course another first-impression decision situation.)

Managing fast thinking:

The best way to deal with fast thinking is to realize it is there, and always will be, and provide ways for admissions officers to use this mode in judging you.
• Expecting snap judgments about your motivation, take care that everything you submit is carefully checked and complete.
• Expecting snap judgments about your pre-MBA work experience, take care to get the highlights high up in the essay.
• Expecting snap judgments about your professionalism, take care that any correspondence you enter into (by phone or email) is scrupulously professional, and so on.
Play to the first-impression mode first, and follow this with data and detail that corroborates the impression.

MBA Admissions Interviews and the Art of the 45-Second Story

It’s interview season and I’ve been fielding a lot of questions, ranging from the specific (most commonly, how to prepare for the Wharton “team-based discussion” interview) to the general “what questions should I focus on?”

A lot of MBA admissions ink has been spilled on Wharton’s team-based discussion, so let me just say this: the form is different to a classic interview, but MBA adcom’s goal is the same. That is, they are looking for the same things they always were – the bright, personable applicant who stands out as a communicator and a beacon of good values, while being highly driven and achievment-oriented.

As they are looking for the same thing b-schools have always looked for, it is a bit of pouring old wine into new bottles. You prepare yourself in all the same ways as before, but in this case an additional familiarity with the team-discussion format is no bad thing.

The Wharton interview format is part of the cat-and-mouse game between MBA adcoms and admissions advisors, where adcom seeks a format less prone to preparation and admissions advisors respond by adjusting their menu. See this Wharton Premium Interview Preparation service ($500) from Accepted.com which I’m happy to be associated with.

More generally, how should you prepare for the interviews? Here are some bases to cover:

Look across the interview reportbacks that are freely available on the Web. This will give you a flavor of what to expect. But don’t over-focus on a specific question that appears to “come up” a lot for a particular school. By all means prepare yourself for it, but don’t bank on it.

Do, however, focus on the questions most candidates are asked most commonly. This is the 80-20 rule in action: a few common questions are asked again and again, and these questions are not a secret. They are ones you should be able to recognize by now: “Walk me through your resume; Why do you want to do an MBA; Why here; Why now; How will it help you towards your (What is your) career goal, short term and long term; How will you contribute to the program; What do you bring to the program that is unique?

There are many other common questions, but these are the basics. If you are deeply prepared on these, for the rest as long as you don’t roll over any landmines (aka red flags) you will do well.

What’s a landmine? Space doesn’t permit me to go too deeply into this here, but I’ve blogged about it consistently here over the years. Suffice to say, if you say something that moves you towards social prejudice or personal badmouthing or psychological instability or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know, you’re probably too close to a landmine.

Anyway, to the points I wanted to make today. This is

(a) be ready to bring facts and

(b) 45-second stories.

Notice any persuasive politician, President Obama for example. When he talks he doesn’t say “average household food costs were better this year.” He says national food retail prices dropped 1.6% year-on-year, following 2.2% improved harvest yields in six breadbasket states despite a $12 per-barrel hike in the global oil price.

Likewise, when talking about yourself, don’ t say “I have made rapid career progress recently.” Give the interviewer good reasons to believe you.

Your other go-to proof device is use of story form. Don’t say you “faced many dangers” on a project. Say say you were off-site, starting at 6am with a rig inspection and ending at 10pm with your explosives assessment call to the Montana office. Stories naturally supply facts. They bring your real-world experience to life. And they are also easy on the listener. Everyone likes a good story.

MBA admissions interviews are 30 minutes on average, so you don’t have a second to squander. It’s likely the admissions value from any story in your life can be captured in the first 45 seconds if you tell it right. So, prep yourself around short, illustrative career and life stories you can tell in under a minute.