‘I’ve traveled the world, this is good for MBA admissions, right?’

I’d estimate that 3 out of 5 MBA applicants to top-tier schools have traveled widely, for work or for fun. It follows that in their MBA applications they cite travel as an activity they value and put it among the important experiences they have had. They think that journeying across the world speaks for itself as proof of “diversity.” Travel “broadens the mind” and all that.

This is true. But there is a lot of value to be had in travel that MBA applicants often don’t get to. Here I tip my metaphorical hat to the mother of an MBA Studio client who gave her son the following feedback — before he came to me — which absolutely dovetails with how I exhort clients to squeeze admissions value from their travel (and other) experiences. I quote:

“I don’t think you have written something meaningful enough about your travels. You have traveled widely but it looks like it doesn’t seem to have influenced you, affected your outlook about people, society.

“Perhaps write something meaningful about poverty, and yet the ingenuity of people who have very little but are innovative, creative, hard working.

“Can you think of reasons why you chose to travel to these places, culture, philosophy, history, etc.?

“Some insight into the way you and your friend chose to travel, no fuss, not staying fancy places.

“This travel was a test also in being independent, showing initiative, taking calculated risks in foreign places. (You don’t give yourself sufficient credit for these things.)”

If all mothers had this depth of insight, I’d be out of a job. But, seriously, the task here, and everywhere in MBA admissions, is to extract the full admissions value from any activity you have done, experiences you’ve had, or choices you’ve made.

Look at your experiences, look at the skill sets and character traits of middle-to-senior managers, and make the link.

In this case an applicant following this advice would be showing Adcom not just “travel,” but a nuanced outlook on foreign cultures; an appreciation of genuinely alternative value systems and social cohesion including alternative forms of innovation; a non-materialist sensibility; an ability to ride out adversity; practice at calculated risk-management, and so on. Now this is a platform a good b-school can build on, to create a senior manager for significant 21st Century organizations.

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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.

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