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.

The MBA interview is a 3rd date – time to take it to the next level

We’re in MBA interview season, and its been gratifying to see how many R1 clients have come back with interview invitations so far. So, a few observations, hopefully non-obvious ones, on managing MBA interviews. I’ve written a whole additional chapter in my book (2e, 2010) on MBA interviewing, and I’ll be adding a few more thoughts here in the next few weeks.

The first thing is to be ready, willing, and able to go “to the next level.”

In some of the top-tier programs you can choose to be interviewed, but in most it works the other way. They tell you if they want to talk to you. They are saying: “So far, so good. Let’s go to the next level.” You, the applicant, have to meet them there.

Sometimes (depending on the school’s policy) the interview is “blind,” that is, the interviewer has seen nothing but your resume. This means you have to deal a bit more in background-catchup information. Sometimes they have seen your essays, and sometimes your whole file. The point is, whatever the interviewer knows about you going in, your job is to go beyond it.

If she comes out of it thinking, “this person just told me what was in his essays or just repeated what was on her resume,” then you have failed.

Think of the interview as a third date. (In the analogy, your application was the second date; first date was when you visited the campus or met school promo people at a tour venue.) So now there you are on date three. Things are hotting up. You are wooing them successfully so far; they are clearly interested in you. Would you on date three just say again what you said last time? That would be inviting, like, “hello, who is this dork?”

How do you go beyond? First establish what your interviewer knows. It’s fine to ask if she has seen your essays/file — it’s a perfectly professional question. As far as possible, don’t repeat that stuff. But, more importantly, it is time to go beyond the facts of your bio, career, achievements and get to deepening their understanding of you. Tell stories that shed even more light on you as a person, your motivations, your choices, why your goals matter to you; enhance their understanding of the value you bring to the program; give a motivated sense of how great your future is, which they could be part of … third date stuff.

By the way, they are not ready to dim the lights and go to the bedroom. Nor should you be. They are still checking you out, and you are still checking them out. When they send you an admit package, then let the love-fest begin. Expressing interest is fine, but expressing undying adoration for the program, its professors, its reputation and so on, at this stage would be like taking your clothes off in the restaurant.

Insights and tools to gain admission to the world's elite MBA programs