Tag Archives: MBA applicant

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.

Answering the QS World MBA Tour’s admissions questions in 100 words or less

Topmba.com recently asked for my brief and succinct summary input for an upcoming story on MBA application essays and letters of recommendation. If nothing else it was a challenge in writing tightly. And as it turned out, it provides a summary of some key deliverables and concerns, so I thought I’d share the experience here:

What should/shouldn’t MBA applicants include in their admissions essays?
Applicants should include points that carry admissions value. What is value? Any attributes or experiences that are relevant to peer education and not common in the applicant pool; anything that will get you noticed or make you stand out as a worthwhile addition to the classroom, on campus, and one day in the alumni network. What not to include? Don’t praise the school (they know they’re good); don’t repeat items on your resume; don’t denigrate anyone or any organization; don’t whine about life’s obstacles or blame others. Finally, don’t state the obvious — if you are talking about water you needn’t add that it is also wet.

Who should/shouldn’t they ask for letters of recommendation?
Reco’s are Adcoms only reliable way of finding out what you are like in a professional environment. Therefore, do not ask one of an old professor, your yoga instructor, your priest and so on. You need a reco from your current work supervisor (if not, explain why not) and other reco’s should come from other current or past professional supervisors who know you well. Don’t go for someone with a great title, who hardly knows you. Whoever you get — make him or her give examples and specific instances to back up their claims about you. Brief them on your application content so their communication is consonant with your own. Ask them to to address and reassure Adcom on any weaknesses apparent in your resume, if applicable.

What are the biggest mistakes that many applicants make in their essays?
One common mistake is to try be like a “business school applicant.” There is no one such thing; you will just sound generic and boring. Be yourself, and you will sound genuine and alive and interesting-to-meet. Don’t forget to give specific examples which create interest for the reader. Further, it’s pointless to claim an experience or attribute without giving some proof (a specific example or event or data or awards that demonstrates the attribute is real.) Also, don’t imagine that your reader is a financial or technical person. Adcoms members have a real mix of backgrounds, but at heart they are human resources professionals, and MBA admissions is an HR function.

What are optional essays? Should applicants bother writing them, as they are optional?
Optional essays are used to mitigate a weakness or explain something that may be confusing about your background or career path. They are not a way to get more text in. It is a statement of strength as an applicant not to have to use the optional essay. Only use it if you have something specific to address, and when you’ve addressed it, stop writing — there is no requirement to go to full essay length.