takes hard work, talent, and charm. Turning it into a colossal disaster is easy, and a lot more fun.
Every year, at every school, promising candidates blow their chances of admission in the interview. Many of the most common mistakes are things that everyone should know not to do. Well, apparently everyone doesn’t know.
Before we get into how people blow it in the interview, it's worth asking: just how much damage can you really do?
Can you actually go from the short list to the scrap heap by screwing up your interview?
The short answer: It depends on the school, but most places you can.
In the video at right, the people at B-School Talk asked admissions officials from Wharton, Kellogg, Stern, and other top programs just that question. The main takeaways:
- The importance of the interview varies greatly from school to school. If anyone can interview, there is a lot less on the line than if it is the last data point the school collects before narrowing its short list down to its accepted list.
- For the most part, though, a terrible interview is a serious obstacle towards your being admitted.
Here's what not to do.
If you're reading this, you probably know better than to show up to your interview unprepared. But this most-obvious mistake is also the most common.
When we asked a number of current business school students about the worst question they had been asked in an interview, one answered:
'They asked about an adversity I had to overcome. I was totally stumped and just sat there.'
Our respondent is at a very good MBA program, but it sure isn't the one he was interviewing for when he got the question above.
If you aren't ready for core interview questions like this, you won't seem serious about impressing the school. Even worse, however, is blanking on questions about why the school at which you're interviewing is the right fit for you; if you can't demonstrate that you know and care about that school, it will stop caring about you.
You can't actually be overprepared for your interview. But you can definitely seem overprepared.
Practicing your answers to standard questions is one of the essential parts of interview preparation. But remember that you are supposed to be having a conversation, not delivering a speech.
This might seem obvious, but one of the most frequent complaints of interviewers is that a candidate's responses sound scripted. If you are well prepared, you will probably get at least one or two questions that are almost exactly what you are expecting. If you deliver an answer that is you have worked out word-for-word, you are likely to sound insincere.
You should know exactly how you would answer the most common questions, but not exactly what you will say. Make yourself come up with new words to express the same answer each time you practice. You want to give the impression that you have given the matter a lot of thought, not that you have prepared a response.
Often, candidates spend a lot of time reviewing their applications only to find that their interviewers haven't even read them. Get over it, this is far better than the reverse scenario.
If an interviewer asks about something you wrote in one of your essays and is met with a blank stare, you are blowing it on a massive scale. At best, you look like you don't care enough to come prepared.
At worst, if you can't speak confidently about an event you wrote about, you will look like a liar. And a lazy liar at that.
That's an easy trap to avoid, yet people stumble into it all the time.
Many business schools use current students to conduct some or all of their interviews. This doesn't necessarily mean that they don't take the results seriously.
These students are generally given very specific instructions on what to look for and what information to report back. If you let yourself relax and behave less professionally because you are speaking to a peer, they will notice, and it will hurt you. If you open up and say things you wouldn't otherwise, you are making a huge mistake.
While a student-administered interview may be just as important, it will likely not be as well-run; this isn't someone who gives interviews for a living. If you end up with a weak interviewer, it might be possible to get through without answering many tough questions. Resist the temptation. If your interviewer is too inept to get anything out of you, you will be the one who suffers when the report goes in. Carry the interview if you have to.
You will inevitably face questions about your weaknesses, as a leader, as an applicant, or as a person.
You need to meet these questions head on, with humility and self-awareness. But you should not betray insecurity or doubt about your fitness as a candidate. If you aren't sure you belong at a top business school, they will be sure you don't.
Questions about your weaknesses should establish that you aren't a complete narcissist, but your main goal with these questions should be to talk about how you have worked through these flaws, and how the school you're talking to is the perfect place for you to develop them into strengths.
Remember, you are selling yourself, not auditing yourself.
Your job in the interview is to sell yourself. If you aren't comfortable doing that, you're in trouble.
That said, you can certainly overdo it. If you have never seen this self-promotional video by Aleksey Vayner, watch it. Vayner was a Yale student applying to investment banks, and distributed this video with his resume. Don't be this guy.
You want the interviewer to be impressed with you, but that doesn't mean you should be impressed with yourself. Demonstrate that you are a great candidate, but don't say that you are. Instead, present your accomplishments in a context of humility and a desire to better yourself.
No one should have to tell you that you have to send a thank you note after your interview. Yet by taking that simple step, you will set yourself apart from a not insignificant portion of the applicant pool.
Getting the basics right -- confirming your interview, bringing copies of your resume, showing up with a few minutes to spare, dressing correctly, and, yes, sending a thank you note -- won't get you in, but getting them wrong is a huge red flag. If you don't have interview ettiquette down, you clearly don't understand the ettiquette of business. Sure, you could still learn, but teaching you these things is not Wharton's job.
Sometimes, it really isn't your fault. Consider this account of an interview at HBS:
Things started off badly as soon as I got out of my car in DC. I was wearing my black suit and was looking pretty pimptacular, if I do say so myself. I tried to put my suit jacket on while holding my portfolio, but I ended up losing my grip and dropped it on the ground. Worst of all, the right sleeve fell into a puddle. At that point, I had a brainstorm and, as soon as I got into the building for the interview, I hit the bathroom, grabbed some paper towels and cleaned all of the dirt off of the sleeve. It looked like I had gotten it all cleaned off while the sleeve was wet, so I just went along my merry way. 10 minutes later, the interviewer came out and, when I extended my hand to shake hers, I saw that there was lint from the paper towels all up and down my sleeve.
If you show up to your interview covered in paper towel residue, you're going to make a bad impression. This guy didn't do anything wrong, but the average person who appears in that condition doesn't care about his appearence, so that's what the interviewer will assume. Trying to explain will only make it worse.
Prepare well, give yourself plenty of time to get there when you are expected, and you should probably be all right. But every now and then, lightning strikes. Keep your chin up; there are always other schools.
If you want to turn your interview into a disaster story for the ages, see how many of these things you can do:
- Show up unprepared, without having thought about why you want to go to business school, and without knowing anything about the program to which you are applying.
- When you do have an answer to a question, make sure you've written it up and practiced it word for word, so that you sound as if you were delivering a speech -- badly.
- You wrote those essays months ago -- who cares what you wrote in them now. Go in with a fresh slate.
- If a student interviews you, relax, you're among friends. 'What's the bar scene like, bro?'
- If you're asked about your weaknesses, this is your time to shine: the way to win the weakness question is to be really, really weak. Bonus points if you can demonstrate why this weakness will prevent you from ever becoming an effective leader.
- You are awesome, and you don't care who knows it. Make sure your interviewer understands that whatever school is graced with your attendance should count itself very lucky indeed.
- Show up late, dress casual, and remember: once you walk out of the room, that's the last time you have to think about your interviewer.
- When all else fails, pray for calamity to strike.
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