A Guide to the MBA Personal Interview

Note: This is a work in progress. This post is basically a transcribed version of a webinar I conducted recently. I will get to improving this soon. However, I have been pushing it back, so posting as is for now.

 

What it is?

An interview is basically on an average 15-20 minute conversation with you on one side and two to three interviewers (Faculty or alumni of the institute) on the other wherein you can ask for any clarification or for a question to be repeated and even own up not being sure of any answer. So remember interview is not an interrogation but a polite and formal conversation!

Why?

So you might wonder why conduct an interview in the first place?

To assess whether the candidate would:

  • Be able to undergo the program
  • Prove to be an asset
  • Be a positive influence on the peers
  • Be able to follow the rigorous management curriculum

To know about your:

  • Skills and strengths
  • Willingness to learn
  • Problem solving, Initiative
  • Interpersonal skills

They want to understand the upward trending path of your career and know where does a MBA fit in your graph.(Pic)

Like a student is thinking of giving both GMAT and GRE and depending on which university gives a call will decide whether to pursue MBA or MTech. Now this not the correct way. You must know your future plans and how MBA fits into it. If you haven’t thought of it, this is the time to do so. you must understand than MBA is a means not an end in itself. If you know where you want to go then MBA could be a means to get there. Only if you know!

So basically they want to understand you, whether your thought process is logical and future goals inspirational.

For example if you say, “I want to be a CEO of a company in 10 years”. Is this logical? Do you know of any such person? If you can prove it in say 10 steps, then accepted, if not then you need to check the logic behind it and be realistic too.

 

How?

Past:

  • Academics
  • Work experience
  • Extra-curricular
  • Current affairs/ GK

In academics you need to be through with at least 2-3 subjects and also have in mind the big picture where your field of study/work is concerned.

  • For example if you are an electrical engineer then you should know the difference between electronic and electric or say how a circuit works along with how one gets electricity in the room or how the tube light or fan is working etc. The big picture also includes the latest going news related to the field.

Present:

  • Interview
  • Communication
  • Interpersonal

Future:

  • Goal clarity
  • Thought-through
  • Why MBA

Highlights

Show ‘highlights’ from each of these aspects. This is whatever good you have done or what you want the interviewer to know. Understand the reason why the word highlight is being used instead of more commonly used word ‘achievements’. This is because when you say achievements you tend to think of certificates, mark sheets or other such physical laurels as proof. Highlights is a superset of achievements so you go beyond just certificates and talk about your experiences, your learning and other such important aspects too which have shaped your growth process.

  • For example, you learnt to play a musical instrument in a span of 5months and played in front of 1500 people. You might not have a certificate but it is an achievement nevertheless, so highlight.

You must showcase result and the impact it had.

  • For example, you were the star of the month as an employee. This is good but you need to say how you became one, why you deserved it and what impact it had.
  • Another example, an employee says that he was able to develop a software which helped increase the efficiency by 50% which in turn saved 4 man hours every day which in turn led to $50,000 saving per month. This shows result and impact clearly, both of which are important.

Maintain balance between how recent an highlight is and how big the magnitude of the highlight is.

  • For example: You were in the choir in class 3 does not mean much but that you won the national Olympiad in class 5 maybe of importance.

The onus is on you to define the magnitude and scale of an event.

Put the highlights in perspective.

  • For example, just saying you stood third in a marathon does not mean anything but saying you stood third in 1500 people means something.

Show don’t tell!

Instead of mentioning you are a hard worker, tell them an situation where you were able to achieve outstanding results using your hard work.

  • For example, saying you stood second in G.K quiz in zonal level if fine but saying it that you stood second where there were 42 other teams participating gives it magnitude.

Basic objective of an interview prep is to develop a ‘Narrative’.

Your resume lists all that you have done but does not say why?

  • For example your resume says you did X degree from Y college. One way to develop a narrative is to add ‘why’ to it. This one word will help you develop a complete narrative for your resume and you can build a complete story around it.

Instead of waiting for your interviewer to ask you about your highlights, you must go in with at least 5 highlights ready in your arsenal, looking for opportunities where you can fit any of those. A great place to fit in your highlights is if you are asked about your strengths. If you are asked to give an example of where you met with an challenge and how you overcame it, that is an excellent place to plug in a highlight.

You have to show how multifaceted you are and how you have been able to do well in different aspects. You are expected to have at least 5 different highlights to speak about. You can’t keep going back to only one. For example: I did a project in final year where I did great. I did a project in final year where I got a scholarship. The onus is on you as to how well you have been able to communicate your highlights in the interview. You should not come out saying ho you completely forgot to say something like maybe that you are a black belt in karate.

So most important go in with 5-7 highlights prepared trying to fit in wherever possible and definitely not reciting them all at once. Perhaps 1-2 can come in your introduction itself, a few when asked about your strengths and then try finding opportunities yourself.

How to communicate highlights: These should not be just statements but in form of stories.

Framework to Build a complete story:

START

  • S/T: Situation/ Task – a brief introduction to the situation you were in
  • A: Action – The action(s) you took in the given situation
  • R: Result – How your action(s) resulted in a positive (or negative – if asked for a failure) outcome for you/ your team/ your company
  • T: Take-away – What you learnt from the experience, and how you are a better person because of it.

For example: Instead of saying I handled or I was the coordinator of an event in college, start with explaining the situation(don’t spend too much time though)

  • ST: Every year we have a cultural fest which has a budget of 50 lakh rupees. In my year I was the president but during the session we were not able to get any of the previous sponsors on board.
  • R: I pursued all contacts I had, my friends and their contacts too. Contacted 500 people on LinkedIn, few other people through a different medium as a result of which we were not only able to meet our target of 50 lakhs but exceed by 5 lakh in our year.
  • Takeaway (What you learnt, how you are a better person because of this story): I learnt that sales is difficult. First no does not really mean anything. You have to been consistent and persistent and convince people. If they see value they will come on board, recession or not.

As a rule of thumb, the action and result should form the maximum part of your story. You should not talk about the entire team like the situation faced by the team should not be the main part because they are here to interview you and are more interested to know what challenges you faced and how you overcame them. So maybe you give a big picture and then quickly come to how you were handling things. Focus primarily on yourself.

  1. R-Par
  • Result (headline)
  • Problem
  • Action
  • Result

Start with the headline: I was able to achieve ——- and then go back to what the initial problem was, what actions you took and what were the results.

You need to decide which framework works better in a particular situation.

Filters:

  • Future: Focus on future, instead of past
  • Positive: Look at positive of next thing instead of negative of previous
  • Self: Focus on yourself. Do not generalize your answers

Sample question: Why did you leave <job 1> and move to <job 2> within 6 months of joining <job 1>?

Sample answer 1: In <job 1> I was quite unhappy with the kind of work I was given. I did not see myself spending very long in such a role. I tried to discuss this with my manager. However, he was not very receptive. Moreover, <job 2> was in a much bigger company. So, obviously, it was a no-brainer for me.

Sample answer 2: <Job 2> was offering me an amazing opportunity. Not only would I have had more responsibility, but the role was also doing something I enjoyed more. I understood that I hadn’t spent enough time in <job 1> to be able to contribute at my full potential. I discussed the opportunity with my manager at <job 1>. Although not very happy with my leaving the company so soon, even he saw that the <job 2> opportunity would be better for me. <Job 2> was in a bigger company. I felt the kind of exposure I would get in such a company would certainly help me. So, I decided to join job 2.

Future: Instead of saying, I hated my job that is why I moved to next company, say I got a better opportunity where I saw I would improve and grow more so I joined the company.

So here you are not talking about past but the future.

Positive: You didn’t leave the job because it was horrible but because you got a better opportunity for future. Here better and future are the keywords.

  • Example: When asked why you did say engineering, a typical answer is that, “Sir, as you know it is parental pressure to pursue this field and mostly we haven’t decided what really we want to do so I just followed my elder brother. In second year I realized that I don’t want a career in this field so I thought of MBA.”

Well, now this might be honest but you still have to present it nicely as these kind of generic statements leaves bad taste with the interviewer.

Instead say, “I learnt a lot in Engineering (which is true even if you didn’t have interest, it did give you knowledge) and I feel this coupled with MBA, I can do much better in my career.”

So here you are focusing on your future and the positive aspects and on self.

  • Example: You say that most people become doctors or Engineers and the kind of society we are in very few people actually do what they want to do. Here the interviewer can ask but there people who do what they are passionate about and the percentage is increasing day by day so is their success rate. Why did you not take any step?

This will make the interview go in a negative direction. So focus on yourself not an society/parents etc. The statements you make should not be generalized and remain focused on you and you are able to showcase your facets and your thought process. That is what they are looking for, they are sitting there to evaluate You.

Strong recommendation: Use these three filters every time you answer a question.

There are no interview answers:

Many times the students ask “what should I say if I am asked about my gap year or about my low grades.” Well you should say whatever your reason is. You need to be genuine but present it nicely.

It is not that the actual answer is X but the interview answer is Y.

Being genuine is not the same as being modest.

You still have to sell yourself.

  • For example, you go to buy a washing machine, a salesperson will tell you facts and its features which will help you make a decision. But if he just brags about it without stating any facts, even you would be put off.

Do not try to fraud through an interview.

Do not lie and do not say something you do not believe in. The number of interviews conducted per session and times the years they have been conducted interviews, believe me everyone on the interview panel have seen it all before.

  • Example: I have been conducting interviews for  7 years now and many times I hear similar answers. like when asked about a weakness, students reply’ I am too much of a perfectionist’. I cringe every time I hear this because it is so clear that they want to showcase a strength as a weakness. Well everyone has a weakness so why not own up to it. The idea of the question could be to understand how well you know yourself and are you willing to improve or not.
  • Example: Students say that I have a gap year, should I say I worked in my family business. Simple if you have go ahead. If you haven’t do not because it will be clearly evident any way. There is a difference between a person who worked somewhere 8 hours 5 days a week to someone who only knows somebody who did.

Your thought process, that is how you structure your thoughts is more important than your fluency. It is ok to take a pause and think about your answer before you speak. As mentioned before an interview is a polite formal conversation. If you need a moment to collect your thoughts – ask.

Another filter: Reason vs. Capability

Example: Why so you want to pursue finance? Student might say, Sir I am good at mathematics so I want to pursue finance. Well, that doesn’t tell me anything except that you are good at mathematics maybe.

There is a difference between your capability and the reason behind something.

  • Example: What is it in finance that you like? I heard about how stock market had crashed to a very low value. This got me interested as to how this entire thing works. I found all the factors that impact the stock market(list our some factors). I got really intrigued and have been pursuing them since. I read xyz books and realized how different processes are followed. So I want to pursue finance.

Establishing link is important.

If there was any aspect in your candidature which was a make or break, example you are worried about a gap year or low grades and how it might cost you your seat, well if that was in itself such a big deal they would not have called you. It’s not your strength of course but if you have got a call they want to know more about you.

Just because you have been asked a question does not mean you are screwed. Your answer will determine if you have been able to pass it well or not.

  • For example: Why are your grades low in Bachelors? Well, if you fall in this bracket then this question is something you can already anticipate. so that is a good thing because you can be prepared for it.

Like you could say, I was away from home for the first time and did not concentrate. From the third semester I did better and have been able to compensate for it. you could also mention the extracurricular activities or the clubs you have been a part of.

Or I got 52% which may not look good but I was among the top 5 in my batch and that percentage is the general trend in my department.

Not the question, your answer will decide if you have improved your chances or reduced them.

What to prepare?

It is the next few weeks that will determine if you get selected. What is done is done. Now you need to put in more effort that you did in CAT etc.

Concentrated effort

You might have many doubts like maybe you should do a job or apply in some other institute etc but these few weeks are to convert your calls into seats. When you have been selected and you are asked to fill out a form to confirm your seat, that time you can think if you really want to pursue this from this particular institute. This is not the time to entertain any doubts.

Academics: When I gave my interviews I has three years of work experience and was asked questions from my academics in all my interviews.

For example: When asked a question from his academics, a student replied that, “Sir this I studied 7 years ago so I can’t recollect it. The interviewer then asked “When did you learn your alphabets? Can you still recollect them?”

So whatever your case is you have to be academically prepared.

If you are someone with 1-2 year experience then I will advise you to hit the books. If you have had a large gap then start with Wikipedia to get an overview first and then build from there. You also need to link it to current affairs. Example: What is going on in the world of finance etc.

Work experience: You should understand the technical side of your work and the business side as well. Like where the company stands, who are the major competitors, where do you see the future of the company. Is the industry growing or receding etc.

Interpersonal skills: What challenges you faced while working in a team. Give an example where you showed leadership skills. How did you achieve targets as part of the team etc. You should know about the MBA courses offered, the kind of companies that come after two years and the kind of roles they offer. This also helps you in forming a career trajectory.

  • For example, students say I want to have a career in marketing. But all they know about marketing is advertising. Most of them would have no answer if asked the dream company they would want to work in or what kind of role they would be interested in a company.

Do your research on whatever your interests are and you should be able to talk about it.

Know your goals both short term and long term. Where you see yourself in a few years to where you see yourself in 20 years both are important.

Be practice and logical: If you say in 10 years I want to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, is it logical. The interviewer may ask do you know somebody who in a span of ten years rose up to the position of CEO of a fortune 500 company. If you have a logical explanation then fine, if not then understand before speaking.

The interviewer is trying to understand you, he might say I don’t agree with you. it’s on you to convince him.

Current Affairs: Know facts and then form opinions. Wikipedia all proper nouns in your CV.

Eg a student has on his CV his school name DAV, R.K Puram and was asked why is R.K Puram road named so?

Try to analyze yourself!

  • Do you not know the answers to most of the questions asked → lack of preparation
  • If fluency in a particular language a concern → different solution
  • Do you get nervous in an interview setup? → take practice/ mock interviews. Prepare more thoroughly.

Remember, interviews are polite, formal conversations. Interviews are not interrogations.

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Anish Passi

Anish Passi is the founder of Test Cafe. With 99th percentiles in both the GMAT (760/ 800) and CAT (99.55 percentile), Anish has a keen understanding of how aptitude tests work. He has shared his conceptual and test taking expertise with students for over a decade, and has helped them master their tests, and shape their careers.
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