We’ve been issuing some warnings about those deceptively simple MBA interview questions this week (“What do you do for fun” and “Tell me about yourself”), and we wanted to sketch out some basic guidelines to remember as you prepare your content for the business school interview. As you figure out what to say and how to say it, you need to:
a. Remember the context: This is a professional interaction.
b. Remember the risk: You’re bound to be boring.
c. Remember the goal: You’re selling yourself.
What do we mean by all of these?
Remember the context.
You’re asked to “introduce yourself.” But what’s important?
In most cases, it simply does not matter to your MBA admissions interview where you grew up. What matters is who you are, in a professional context, and as a person. If you grew up in Antarctica, then yeah, that’s interesting and distinctive. If you grew up in India, not so much. Don’t go all the way back to Day One of your fascinating and feature-filled life. Start somewhere recent, and relevant. Like, where you went to college is often a nice opener. It’s fairly recent for everyone, and it’s certainly relevant to the idea that you’re now applying to grad school, and either you can use a statement of where you went to college and/or what you studied as a setup to your current career to show a nice element of continuity and planning for where you are today… OR you can take the opportunity to explain an obvious disconnect for why you studied X in school but now you’re a Y and how or why you facilitated that transition, to answer a question that frequently comes up when there’s a major zig on the resume.
So, the “context” means, focus your answer to “Introduce yourself” on the subject at hand. It’s not the same type of information you’re going to serve up on a first date. The context here is professional, so most everything you present should be angled in that direction (except for the more explicitly personal questions like “What do you do for fun” that we already discussed).
Remember the risk: You’re bound to be boring.
Hopefully you caught that comment above about your “fascinating life”. That was a joke. We both know your life has been boring. NO NO NO – J/K! You’ve done cool things, we’re sure of it! Else, how would you be in this position of interviewing at a top bschool? Of COURSE you’ve led an amazing life!
But let’s be real. The details of the standard BSer’s existence are typically filled with some rather unexciting stuff. And when you talk about it, there’s a risk that you put the other person to sleep. That’s not really your fault though; mostly it’s because of this fact:
Nobody cares about you. They care about themselves.
While your task for the 30 to 60 minutes that you’re posed in front of your interviewer-person is to talk about yourself, the truth is that the person interviewing you is just not that interested.
This is true of any interaction, and it’s just as true in a setting designed explicitly about you sharing yourself in response to specific questions. If you’ve never read Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People then that might be a good little book to pick up to pass the time with (yes the writing is from another era – quaint, in fact – but the lessons are just as true today as when he laid them down in the 1920s).
So what do you do about it?
One of the best tips we can offer is: Be brief. Don’t drone on too long! This again is where practice comes in. You need to know how long it’s going to take you to get through the story you want to tell. You need to know how long you require for the simple “Introduce yourself” type question. And you need to have clarity to figure out which are the important bits to your story, and which can be skipped.
Don’t be boring.
If you don’t know how to do that:
(Not like, don’t be tall. Be brief. And concise. Or just remember to STFU every now and then when you’re spewing forth your answers. Close your mouth and let your interviewer ask another question.)
Remember the goal: You’re selling yourself.
You’re interviewing for a spot in a top MBA program. What’s relevant to the person on the other side of the table who’s evaluating you for that? Put yourself in their shoes, and think about it from their perspective. What do you think they’re going to want to know?
Tailoring your content to the task is important. If you’re asked to talk about your most important accomplishment, you need to be able to present your answer concisely. If your most important accomplishment is delivering this certain project for a client, then encapsulate why it was important, and what you did that is so significant, in your answer – in a way that shows your interviewer instantly why you’ve answered that way. That means identifying these elements for yourself, before you walk into that room, and practicing the delivery of them a few times so you’re smooth. It also means avoiding the trap of too many details, and skipping the jargon (just like when you write your essays). Highlight the key points that show the interviewer what you did that made a difference, and hopefully in a way that demonstrates your leadership abilities. If your important project was software or engineering or something technical, figure out how to convey the crux of it without worrying about mentioning every little nook and cranny of the implementation.
If you’re selling yourself then remember who’s buying. In most cases the interviewer does not have final say on your candidacy but they are going to be providing an important recommendation into that process. Most schools ask their interviewer’s opinion on whether the candidate should be admitted or not. If you’re interviewing with a current student or an alum, then your angles might need to be somewhat different (somewhat) in your selection of the best content (we cover this in the MBA interviewing guide), but overall in many of the questions you’ll be asked, you want to demonstrate maturity, confidence, humility, and give some proof of leadership and impact. Part of this simply comes through in how you handle the questions. It’s not solely the stories you use in answering those questions, but it’s also in how you present yourself.
Remember your audience, and communicate with intent. Know what you’re going to say – and why. Every story should have a purpose – and you should know what that is.
Finally: You’ve made it to this stage so you’re doing something right, Brave Supplicant! Here’s to nailing this last bit of the process. Good luck to all of you interviewing! We’ll sure you’ll do fabulously, and we’re rooting for you from the sidelines.