Once I clicked “Submit” on the online form, I thought I should give a high-five to my reflection in the mirror. The amount of work which went into the application, on top of everything else in my life, was remarkable. I then relaxed and kept my mind busy during the waiting game which could have led into an interview invitation. When that moment arrived, I have myself an even stronger virtual high-five. Statistically, the worst part was ove! After that deserved moment of euphoria, it was time to concentrate on the interview and prepare for it. [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]
“You really can’t prepare, although I know you will try. Try not to spend your time memorizing your written application or preparing a script for anticipated questions.” This suggestion was part of the invitation from one of the schools I applied to. I completely agree with the second statement, but disagree with the first. With hindsight, I can safely say that, had I not prepared thoroughly, I wouldn’t have made it into Harvard and Stanford. Preparation in my case was not about memorizing scripted responses. It is about being able to verbalize succinctly the inside-outs of my story, and making sure that any answer to a “side question” (e.g. “which business leader outside your industry do you admire?”) always related to the core message of my application. It sounds hard to improvise on the spot! Well, it is.
Preparing for the right type of interview
As you might know, there are two types of interview: blind (Stanford, Columbia), led by an Alum, who doesn’t know anything about you beyond the resume; comprehensive (Harvard), led by a member of the Admissions Committee, who has reviewed the entire material in your file.
It is inevitable that the two interview experiences will greatly differ. Indeed, my Stanford interview was a relaxed and fluid conversation with a super interesting Alum, and the questions were somewhat generic at first (“tell me about a time when..”). However, after we broke the ice, we both got more engaged in the conversation, and after the official questions were over, I chatted with him for at least half an hour. At the same time, I had to quickly make my case for why a Stanford MBA made sense for me (something which is already thoroughly explained in the essays), and I had to strive to emotionally connect with the interviewer.
The Harvard interview was instead more formal and structured, and the questions were really bespoke to my story (“why did you decide to…”). There was no time for any chit-chat at the beginning or questions at the end, and establishing rapport with the interviewer was less relevant. I simply to had to answer, as concisely and impactfully as I could, 18 questions in half an hour, with the clock ticking down. This means about 1 minute and a half on average per answer, excluding the time for formulating the questions. A very intense experience!
The basis for my preparation was the same regardless of the interview type: I had to know the inside-outs of my story. When I received the interview invitations, several weeks had passed by since I put your application together, and I spent some time re-familiarizing myself with every little nuance of it. Therefore, I mostly prepared on my own material, revising all I had accumulated during the “profile building” phase.
However, there was one key difference in the rehearsal for the two types of interviews: I needed to adapt my answers based on what the interviewer would already know. For Stanford, I still had to communicate in each answer the right bits and pieces about my background, in order for any story/detail to make sense and convey the right message. For Harvard, I skipped instead anything which was already in the essays, and solely focused on my motivations and learnings. Concision is very valued, and one of the mistake I tried to avoid is ramble for 5 minutes on a question that should take 30 seconds to answer.
I also found external guides such as “mbaMission Interview Guide” ($20) and the Harvard-specific “Harbus Interview and Admission Guide” ($65) to be very useful. They set the tone on the specificity of every interview type, provide useful tips for preparation and interview day, and include a long list of questions.
Prioritize the key questions, and become flexible on the others
The list of questions in any preparation guide is actually very long. I felt overwhelmed, and it was indeed impossible to have a rehearsed answer in my back-pocket for each potential question. Also, even completing the list, I could have been asked something that I didn’t prepare for.
The key to increase my confidence was twofold. First, I had a mental scheme where I quickly identified what a question was about, and then connected it with a story from my list which addressed that precise point (e.g. failure and learning, overcoming an obstacle, motivating a team, …). It sounds hard but, with practice and a comprehensive list of stories to draw from, it became pretty automated.
Secondly, some questions are without a doubt more important than others. There was a slight chance I might be asked about my favorite business book, but it was almost certain that I would be asked, directly or indirectly, about my goals and my current job, and how this all connected to the school’s MBA program.
This is the list of key questions that I prepared very carefully:
- Tell me about yourself / walk me through your resume.
- What are your goals?
- Why an MBA?
- Why our school?
- What are your key strengths/weaknesses?
As I mentioned in the beginning, “preparing” doesn’t mean “memorizing” by any means. I had 3-4 key points for each question, and I became able to adapt these based on the specific context. Ironically, I was not asked any of the questions in such form. However, the answer to the Harvard question “what haven’t you tackled so far in your career?” required a combination of “why an MBA” and “key weaknesses”, so I could formulate a compelling answer on the spot.
Rehearsing, getting feedback and enhancing my responses
I realized that I could only become flexible in articulating my answers by rehearsing. I consciously decided not to involve a consultant at this stage, because I felt confident I could have made it on my own (or better, “with a little help from my friends”!). So I had two sessions with two close friends, whom I am very grateful to. The real value was not only in their feedback (which went from “this point was unclear/too wordy” to “you briefly touched your nose several times!”), but in the experience in itself. I briefed them so that the conversation would take a life of its own, and I couldn’t really be sure of which question to expect, or in which form.
However, the time of my friends was limited and I needed more practice than a couple of sessions. Therefore, I also rehearsed in front of my iMac, recording myself on PhotoBooth in several more sessions. Clearly, I knew already which questions I would face, but I did not prepare the answers (I just had the key point in mind), so I got better at speaking fluidly and incisively. Re-watching the recording helped me assess my performance and improve my body language, tone/speed of voice, etc.
Relaxing and being myself
My number one rule during college was not to practice/study anymore the day before an exam. I would relax in the evening, get a good meal and sleep as well as possible. This is exactly what I did before interview days. I also decided to take a day off work, so to be even more relaxed and concentrated on my goal. Being relaxed is honestly easier said than done, because a valuable outcome is at stake, but I believe that state of mind is as important as the preparation. Staying positive always helps be confident in who you are, and able to smile in front of any challenge you did not anticipate.
Indeed, despite all my preparation, I had a little incident during my Harvard interview. For some reason, five minutes in, my voice started trembling and I could not focus any more on what I was saying. I wasn’t offered anything to drink, so I stopped talking and asked for a glass of water. The interviewer was very kind and, in order to minimize this little interruption, told me “we are running out of bottles, you’ll have to pay for it!”. I took the occasion to show my sense of humor, replying “this glass of water has the highest marginal utility in my life, just tell me the price!”. We both laughed, I regained confidence and carried on with enthusiasm till the end. I think those 20 seconds made me appear plainly human and less “constructed”, and it all worked in my favor. I was just being myself.