How to Ace Your MBA Admissions Interview with the Friendship Mindset

It’s that time of year again, folks! Fall is in the air (or at least the smell of pumpkin spice is!)

Round 1 MBA application deadlines are here, and MBA-hopefuls around the world are looking ahead to the nerve-wracking MBA admissions interview season.

If you’re busy stressing about how to prepare for all those interview invitations that we hope and trust are coming your way, don’t worry!! WE’VE GOT YOU!! We have all the interview advice you need to get out of your head and into the program of your dreams.

Interview Hero:
How to Ace Your Interviews

This book will help you transform interviewing from painful interrogation to enjoyable conversations that enable you to connect with your interviewer and showcase your awesomeness without seeming arrogant.

So how should you prepare for your business school interviews?

If you want to perform the best you possibly can on your MBA admissions interviews, you need to understand why MBA programs even interview in the first place.

Think about the information they already have on you. Each school has one or more essays, your resume, your grades and scores, and recommendations. Your grades and scores speak for themselves. These institutions know how successful you’ve been in an academic environment. With your resume and LinkedIn profile, they also know the companies you worked for, titles you held, whether and how fast you were promoted, and the key accomplishments you achieved in those roles. So they have a pretty good sense of how well you’ve been able to perform at work, too.

Your recommendations and essays even add a bit of color commentary—they’ve hopefully gleaned a sense of your personality and the way you approach challenge and achievement. So why not just admit you based on all that?

MBA programs will always interview because they need to assess your human skills — your emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship-building abilities. They need to know if you are likeable. Someone who can connect and communicate effectively with others will be a coveted candidate.

Said another way: Your prospective program needs to be sure you won’t be the rotten apple, the one person who makes the classroom (or workspace) miserable for everyone else. And there’s no reliable way to gauge this on paper.

How do strong MBA candidates stand out from the pack?

Keep in mind that candidate-selection calculus is slightly different for schools vs. jobs.

The Selection Calculus

As long as you clear the bar of skill and intelligence required to make it through an MBA program, your long-term success (in the program and far beyond) will be determined by how well you can function in the school’s culture—that is, how well you rally support, win friends, influence people, and gain the respect of your peers. In other words, how likeable you are.

Schools are looking for a portfolio of candidates, so they will take the set of applicants that they like from the overall pool and then choose the subset that’s most qualified from the set of applicants they like. This decision process isn’t scientific, and it’s also why they need interviews in addition to your resume and essays and recommendations.

The point of the interview is not just to validate that you are who you say you are on paper; it’s to ascertain if you’re likeable and will fit well within their culture.

This is why it’s possible get into the likes of Harvard and Wharton even if you have a terrible GMAT score. Because who you are as a complete human being and how that fits with school objectives and culture is more important than the parts of you that can be reduced to a number.

You can’t ace your MBA admissions interview if you’re trying to be/seem/look perfect.

I’ve asked thousands of people about their biggest interview concerns. Most interviewees are concerned about things like looking good, saying the right things, impressing the interviewer, appearing to be the perfect candidate (or at least a strong candidate), not being boring—and, my personal favorite—seeming awesome without seeming arrogant.

These kinds of fears are pretty universal and, honestly, pretty well-founded. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you probably know that one of the most important aspects of a successful interview is building rapport.

At BCG, we actually had a thing called the “Airport Test” that was a big part of candidate assessment. It goes something like this: If your flight was grounded and you were forced to spend hours on end with this prospective coworker (or classmate), would you enjoy yourself? Take it from me—the question every interviewer asks themself is this: “If I’m snowed in at O’Hare with this person, am I going to want to gouge my eyes out or will it be a pretty good time?”

What you might not realize, however, is that these fears (and the all-too-understandable desire to seem perfect) often get in the way of establishing rapport with your interviewer.

So, for starters, don’t think of the interview as a test.

It’s more like a test drive. The school is evaluating the user experience of being in your company. They need to see how you interface with other humans, how you communicate and bond. They might even decide to test you under difficult conditions to see how you perform under pressure. That’s why some interviewers give you a poker face. They want to see how you respond. Can you maintain your cool? Can you still be inspiring?

Likeability isn’t about being funny. It’s not about charisma or being popular. It’s not about being a sterling conversationalist. The specific hobbies or interests you have, the particular idiosyncrasies or conversational preferences you’ve developed, your personality type and communication style are irrelevant.

Even if you fear that you might be too shy, awkward, or introverted to be singled out as a “likable” candidate, the ability to make a genuine human connection is a gift we all share. We’re born with it. Likeability is the consequence of being an authentic and decent human being who connects with other people.

This is why it’s not really fair to call the Airport Test a test. It’s not about right or wrong. Self-expression and connection won’t make you perfect—and they don’t need to!!

If it’s not about being perfect, how do you build rapport?

That’s where the Friendship Mindset comes in.

We’ve established that the interviewer isn’t a robot and there’s no objective criteria for likeability. So, what does all of this mean for you and your mindset in the interview? Instead of focusing on getting the answers right, looking smart, seeming cool, or being the ideal candidate, focus on making a genuine human connection.

The Friendship Mindset is simply this:

Imagine that you are already friends with your interviewer, and you are just going to have one of many future conversations. Your only job in this conversation is to help your friend get to know you and your experiences a little better. If you aim to create a valuable relationship with your interviewer by being your authentic self, you’ll reveal your personality, genuineness, and vulnerabilities.

The Friendship Mindset has the very important added benefit of putting you totally at ease. At least, this is what I’ve found.

You’re already friends… (easier said than done?)

So how do you get into the Friendship Mindset? How do you treat the interviewer like they’re already your friend when they’re actually a complete stranger?

Tip #1: Set your agenda aside.

In order to get into the Friendship Mindset, you have to forget about your ultimate goal or objective of “getting the offer” or “getting in.” (It’s only for a little bit—promise you can do it!)

That may sound completely counterintuitive. But here’s the logic: To some extent, whether you get into an MBA program or not is out of your hands. You have no control over who else is applying, and ultimately no control over the interviewer’s decision. If you focus on your goal and on the high stakes involved, you’re back in testing mindset. You’ll inherently feel judged, which will make you feel less inclined to strike up a friendship with the person sitting across from you and more inclined to defend yourself against imagined slights.

So just set aside the goal of getting “in” and instead focus on building a genuine relationship with every interviewer you encounter. Treat the interview questions as invitations to continue a conversation that the both of you are already enjoying having.

Tip #2: Forget you’re in an interview in the first place. (Within reason, please.)

I’m not suggesting you put your feet on the desk and tell fart jokes. Be professional, but be yourself. Act how you would act on a normal day if you were already part of the program.

This way, best case scenario, the interviewer feels like they know you, trust you, and want to go to bat for you. They’ll enjoy the experience of talking to you, and want to have you in their incoming class. Worst case scenario, you’ve made a professional friend. Life is long. You never know when old friends will be helpful to your future career steps. It’s a win-win attitude and helps you to build a supportive community of professionals who are eager to support you and one another.

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