Which MBA interview questions are the most important?
Different universities are known to ask specific questions in their respective interviews, and this goes for the top ten business schools in the country (according to US News & World Report). Testimonials from MBA applicants gathered by Clear Admit and Poets&Quants paint a clear picture of the most frequently asked in MBA interviews at these top-tier universities.
By our logic, the most important questions to know about are those asked by most of these top schools. So let’s look at the five most frequently asked interview questions, note which schools are highly likely to ask them, and decide what information to include, what to avoid, and how to give a response that will make that post-interview handshake feel oh-so-satisfying.
1. Why are you interested in this school/program?
What the interviewer is looking for: One of the popular “Why?” questions, the answer to this question might seem obvious. After all, you are interviewing at one of the best business schools in the world. However, don’t spend too much time discussing the school’s history and prestige and focus instead on the practical reasons why this school is a good choice for you personally. Admissions officers want to know what it is about their school that made you go choose them. Explain how this program aligns with your goals and interests and why it makes the most practical sense for you. And remember that honesty and authenticity are essential.
Key Factors to Include: location, school culture, faculty, courses, the emphasis of school, industry connection, job placement, future goals
“I applied at Berkeley because it is one of the very few schools that offers an MBA program with full specialization in Entrepreneurship. I plan to run a software startup company upon receiving my degree and the Haas School’s emphasis on small business, reflected in the Marketing Management course led by Prof. Paul Heider, will prepare me to venture out into the competitive world of software design. Also, because I currently live in Sacramento and have residence in California, a state school like Berkeley is the most practical choice for someone in my financial position.”
Tip: Focus on only 2-3 specific features of the school.
2. Why are you pursuing an MBA now?
What the interviewer is looking for: The emphasis here is on the “now.” What situation in life is leading you to make such a big move? If you are currently working, explain what is motivating you to change direction. Do you have a long-held interest in becoming a hedge-fund manager or in managing the branch of your bank? A complete answer to the “Why MBA now?” should include the following:
- Context about past professional experience—job progression and key skills you have developed
- Details about future career plans
- Explanation of how you came to the realization that an MBA is the best possible path to achieving these plans and why now is the best time to get this education
Key Factors to Include: current job/school position, specific career goals, financial circumstances, dreams and passions, action plan
“My decade of sales experience in the dairy industry has been extremely fulfilling and I’ve grown as a leader while developing communication and problem-solving skills through numerous campaigns. This has given me a desire to branch out to other industries as a marketing consultant, where I can use my industry knowledge to benefit growing businesses.
Because I wish to devote my career to helping small organic farms acquire a foothold in mid- to large-sized markets and execute their marketing strategies, I realize that I need to gain all of the current strategies of consulting that an MBA program offers. I recently became interested in marketing strategy and how it increases visibility. I have begun networking with other consultants in the industry, leading to informational interviews that have grown my interest while showing me the necessity of a world-class business education.
With my past education in sales, there is no way to break into consulting unless I ‘power-up’ my skills with an MBA. I am 38 years old and have a young family, so I can’t imagine a better time than now to take this leap.”
Tip: Tell your story in chronological order.
3. Tell me about yourself.
What the interviewer is looking for: It seems like a simple question, right? But because it is so open-ended, this one trips up many worthy applicants. You want to show the best possible version of yourself, but where should you begin and what should you include? One good approach is to start with a concise description of yourself. Think “resume executive summary” but in verbal form. Use key descriptive terms that define you first before telling about your achievements and history. Weave your strengths, passions, and personality into your experiences and goals and conclude with why you are sitting in this interview. Try to follow these steps:
- Introduce yourself—name, an important quality, position
- Explain your passion for the industry you are in or wish to join.
- Summarize your professional experiences.
- Justify why you are here—what about this opportunity excites you?
Key Factors to Include: relevant terms, work strengths, personal and professional passions, interesting facts about you, career goals
“My name is Coleen Cho and I’ve been a client relationship officer at Trident Affiliates for the past four years. The most important things to know about me are probably that I have a passion for using numbers to get the best results, and that I always look for the positive in everything I do. These traits have sustained me during challenging periods in my career but have also kindled my passion for management and my resolve to take on the role of COO for an NGO.
After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in finance, I got my first corporate job as an account analyst at Struthers & Co., where my positive attitude came in handy. During my three years at the firm, I spent a lot of time on tasks I felt did not fully utilize my skills. But through this work I learned the value of attention to detail. When I moved to Trident in 2010, I turned this attention to detail to my clients. I tried to learn everything I could about them and truly appreciate their character and values in order to maximize their satisfaction for the benefit of the company. Although working with people is a lot different than crunching numbers, I find that paying attention to details like their needs and personal perspectives requires an equal amount of care and focus. I truly love this aspect of management.
I am grateful for my experience and proud of my achievements at these firms over the past seven because they have brought me to where I am today. With a deep respect for people and for hard work, and with my past experiences and the invaluable skills I will learn in this MBA program, I am optimistic about the next chapter in my career.”
Tip: Avoid simply listing what’s on your resume—go deeper and explain what you loved about a specific position or company and why.
4. Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership. What did you learn from it?
What the interviewer is looking for: MBA programs are as much about communication and drive as about learning new skills, so leadership is one of the top-ranked competencies (right below “teamwork”) evaluated in behavioral interviews. Talk about specific instances where you led a team or to overcome an obstacle. If you don’t have any strong instances of leadership within a work setting (or even if you do), talk about a time you used your leadership skills in other venues—such as in college or in your personal life—to complete a collective goal. Did you organize any events for your club or organization? Have you volunteered for a political cause or another leadership-centered project? Leadership also includes the ability to listen, respond, motivate, and inspire, so recount a time when you took the lead role and helped make your group’s goal a reality.
When responding, use the “STAR” approach:
- (S/T) Explain the SITUATION or TASK you were involved in
- (A) Discuss the APPROACH—elaborate on actions you took to address a specific challenge
- (R) Tell the interviewer how your actions led to positive RESULTS
Key Factors to Include: the project you were involved with, your position, duties you took on, the outcome of your project, lessons you learned
SITUATION/TASK: “When I began working as a marketing manager with Stratton Corp., sales were only at 70% of that of our closest competitor. Although we were running over twenty active advertising campaigns, our ROI was quite low. As you can imagine, the head office was unhappy with this performance and the morale in the marketing department was dismal. As a manager, I was responsible for maintaining optimal performance and for the effectiveness of the department’s activity.”
APPROACH: “I decided that we needed to not only run different marketing campaigns, but to entirely rebrand at least three of our product lines. I first divided the marketing team into smaller task force groups, each responsible for brainstorming new ideas, benchmarking and researching competing brands, and creating proposals for marketing strategies to enhance our brand image. Next, I developed a marketing workflow so that new ideas could be shared ASAP with other groups and so that each group could receive feedback on their proposals. Although I was responsible for providing managerial feedback, my biggest role was in facilitating cooperation between them so that the most impactful proposals would rise to the top.”
RESULT: “The positive effect my workflow restructuring had on sales was immediate. Within four months we had completely rebranded three of our main products. We recorded a quarterly sales increase of 25%, the largest in the branch’s history. But the impact on the morale of the employees was the most astonishing to me—within one month, almost every member of the task force teams was volunteering to work late to come up with the best ideas. Involving all members in the creative process and discovering strategies for improvement made them feel empowered. This success taught me that leadership is more about strengthening the lines of communication than about giving orders.”
Tip: Use specific numbers and other quantifying language to illustrate the approach you took and the results of your actions (e.g., “an increase of 30% productivity,” “12,000 new subscribers”).
5. What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
What the interviewer is looking for: Interviewers want to know what you will do with your MBA degree, and thus they will invariably ask about your career goals in one way or another. Start by dividing your goals into two categories—“short-term” and “long-term.” For each category, explain what the goal is, why it is important to you, how you will set about achieving it, and what aspects of your current career and educational choices will help you get there. Introduce your long-term goal first and then talk about how your short-term goals will help you get there. Be specific about your objectives. Instead of saying “I want to open a small business,” tell about your dream of creating a microloan NGO, including what led you to this goal and what exactly you are doing and will need to achieve it. Be sure to mention skills and positions that will utilize your MBA degree.
Key Factors to Include: details about your career goals, reasons for these goals, action plan
“My ultimate career goal is to head an environmentally-friendly outdoor sporting goods company in Minnesota, preferably near my hometown. My deep love of the outdoors has inspired so much of what I do in life, and so I see this goal as a way to give back to my community and pass on my experiences to future generations. As CEO, I would be in a position to create a substantive company policy that ensures our products are environmentally friendly.
Reaching this position will require a tremendous understanding of the ins and outs of the sporting goods industry, as well as knowledge of the manufacturing process. Therefore, my short-term plan includes getting an MBA in strategic management and then working in the sales and marketing department of a sporting goods company to learn first-hand about consumer tastes and purchasing habits. Within ten years, I would like to head product development at a branch level. This will give me a more holistic view of sales trends and inform my understanding of implementing strategies focused on environmental awareness and CSR.
Ideally, I will be heading an established company or one that I found within 15 to 20 years. I expect to be experienced enough to lead as CEO after having gone through diverse experiences and having produced results at multiple levels. I feel that the knowledge I gain during my MBA will be fundamental to achieving these goals.
Tip: Give milestones and/or deadlines for your goals.
Other frequently asked questions you should prepare for:
Are there any questions you would like to ask the interviewer?
Why do you want to pursue an MBA?
Talk about a mistake or failure you experienced. How did you overcome it?
Why did you move to your current job/industry?
Preparing for your MBA interview means gathering as much information about the program as possible and practicing your interview responses beforehand. The list of questions in this article are by no means the only ones interviewers will ask, so consider doing a bit of research on what recent applicants have experienced in their MBA interviews. For more information about the MBA programs mentioned here and the general MBA application process, check out the resources below.
Top Ten Graduate Business School Admissions Websites