Section 5: Interviews, Campus Visits, and Recommendations

from How to get into a Top-15 MBA Program by Tim Darling

Interviews and Campus Visits

"Interviews are offered by invitation only. We hope to interview between 1,000 and 1,250 applicants this year, and offer admission to between 400 and 500 candidates. We expect to interview all candidates admitted to the MBA Program. However, the majority of interviewed candidates will not be admitted." - Stanford application instructions, 2005.

In other words, simply attending an interview is a key plus in your admission decision. Having said that, it's mostly believed that the actual interview results are unlikely to have a huge impact on your admission decision unless you show up dressed inappropriately, don't have reasonable answers to the 'standard Why and MBA, why here?' questions, are not friendly, or don't make a good personable impression.

What is the key to a good interview? The school already knows all about you and your accomplishments. What they're looking for is: are you personable, energetic, fun, professional, confident, and basically the kind of person they'd want to be in a study group with? This is especially true with student and alumni interviewers: they want to help 'shape' the incoming class to be one that they'd want to be in themselves. Remember, first impressions are key so start out with a big 'hello'! Show you're a team player! This is most important. If they ask about criticism you've received, for example, what they're really looking for is: do you interact well with your boss?

Interview if you can. The people you're competing against will be interviewing. Read a book on interviewing and practice as much as you can. Take a couple copies of your 1-page résumé with you. Hand your interviewer one. Also hand them your business card.

Review a couple of brainteasers; they don't often appear in MBA interviews, but they're good practice for any interview. The Lewis Carroll's milk/water puzzle is one example.

Take a pad of paper in a professional folder and take notes. Write down a couple key words from the questions they ask. Have 2-3 questions ready to ask them and write down their responses. One good question may be, if you're being interviewed by a student or alumnus, which is fairly common: "Was there a particular reason that inspired you to attend here?"

The best way to have the best interview that you can is to be prepared. If you've gone over each possible interview question ahead of time and have already thought of ways to answer them, then you'll fly right through. Don't memorize the exact wordings, of course, but there's no reason you should be stuttering around for an answer to a question like 'Why do you want an MBA from this school?' Have immediate and solid answers to the obvious questions. The best way to prepare is to read over and over your essays. The big questions that they'll ask you in your interview are the same ones you answered in your essays. Hopefully you put a lot of time and effort into getting your written answers as perfect and as polished as they could be, so knowing them inside and out will help a lot.

Go on a tour, talk to current students, and sit in on a class if you can during your visit. Write down the names and emails of everyone who you meet and talk to (interviewers, professors of the classes, students, tour guides, interviewers). When you get home, send everyone an email thanking them for their time. Be friendly!

Make an attempt to laugh and be relaxed and energetic. Try to maintain about 75% eye contact (too little is not good and blank staring isn't either). Your interviewer shouldn't be staring at you 100% of the time either, so this shouldn't be as awkward as it sounds. Clip your nails (before your interview, not during it). Dress well but not flashy.

Don't babble on; know when to stop talking.

Will visiting the campus be considered as a factor in admissions? Probably not. An exception may be if you are invited to an on-campus interview, such as Berkeley's 'Super Saturday', where Round 1 U.S. applicants are asked to visit in the middle of January for interviews. Berkeley uses the list of invitees who don't come as a way of figuring out who would not accept their offer of admission if they were admitted.

As long as you interview (on-campus or off) if possible, actually visiting the campus won't have an impact. Of course, if you are on campus visiting for an interview and you skip the other events that they offer (talking with other students, sitting in on a class, viewing a presentation about the school), then not only are you missing great research opportunities for yourself, you may also make a negative impact on any admission officer who is trying to gauge how interested you are in their school. No matter how uncomfortable your dress suit and shoes are, plan to be in them for 3-4 hours if you're visiting a school for an interview and other activities; don't put on sneakers after the interview is over! From Stanford's Admissions Newsletter in 9/05:

Q. "I've heard that visiting campus will give me an advantage in the admission process by demonstrating my interest in Stanford."
A. "This is not true... traveling to a number of schools simply may not be feasible for many applicants for a number of reasons - primarily time and expense. As such, we believe that it would be unfair to give preferential treatment to applicants who have visited campus."

www.accepted.com has a nice section where you can read other applicants' experiences being interviewed by a particular school - the questions they were asked and what they learned. According to that site, here are a few unexpected questions that Stanford interviewers asked: Other questions may include: Interviews seem to follow this rough timeline. Note that some interviewers will end the interview exactly at 30 mins, while others will ignore the clock and go 15-30 minutes over the scheduled time - this may depend on if they have other applicants waiting of course.

"We rely heavily on your Letters of Reference as a gauge of your professional achievements, teamwork, and interpersonal skills, as well as leadership contributions." / "The references talk about the applicant's work performance, impact within an organization, emotional intelligence as well as interpersonal skills. All those things together add up to 'wow.'" - Stanford application instructions and website, 2005.

"Leadership: We look for people who have been leaders in a variety of settings: through extracurricular activities at school, the workplace, or the community. We assess leadership potential by looking at experiences, accomplishments, and letters of recommendation." - Dartmouth/Tuck website, July, 2005.

So you spend hours and weeks and months laboring over your essays to paint every experience with the maximum amount of leadership and management potential and then your recommenders go and write how you have been confined to a room, hacking out code for the last 5 years - thus negating your entire application and admission strategy.

Your recommenders are writing your letters out of the kindness of their hearts. But unfortunately, they don't know everything that you (now) know about how you need to present and portray yourself. If your boss is an engineer, he may write a letter of recommendation that he knows will impress other engineers.. but that letter may be the exact thing that will repel a business school admissions committee! So you have to really take the initiative to help them write their letters.

Maybe this will be a surprise, but your recommendations may be the most important part of your application. You will absolutely need to tell your recommenders almost exactly what you want them to say. Of course, we're not asking them to lie. Simply, you need to look at the questions on the applications and see what they are being asked. Then, for each school, tell your recommenders what points you would like them to make.

Your recommenders should highlight your management potential, your impact in their organization, your ability to work with others, and they should specify examples of when you took a leadership role.

Talk to your recommenders and tell them the 4 things in the first quote above are what you need them to highlight. Then provide a couple of examples of how you did each to remind them. Obviously don't send the exact same list of specifics to both recommenders! And perhaps just as importantly, you should tell them what not to say. For instance, if you are an engineer, tell them to avoid any suggestion that you sit in your office all day and write code.

It's up to you to get your recommenders to complete their letter before the deadline. Email them every 2-3 weeks about it. Offer to help in anyway you can (but don't write the letter for them, of course). Call and email 2-3 days before if they haven't submitted the letter. Send them updates on the different deadlines and how far they are away for each school. If possible, have the different schools' applications send them their login/passwords around the same time so they can keep them together. Tell them that you'd like to submit your application a couple days early to each school and tell them that the deadline is 2 days earlier than it actually is. That way, if they miss their deadline for some reason, you still have a chance to get it on time.

Finally, send a thank you email or note to your recommenders as they submit a letter for each school. This will also give you an opening to nicely remind them about any outstanding letters not yet submitted. You might want to give them a gift as well, although that may depend on your company's policy on such things. Giving them a gift when you are accepted and decide to go to a school might be nice too. Maybe something from the school's online store?

Section 6: Your Résumé (and your own custom fonts)

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All text and pictures copyright © 2005-2006 Tim Darling.