MBA admissions officers say they like to see applicants display humility and resilience during interviews.
Applicants should directly answer interview questions about past failures, MBA admissions officers say. It's hard to succeed in business if you lack the ability to sell yourself. That's one reason why experts say MBA interviews are a critical component of the admissions process.
"We have had cases where an interview evaluation tipped the scales one way or another," says Soojin Kwon, admissions director with the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.
She says a strong interview evaluation has occasionally changed her mind about an applicant and caused her to shift an application from the "no" pile to the "yes" pile. But she also says that a poor interview evaluation – in rare cases – can lead to a rejection.
Face-to-face communication skills are crucial in the business world, Kwon says; but those skills are hard to measure in the written components of the MBA application, so the interview is key.
Peggy Conway, director of MBA admissions with the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, says she cannot imagine accepting an MBA applicant without interviewing him or her first.
Conway says she uses interviews to gauge not only whether an MBA applicant would thrive at the Neeley School of Business but also what kind of impression an applicant would make on future colleagues and employers.
"We want students who are going to make an impact," Conway says.
The MBA interview also offers insight into how applicants think and what they care about, says Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School.
“We don’t feel that people need to come in with a life plan already mapped out, but we do like to get a sense for how people think about the decisions that they make," Losee says.
He says MBA applicants who are anxious about the interview process should do their best to relax before the interview by perhaps taking a run or walk, eating comfort food or meditating. "Whatever it is, just make sure you feel as at ease as possible," Losee says.
"I think that’s good advice. And know that on our end, we’re real people. We’re not trying to trick you. We’re just trying to get to know you as well as we can."
U.S. News asked MBA admissions officers to describe key traits applicants displayed during interviews that made lasting impressions. Here are four qualities that resonated with the interviewers.
• Clarity: Applicants who are able to explain their work eloquently to alumni interviewers in other industries often get rave reviews, Kwon says.
For instance, a Ross MBA applicant who was a military veteran received a glowing evaluation for his interview because of his ability to share with his civilian interviewer the lessons he learned during his military experience, she says.
"Oftentimes, candidates think that they have to have this monumental achievement in order to impress the admissions committee, and it's not about the size," Kwon says. "We're trying to understand how you think about things and how you think about yourself."
• Self-awareness: Applicants stand out in MBA interviews when they offer thoughtful reflection about their career, Kwon says.
"It's being able to have perspective about the things that you've done and the import of those things, because there's value in everything that an applicant might have done in their career," she says. "It's knowing how that translates into something that will be valuable in your business school experience, in life and in work."
[Ask these five questions during an MBA admissions interview.]
• Humility: Business school leaders say they appreciate it when MBA applicants acknowledge mistakes when they're asked a question about past failures.
"I don't think you're ever penalized for being open and honest with that question," says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, Harvard Business School's online education platform.
Mullane recommends applicants be natural. He says dodging questions, rather than answering them honestly, during MBA interviews also typically backfires.
Kari Graham, director of graduate admissions at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, says some of the most poignant interviews she's conducted are ones where MBA applicants described the wisdom they gained from mistakes.
"Those are usually the things that make us better people and hopefully better students," Graham says.
• A personal connection: Showing emotions during an interview isn’t a sign of weakness and could, when real and appropriate, help applicants make meaningful connections with interviewers, experts say.
Graham says she has encountered MBA applicants who cried when describing the profound impact a mentor had on their lives or discussing adversity they have overcome.
"I've had people really, literally come to tears in my office," she says. "What's so beautiful about that is that really breaks down barriers, and it connects us profoundly emotionally to one another."
David Simpson, admissions director at the London Business School, says that a great MBA interview goes beyond discussing an applicant's resume.
“A poor interview is one that just restates facts that could have come from the application form," Simpson says. "A good interview adds color.”