what I learned from conducting MBA interviews

Last week, I interviewed some of the applicants to the Deferred MBA program at Columbia Business School in New York City. I feel honored to have spent most of the week speaking to and connecting with some of the brightest young people from all over the world. 

On one level, it was something of a full-circle moment from getting interviewed for Columbia’s MBA program myself, only almost 18 months ago. On another level, it was an interesting opportunity to be on ‘the other side’ of the MBA admissions process. 

I wanted to share 3 things I learned from the experience as an interviewer that would be helpful for anyone that is currently going through (or plans to go through) the MBA Admissions process. More broadly though, these are helpful concepts for anyone doing interviews in general. And they’re things I’ll be applying more consciously in my life and interviews, moving forward.

1. Two people can have the same resume but never the same story

MBA Admissions are a curious process. You want to ‘fit in’ – show that you embody the school’s culture and have that elusive ‘fit’ quality. But you also want to ‘stand out’ and demonstrate what you would uniquely contribute to the class. 

Interviews are more about the latter. It’s very much the case that top MBA programs generally attract a certain archetype – a high-achieving young person who went to a top university, studied Business or Economics or Engineering and graduated with high honors, worked at one or a few top companies, has had an impressive career trajectory so far, and now wants to go into Finance, Consulting, Tech or Entrepreneurship after business school. (This is just a common candidate profile. I don’t even fit into some of these).

Inadvertently, at the first stage, people start to really look the same when all you have is what’s on paper (resumes, GRE/GMAT scores, GPAs). In fact, it’s possible for 2 people to have essentially the same resumes. But I learned firsthand how immensely stories can differentiate you.

Think of this: 2 candidates graduated from similar good schools and both studied Mechanical Engineering. Both had good grades. Both went on to be consultants at similar top consulting firms. Both have international experience. They look roughly the same on paper. But here are their hypothetical responses to the same interview question: ‘Why did you study Mechanical Engineering?’

CANDIDATE 1: When I was a child, I was fascinated by how things worked. I would spend hours taking apart toys and appliances just to see the intricate mechanisms inside. This curiosity and passion for understanding the principles of mechanics and engineering continued to grow as I got older. I found joy in solving problems and designing innovative solutions that could improve people’s lives. Mechanical Engineering was the perfect fit for me because it allowed me to combine my love for science and mathematics in ways that could help others solve problems. By starting a tech startup after business school, I’ll use my MBA to continue using my passion to improve lives and solve people’s problems.   

CANDIDATE 2: I was lucky in secondary school to have studied subjects across the different fields – science, business, arts. But looking around me, I did not see many girls like me when I went to the science classes and looking at the adults, I did not see many women who were in the field either. I studied Mechanical Engineering out of a deep passion for science and a strong desire to inspire other young girls. With my background in STEM and the finance expertise I will gain from the MBA, I want to keep supporting young women in tech as a venture capital investor funding women-led companies. 

These two candidates may have the same resume, but their stories reveal vastly different motivations, perspectives, and goals.

2. The most important question

I shared this article recently about 3 questions that are at the core of every question you’ll get in an MBA Interview. Out of all 3, from the interviewer’s perspective, I believe the 2nd question (How will you enrich the class?) is the most important one. 

The first question (academics) is already mostly answered by what’s on paper. The third question (career) can also be mostly assessed from your resume, recommendation letter(s), and essays (most MBA essays will include questions about your short- and long-term career goals). That leaves the wide open space of the 2nd question for the interview to judge, especially if your interviewer is a current student or alumnus who will be (consciously or unconsciously) imagining you as a potential classmate. Like the article says, they’ll be asking themselves:

“would my MBA experience have been enriched by someone like her?”

And so, while preparing for all 3 of the fundamental questions is important, you really want to focus the most time & effort in honing answers to the 2nd question.

3. Your competition is global, local, and personal

The very best schools and organizations in the world have people from everywhere in the world applying. People from every country, background, and field of work/study that you can imagine. Columbia’s current MBA Class enrolled about 13% of people who applied, meaning there are 7-8 highly qualified applicants for each spot in the class. You cannot afford to think small, but you also shouldn’t forget to think locally.

In applying, know that you’re not the only African. Don’t hinge your entire application on being ‘X in Africa’ because now you’re interchangeable with the next person from Africa who has likely just said the same thing. ‘X in Africa’ can be a good starting point to exploring your goals and motivations, but it’s a shallow end point if you leave it at that alone.

Rule of thumb: if someone else in your industry can say exactly the same thing and it’d make sense, it’s not personal enough. Unless you’re in a very niche category that less than 10% of people in the world are part of, like an Olympic medalist or a Guiness World Record holder.

These are the most helpful things that I learned from my brief MBA interviewing experience. I did notice there were very few African applicants, especially in comparison with I’m thinking about how we can bring more awareness of these types of undergrad-focused programs to African universities. Pls send me a message if you have any ideas!

Also, I compiled templates, advice, and scholarships lists for anyone preparing to apply to graduate school. This is more geared towards people who already know they’re applying (not for people trying to decide) and need more structure around their application process.

You can check it out here.

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