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Chicago Booth Alumna and Former Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Consultant Offers Interview Tips and Insider Knowledge to MBA Applicants and Students

Heidi-150x150-1Clear Admit recently interviewed Admissions Counselor Heidi Granner, who has conducted over 200 interviews of top business school applicants and students in her roles at Chicago Booth, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Roll Global.

Can you describe the basic protocol or format of the typical Booth on-campus interview? Was this the same as when you applied to the program?

Booth on-campus interviews are typically 30-45 minutes long and are conducted by Admissions Fellows – trained 2nd year students who are paid members of the Admissions Office.  They are typically quite conversational and friendly.  Students are generally evaluating the candidate from the perspective of whether they would want to be in a study group with them.  Study groups work together very closely and rely on each other, so traits important here are intelligence and reliability, as well as having a clear sense of humor and direction.  Also, Booth takes its intellectual legacy very seriously – they will be looking for demonstrations of intellectual curiosity and interest in academics.  You might receive a question such as “What is your favorite book?” or “What was your favorite class in college?”

I still remember going to Booth’s campus on a cold February day and being so impressed with the campus and administration.  The University of Chicago’s overall campus and Booth’s Harper Center in particular, are really spectacular. The campus has a traditional brick and ivy feel and the Harper Center is modern and open.  I definitely suggest a campus visit and/or interview on-campus if you can make it.

I got into Booth despite what I feel was a shaky interview. I used that experience – and my desire to get into strategy consulting – to focus on becoming more polished and effective in an interview setting. Once I started at Booth, I knew I needed to drastically improve.  I focused tremendous effort on preparation, including seeking out a second year mentor who spent a lot of time coaching me.  I ultimately received full-time job offers from McKinsey, BCG, and Bain.  I say this to encourage everyone that there is great potential to improve and preparation is key!  Getting into business school is extremely competitive, so take advantage of every opportunity to shine.

Can an interview entirely change the outcome of an application?

Absolutely. While it is possible to get admitted with a below average interview performance and it is also possible to get denied with a strong interview performance, on the whole it is a very important facet in the process at all business schools.  The interview is your only opportunity to “put a face” to your candidacy.  In addition, it is the school’s best opportunity to really test your English language abilities, interpersonal skills and overall presence, not to mention your true interest in their program.  Working in an admissions office, I found that decisions really do come down to so many more intangibles than just test scores and resumes.  And interviews are an excellent chance to tell your own story and make a personal connection.

What were some of the most common mistakes or missteps you observed while conducting interviews at Booth?

  • Awkward conversation or engagement as a result of being overly formal or being too introverted.  I suggest using the same communication style as you would with your day-to-day boss – conversational and friendly, but respectful.  The interviewers almost always genuinely want to get to know you and are rooting for you to do well.  They are generally giving you the benefit of the doubt going in, so it is yours to lose.  Smile – warm and friendly goes a long way.
  • Not preparing.  It’s difficult to have a strong business school interview performance by “winging it.”  The schools are looking for detailed and structured responses, and want to see that you have researched the programs, which really makes conscientious preparation imperative.  Business school interviews are not the same as job interviews – for example, you have to explain your job in layman terms, the evaluation criteria is generally much broader than in job interviews, and the topics are far more wide-ranging.  I have seen many successful applicants neglect this preparation step and ultimately have disappointing results.  Also, little things can go a long way – bring two copies of your resume, your business cards, a pen and pad of paper – all together in a folio.  Not having one of these screams that you are not prepared.
  • Body language.  It’s important to practice good posture and not fidget.  You’ll also want to mirror your interviewer’s body language to some degree.
  • Not precisely and concisely responding to an interviewer’s question.  It’s important to listen to the specific question being asked and respond appropriately.  Many candidates will ramble on and on before getting to the point.  It’s fine and (sometimes necessary) to speak for 1-2 minutes in answering a question, but it’s important to clearly and directly answer the question at some point and to convey the specific actions you took and impact you made that are most relevant to the topic at hand.
  • Arrogance.  MBAs have a common stereotype of being arrogant – coming in to a situation and already knowing it all.  Admissions offices are very sensitive to this stereotype and work very hard to weed people out who are not willing to learn. While presenting yourself as a confident individual is important, remembering to balance that with an inquisitive spirit or humble nature will make you a more attractive candidate.

Any particularly memorable exchanges, either positive or negative, that highlight specific points applicants should keep in mind either in terms of Booth specifically or just in any MBA interview context?

These are all “little” things, but perhaps since they come to mind first that reinforces how important these “little” things are in an interview.

  • Having questions prepared to ask me and being genuinely interested in the answers.  Alums and students will almost always enjoy talking about their business school experiences and appreciate when applicants are engaged in the conversation. An applicant who asks a question but seems to tune out as I respond loses appeal and would make me question whether they were truly committed to the school, or whether they could be an effective listener and contributor to team projects.
  • Arriving late.  An applicant would really have to knock my socks off to be recommended after they showed up late to the interview.  They are digging themselves into a massive hole. The two years you are in business school are going to be chock full of activities, responsibilities and deadlines. Showing up late to an interview that you are well aware of suggests that you would not be a reliable member of the community.  Leave yourself PLENTY of time and just go to a nearby coffee shop if you are  too early.
  • Interviewee having badly chipped finger nail polish or otherwise looking a little ‘rough around the edges.’  It’s critical to present an overall professional and impeccable appearance.  Shine your shoes, iron your suit, and only carry one bag/briefcase (ideally not a bag plus a purse), shave and generally make sure you’re presentable.
  • I remember once asking an interviewee about a recent acquisition in his industry I had read about that week on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  He hadn’t heard the news and didn’t have a perspective.  I suggest reading the business news, particularly for your industry and company, on a daily basis in the few weeks leading up to your interview.  The Economist and The Wall Street Journal should cover your bases.
  • Being overly casual. I once had an interviewee bring in and drink a Red Bull during the interview.  I don’t recommend bringing in any food or drinks unless offered water, and choosing to enjoy an energy drink is especially distracting.

What is your perspective on the rising trend of schools including a video interview/essay component to the initial application (a la Yale)?

I think schools are considering video strategies due to the limitations that alumni interviews have revealed over time. Admissions offices are in a difficult position of needing to conduct a large number of interviews and not having the staff resources to do so in a short time frame, so they often rely on alumni interviews.  While alumni interviewers’ opinions are obviously valued, the admissions office also knows that the evaluation report can be heavily skewed based on that person’s individual biases and perspective on what makes for a strong candidate. Most alumni interviewers receive minimal training, and there is little consistency in interviews across alumni. There is also concern that the interviews are being conducted in the local language rather than English, which might make it harder for the adcom to accurately gauge whether a foreign applicant would truly be prepared and comfortable with the all-English classroom environment they would encounter at a top U.S. school.

So I think short videos are an efficient way for the admissions office to get their own eyes on every applicant.  They can personally observe applicants’ communication skills, particularly English abilities for international applicants, while utilizing the same overall evaluation process for all.

This year I’ve observed that many applicants aren’t familiar with how to optimize their video presence.  For example, having the light source coming from front rather than behind and not having distractions in the background make for a more aesthetically pleasing video response. In addition, smile!  I do practice videos with my clients to tweak their presentations.

What is the mock interview process like for you and your clients? What’s your strategy or approach to these practice sessions?

Before we do a mock interview, an important step in the process is preparation (as I mentioned earlier).  I send my clients a copy of specific schools’ Clear Admit Interview Guides to read first.  The guides are updated each year and include valuable information on what to expect.  Clear Admit also has an archive of recent firsthand accounts of interviews, which are also a great resource for interview preparation. We then have a call to discuss everything from logistics (such as attire, what to bring in the room, etc.) to specific preparation steps, which helps my clients match key anecdotes from their past to typical interview questions while also honing their storytelling ability.  I suggest as part of their preparation that they bullet point out and practice – out loud and with a stopwatch – specific questions for each school.  For example, ‘walk me through your resume’  and ‘tell me about yourself’ are perhaps the most important questions in many b-school interviews.  Various studies confirm how critical that first impression and the first few minutes of the interview are to the overall evaluation.  I suggest starting with a sentence or two on where you grew up, where you went to college, why you picked your major, one or two activities you were heavily involved in during college, and why you picked your professional field. Once those facts are established, you can then move through each position, focusing on skills gained rather than responsibilities (nothing is more boring than hearing a dry recitation of responsibilities in an interview). It’s also nice to finish up by mentioning a couple of your personal interests or extracurricular activities.  Practicing is key as it ensures a strong performance on critical questions and builds confidence going into the interview.

For the mock interview session, we mimic interview conditions as closely as possible, usually via video conference.  I role play a specific interviewer for the specific school and conduct a full interview.  I’m taking notes throughout the interview in order to provide detailed feedback upon its conclusion.  I then evaluate their performance and provide overall feedback along with question-specific and behavioral suggestions.

You spent more than four years at BCG, one of the world’s leading strategy consulting firms, and an employer that many MBA students target. Tell us about the interview process at BCG.  Who conducts interviews?  How many does an applicant have before getting an offer?  Could you outline the general steps one takes from first interview to offer letter?

Interviews at BCG, McKinsey and Bain & Co., are done in two rounds.  The first round typically consists of two 30-45 minute interviews and is held on-campus.  These interviews are conducted by two consultants who are often alumni of the school in question. These consultants are usually less than four years out of their respective MBA programs, but at times more senior employees are used for first round interviews The interviewing teams typically meet ten candidates in a given day. The two consultants align on 1-3 to pass on to the next round before leaving campus that evening.  There are many interesting psychological implications here – studies have shown that a specific candidate’s rating is absolutely influenced by the random cluster of others who are interviewed by the same interviewers that day and also whether they interviewed in the morning or afternoon (earlier is better).  Knowledge@Wharton has an interesting article on this topic (“Why Being the Last Interview of the Day Could Crush Your Chances”). Firms typically circle up that evening and make decisions.  They then usually call candidates they are passing on to the next round within 24 hours.

In thinking about business school interviews, if you have options of locations to interview I suggest considering where you think you will stack up strongest relative to other candidates in that area and also trying to schedule earlier in the day rather than later (though interviewers for business school generally aren’t doing quite the marathon interviewing days that consultants are, so I think this is less critical).

The second (and final) round interviews are usually in the office where you are applying.  The firm flies you in (if needed) and puts you up in a hotel.  They often will host a dinner the night before interviews.  The day of interviews will consist of three to four 45-60 minute interviews with Principals and Partners.  These days are exhausting!

As with the first round, firms huddle up that evening and usually make offers to one in two, or one in three candidates.  They typically place offer calls that evening or the next day – often from the recruiting partner for that school.  These companies often send over an official offer letter along with a bottle of champagne or something along those lines.

How does the consulting/professional recruiting interview process compare to the Booth interview?  How does it differ?

The interviews are quite different.  A consulting interview is typically 2/3 working through a business case and 1/3 behavioral or resume-based. Business school interviews are almost all behavioral and resume-based.  They won’t be testing quantitative abilities with problems to solve.

For those not familiar with a business case, it involves the interviewer explaining a business scenario and then asking the candidate to “solve” the problem.  As an example, the case I gave during my BCG interview was based on my own project experience: “Your client is a global alcoholic beverage manufacturer and distributor.  They’ve hired BCG to work with their Irish operations.  You’ve flown to the Irish headquarters for the kick-off meeting.  You learn there that the client has seen declining profits over the last three years and has brought in BCG to help identify the cause and recommended change in action.”  The interviewee then proceeds from there with asking questions and working through the problem together with the interviewer.

The candidate will be expected to bring in sheets of paper and to actually work out math problems and take notes throughout the case.  I typically went through 4-5 sheets of paper during each 20-25 minute case.  Doing ‘public’ math by hand in the age of computers is a skill that needs practice for most!

What should applicants to business school who are targeting a firm like BCG do now to maximize their chances of success in the BCG recruiting process.

The biggest step is to research where your target firms recruit.  One thing I didn’t realize when I was applying to business school was how much recruiting opportunities varied by school.  BCG goes to some  top-15 schools and interviews 80 people via a formal on-campus interview program, whereas at other top-15 programs they don’t even to do on-campus recruiting. I suggest closely reviewing the career reports from each school to better understand where your target firms most heavily recruit.  This is one area we work with our clients on with our list of recruiting efforts by top firms across schools.

For those really eager, reading up on business fundamentals can be helpful preparation for cases (and overall developing your business knowledge and career).  Key books: Marketing Management by Philip Kotler, The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing by Thomas Nagle, The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt (operations), Economics of Strategy by David Besanko and others.  These are also often used as textbooks in MBA classes, but interviews start in January of your first year so you often hadn’t had a chance to take all of the relevant courses in your first quarter/semester.  Plus, I personally believe that if you strongly dislike reading these books then you won’t make it through consulting interviews (and a consulting career).  Case interviews are intense and if you hate doing them and practicing them, then you generally won’t do well in interviews because it almost always shows.