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Understanding the MBA Admissions Interview, Part IV

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We’ve tackled open versus invitation-only, blind versus non-blind and the newer team-based discussion interview. What’s left? In this, our final post in our MBA admissions interview series, we’re going to take a closer look at a few of the anomalies in the interview arena—special approaches thus far embraced by just one or two schools. Of course, the team-based discussion was itself an anomaly not so many years ago, so these could also be harbingers of the next big thing.

HBS and the Post-Interview Reflection
Though it’s been a few years now since Harvard Business School (HBS) introduced its post-interview reflection, no other top school has yet followed suit. HBS first added this new twist in 2012, inviting those candidates who interviewed to follow up—in 24 hours or less—with an email answer to the following question:  “You’ve just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. How well did we get to know you?”

Soon after the post-interview reflection debuted that year, HBS Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold took to her blog to elaborate on what she and her team were looking for—and what they weren’t. For starters, this was not an invitation to submit another essay. “We want your response to be much more like an email,” she wrote. She went on to say that the hope behind the new element of the HBS application process was to allow applicants to interact with the HBS admissions staff in more of a real-world scenario than traditional application elements have offered. “In the Real World, it is unlikely that you will be given months and months to craft essays of any sort. It just doesn’t happen,” Leopold wrote. “In the Real World, it is almost a sure thing that you will be asked to write emails summarizing meetings and giving your opinion in a short time frame.”

HBS has kept the format of the post-interview reflection the same each year since its debut. There is no official word limit, it is due within 24 hours of your interview’s conclusion and you are strongly discouraged from producing the reflection before the interview or soliciting or receiving outside assistance with it. Also, the admissions committee states, “We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses.”

So, knowing all of this, what’s the best approach? “Answer the prompt, and be gracious,” advises Alex Brown, a Clear Admit consultant who spent years working in MBA admissions at Wharton. “Consider the interview discussion that took place, and share your assessment in terms of how well the conversation revealed your candidacy.” Reiterating HBS’s own instructions, Brown reminded applicants that this is not the time to write an additional essay. Instead, use it to reinforce some of your messaging that was part of the interview dialog.

“Schools know that sometimes an interview does not go well from a candidate’s standpoint, so this additional prompt helps candidates level the playing field in this regard,” Brown says. “I think it is smart on the part of HBS to give its candidates the last word on their application in this way.”

MIT Sloan and the Pre-Interview Essay
MIT Sloan School of Management—perhaps riffing off of HBS’s post-interview reflection—has added its own new twist this year. In Sloan’s case, though, it is another essay and it comes before the interview. Clear Admit spoke with Dawna Levenson in May, when the school first announced this newest element. She shared the details she knew then, which were that applicants invited to interview would be asked to provide a written answer to a second essay question in 250 words or less. The question: “The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice. Please share with us something about your past that aligns with this mission.”

We caught up with Levenson again yesterday, who shared the precise details of how the new interview works—which hadn’t been determined yet when we spoke to her last. Essentially, as part of the congratulatory email letting candidates know they have been invited to interview, Sloan provides a link to a section of its website where it restates the question and asks candidate to upload an answer at least 24 hours before their scheduled interview. “We try to invite people to interview at least one week in advance, so that should give them more than enough time to complete it,” she says.

Levenson is as enthusiastic today as she was in the spring about this new format. The question posted to interviewing candidates is really all about an individual’s fit with MIT Sloan, which makes even more sense to ask at this later stage in the process. “I am very excited about the way we have structured things this year,” she says. “I think it makes a lot of sense both for applicants and for us.” Certainly, since it’s one less essay to write (or to read) for applicants who don’t make it to the interview stage.

Interviews have just started at MIT Sloan, but so far the second essay question is working out well, Levenson says. “As an interviewer, I have found that it’s a good ice breaker. It’s the last thing I would have read before meeting them and it is fresh in their mind since they’ve just written it,” she says. “It’s a good thing to talk about on the way to the room where the interview takes place.”

So far, the only person who will have read your second essay is the person who interviews you, Levenson says. Although in some cases this essay may become a tie breaker that gets reviewed by the whole admissions committee, she adds. “Really, any piece of data has the potential of becoming a tie breaker in those cases,” she notes.

Will they follow the same format next year? “If I had to determine next year’s process today, the answer would definitely be yes,” she says. “We really like it.”

By reducing the number of essays required with submission of the application to just one, MIT may encourage more people to apply, notes Brown. Introducing this second “fit” essay at this “post-interview decision” stage should help the school filter for candidates that are really serious in wanting to attend MIT Sloan. “I like this move, but it will be interesting to see how it works from a logistical standpoint,” says Brown. “It also creates the potential for a little uncertainty on the part of the candidate in terms of the importance of this second essay for the interview versus the remainder of the application.”

London Business School’s Presentation Component
Across the pond at London Business School (LBS), applicants get their own special challenge in the form of an impromptu five-minute presentation assigned as part of the interview. It’s all part of LBS’s attempt to get a sense of your communication skills. LBS provides its alumni interviewers with a list of topics. According to interview reports, the interviewer usually either chooses one and assigns it or offers the applicant a choice among several.

Though applicants sometimes refer to the presentation portion of the LBS interview as a case, do not confuse it with the “case interview” for a strategy consulting firm, which often involves being given a quite complex problem to solve.  The questions that LBS asks are almost never difficult. Example questions from the past have included “Should employers dismiss an employee for writing damaging criticism on a social networking website?” and “What three items would you put in a time capsule about humanity?”

Really, LBS is just trying to get a sense of how you think and how well you can explain your ideas—as well as your ability to think on your feet. Of course, this makes the presentation a little harder to prepare for than a normal interview question, since you won’t know what topic you will have to address ahead of time. Just keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers. What counts is laying out a compelling argument supported by evidence.

You’re usually given about five minutes to prepare. “Make sure you use this time wisely,” encourages Clear Admit’s Brown. “Don’t just jump into your reply and risk missing points or jumbling ideas. Start out by identifying and assessing the situation, and then explain how you would approach the issue and why the approach you advocate is the best one.”

It’s also probably wise to avoid taking a particularly controversial stance, since you have no way of knowing who your interviewer is or what might cause him or her to take offence, Brown cautions. “A conservative approach makes the most sense here.”

Brown also adds, “This twist to the LBS interview is that it is hard to prepare ahead of time, which is clearly one of its goals. LBS also tries to match candidates with alumni interviewers whose backgrounds align with the candidate’s career goals. This positions the interviewer to assess how realistic those goals are while also allowing for deeper engagement as part of the interview process.”

LBS Also Adds Video Element
In other news at LBS, as the school has decided to require fewer written essays from its applicants, it has included a new video element, piloted last year with a handful of candidates and implemented with all candidates beginning in Round 1 of this year. “This was not a decision we took lightly,” Simpson told us. “We are being very thoughtful about how we use this exciting new addition to our process,” he added.

LBS recognizes that factors ranging from cultural differences, diverse professional backgrounds and differing personal comfort levels with being in front of the camera mean that not all applicants will approach the video submission feeling on equal ground–and they are taking that into account as they review the videos. “Some people will feel a lot more comfortable than others filming themselves answering questions,” he recognizes, but he reassures even those who are apprehensive. “We are NOT looking to use this as a tool to disqualify candidates or ‘catch you out’,” he stressed.

The greatest value of the video element in Simpson’s mind is that it will help his team members feel like they have met all applicants, even those it would be otherwise impossible to meet.

At INSEAD, Two Interviews Are Better than One
Another anomaly we’ll take a look at with regard to MBA admissions interviews comes as part of the admissions process at INSEAD. At INSEAD, applicants can expect to interview not once but twice, with two different alumni interviewers. The school has implemented this uncommon interview system because it provides the admissions committee with two additional, independent perspectives on each applicant while also helping to offset potential variability between individual interviewer’s style, time constraints or biases.

According to the INSEAD website, applicants will be asked to send copies of the six-page profile from their INSEAD application to each interviewer in advance. The interviewer will use this as background for the questions he or she asks, and no predefined list of interview questions will be provided by the school. “We have found that it is better to give our interviewers the freedom to explore your experience and future goals through their own style,” reads the website.

Notably, INSEAD tries to pair candidates with one interviewer who has a professional background similar to their own—as LBS does—and another one that does not.

So, what’s the best way to prepare for INSEAD’s dual interviews? Some INSEAD interviewers do ask for applicants’ essays in advance of the interview (or they may skim a copy you hand to them just before the interview), but most will only have had access to part of your data forms and your CV. “Given this, treat INSEAD’s interviews as you would a ‘blind’ interview,” advises Brown. “Start from scratch when you present your candidacy, since you can’t assume the interviewer will know your background or have more than a general understanding of your current job or industry.” Obviously, if you learn that one of your interviewers has a similar background to your own, you can adjust the level of detail you provide as necessary.

Overall, you should treat each interview as an individual assessment of its own, Brown suggests. “If you feel you performed poorly in the first interview, or did not really connect with the interviewer, don’t let it impact your preparation for the second interview,” he says. “INSEAD uses two interviews in part to help eliminate the risk that one poor interview kills a candidacy.”

At HEC Paris, meanwhile, the school combines the presentation component of the LBS interview process with the dual-interview approach used by INSEAD. All three schools call on alumni to conduct interviews. At HEC Paris, candidates are invited for two interviews after the Admissions Board has reviewed their applications and asked to give a presentation as part of each.

“Both interviews have equal weighting in the decision-making process and will consist of a 10-minute oral presentation on the topic of your choice, followed by an in-depth discussion concerning your application,” reads the HEC Paris website. (Both interviews are conducted in English, the language of instruction at the business school.)

Getting to choose your own presentation topic makes this component easier to prepare for than the LBS presentation. Of course, then there’s the pesky little detail of having to present twice. So maybe it’s a toss up?

That concludes our four-part MBA admissions interview series. Armed with the information and tips included in these four articles, we hope you’ll feel more prepared to tackle upcoming interviews at any one of your target schools. As always, remember to check out Clear Admit’s Interview Guide Series for even more detailed analysis of the interview process at each leading school. And turn to the Interview Archive as well, where you’ll find more than 1,000 detailed accounts from real applicants who’ve been in your shoes. But please don’t forget, the Interview Archive is only as valuable as the reports applicants submit. So if you find it helpful, do your part and leave your own reports for applicants who will follow you.