We recently shared our list of the most commonly asked MBA admissions interview questions, along with extensive advice on how to approach such queries. In light of the popularity of that piece, we’ve decided to up the ante this time around and spend some time deconstructing the absolute worst, totally unfair, just all-around-tough MBA admissions interview questions.
How did we do this, you ask? We called on three members of our team—all of whom have significant admissions experience at top schools—to comb through our extensive MBA interview archive and hand pick a set of particularly challenging questions. The only ground rule was that they needed to be questions posed to applicants with some degree of regularity, as opposed to one-off, oddball questions from an ‘off the reservation’ alum.
Arriving readily enough at a set of incredibly tough questions, our team of former admissions officers then crafted extensive guidelines on how to approach each one.
WARNING: Some questions on the list appear very sweet and innocent. Be aware that looks can be deceiving.
If you’re preparing for an upcoming interview, you won’t want to miss this valuable insider advice. It can help make answering even the most challenging questions feel like a walk in the park.
Seven Hardest MBA Admissions Interview Questions
1. Describe a failure in which you were involved.
Why It’s Tough
Most candidates, when preparing for an interview, focus on the positive aspects of their story. They cannot wait to share their successes and highlight their strengths. So when asked directly to describe a failure, they can be unnerved at best and completely thrown at worst, especially if they haven’t given such a question any thought.
The type of failure, the time frame of the failure and what you learned as a result will all be relevant in terms of addressing the question.
- Picking a failure that is really just a veiled success story, i.e. not a real failure. “We missed one deadline (failure) but we shipped an outstanding product (success).” This type of answer can be perceived as avoiding the question.
- Picking a failure that is so substantial, and recent, that the interviewer genuinely worries that you might make the very same type of mistake again—either due to incompetence or because you just simply haven’t had time to learn from it yet.
Planning Your Response
Make sure you prepare to address a real failure that you played a part in and acknowledge your direct role. While the failure should be substantial, it should not be catastrophic to an organization. Address the process you went through in terms of deconstructing the failure and how you have learned from the experience. Finally, discuss a more recent success that demonstrates your use of the lessons learned from the earlier failure.
2. What other schools are you applying to?
Why It’s Tough
Many professionals in the admissions community feel that this question is simply unfair. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that applicants don’t really know how the answer is going to be used (more on this below). In addition, it’s not as though candidates are allowed to ask their interviewer about the other applicants the committee is considering…
Fair or unfair, let’s unpack the purpose of the question a bit: Is it to determine your likelihood of attending the program you are interviewing for? Is it to assess whether you are ambitious in terms of school selection or more conservative? Is it simply to see if your list of target schools makes sense and demonstrates a thoughtful approach on your part? Any or all of these options are possible depending on the school interviewing you.
In most instances where this question is used, it is being asked by schools that are concerned about their yield. They want to avoid admitting candidates that clearly will select another school when given the choice. That being said, there are admissions interviewers who ask this question merely to better understand your approach to selecting target schools—and to determine whether you are simply applying to schools ranked in the top 10 or have a more nuanced approach. Regardless, you should prepare a solid answer.
Planning Your Response
There are three parts to addressing the question. First, you do want to be honest even if the question feels unfair. Second, as you list your schools, explain why you chose them. You want to demonstrate that your selections are thoughtful ones resulting from thorough research and careful consideration of your career plan, preferred teaching methods, campus environment, etc. Finally, should make the case for why the school you are interviewing with is a very excellent choice among the group of schools you’ve listed—citing specific elements of the program that fit well with the criteria that drove your overall school selection.
3. Describe a conflict at work and your role in it.
Why It’s Tough
It can be hard to discuss conflict without taking sides or painting some of your colleagues (or yourself) in a negative light. It can also be dangerous to highlight a conflict and appear detached from it—e.g. downplaying your role—because that could suggest either that you did nothing to stop it or that you simply aren’t important enough at work to have played a role/taken a side. In short, this kind of question is loaded with “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” issues.
A common question in an MBA interview will look at how you handle conflict, and usually conflict at work. Schools ask this question to test your emotional intelligence and to see how you talk about your peers, your bosses, your organization, etc. Even the slightest whiff of “throwing someone under the bus” can backfire. It’s also important to showcase your ability to see the various sides of a conflict.
Preparing Your Response
It makes sense to prepare a particular conflict you have had at work and be ready to use the example. A strong response to this question needs to show your role in the conflict, who it was with, how it was addressed (if, in fact, it was addressed) and what the result was. Equally as important will be to share what you learned from the experience and how a subsequent situation at work was resolved positively or avoided altogether as a result of what you learned.