The Leading Independent
Resource for Top-tier MBA

The Seven Hardest MBA Admissions Interview Questions—and How to Answer Them

hardest mba interview questions

You have already read our analysis of the most commonly asked MBA admissions interview questions. In this article, we’ve decided to up the ante by deconstructing the toughest and trickiest MBA admissions interview questions.

To accomplish this, our team of former admissions officers combed through our extensive MBA interview archive and hand picked a set of particularly challenging questions. The only ground rule was that they needed to be questions posed to applicants routinely (as opposed to one-off, oddball questions from a rogue alum).

After arrived at a set of incredibly tough questions, our experts developed guidelines on how to approach each one.

WARNING: Some questions on the list appear to be pretty innocuous, but beware – looks can be deceiving.

If you’re preparing for an interview, this insider advice 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.

Key Considerations

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.

There are a few potential pitfalls with this question. First, avoid picking a failure that is really just a veiled success story. For example, “we missed one deadline (failure) but we shipped an outstanding product (success).” This type of answer can be perceived as avoiding the question. At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to select a failure so substantial and/or recent that the interviewer might genuinely worry that it could happen 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…

Key Considerations

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.

hardest MBA admissions interview questionsPlanning 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.

Key Considerations

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.

4. What concerns do you have about getting an MBA?

Why It’s Tough

This is a difficult question to answer because your interviewer is essentially asking you to point out the flaws in the very product you purport to want to buy. It’s the equivalent of having a date where your love interest asks you to divulge what you don’t like about him or her—only to have to then spend the rest of the evening trying to have fun while worrying that the critique you provided was taken personally…

Key Considerations

While this question is rarely used, you should prepare to acknowledge potential concerns, especially when the MBA entails such a significant personal investment. You’re looking at putting in as much as $200,000—which doesn’t even include the opportunity cost of one to two years of lost earnings. It would be entirely reasonable to cite this as a concern. Non-traditional candidates who are embarking upon an MBA with a less clear-cut roadmap going forward could also cite that as a concern. Older candidates, meanwhile, might understandably have some “nerves” about a return to the classroom.

Planning Your Response

Regardless of which concern makes the most sense for you, the most effective way to address the issue is by focusing on your long-term ambitions, which show you have thought long and hard about this issue. You essentially want to make the point that, like any major life decision, the MBA comes with some risks. But then you want to show that in light of your overall plan, it is a great fit (and that the school you are interviewing for is especially appealing because of X, Y and Z). This type of answer will also help to reaffirm your goals and choice of school.

5. How would those close to you describe you in three words?

Why It’s Tough

Assessing your own character or personality is always challenging. It’s even harder to do when given only a few words to describe the way you think others perceive you. While perhaps not quite as tricky as the famous strategy consulting interview question—“What would you like to have inscribed on your tombstone?”—it falls into that same genre of questions regarding self-awareness.

hardest MBA admissions interview questionsKey Considerations

What you’re really being asked is how you think you are viewed by others. Of course, the “others” in question could just as easily be your colleagues at work or your classmates in college or some other group, depending on your interviewer. Likewise, you could be given three words, four words or something much more open ended in terms of how to respond.

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are clearly important factors that admissions committees take into account, and this question is a good measure of those traits. Keep in mind, in the case of a non-blind interview, your interviewer will have already read your letters of recommendation and may have a good sense of just how your colleagues at work actually perceive you. In this case, the interviewer may well be using this question to see how your perception lines up with reality.

Planning Your Response

The key to answering this question is simple preparation. Have three to four characteristics ready that you know represent you well, through the lens of others. You might even ask some of your peers, colleagues or mentors to weigh in. This can serve both to give you some concrete examples and to check your own perceptions against their impressions. Once you list the three words for your interviewer—or four, or however many you’ve been given—be prepared to expand upon them, explaining why you selected each one. If you say, “outgoing, doer and loyal,” then follow up with examples that prove those points.

6. How will you take advantages of the resources we provide at school X?

Why It’s Tough

On the surface this question may feel like a variant on “Why school X?” If fact, it’s a bit more complex in that it specifically asks you to explain how you will make the most of the MBA during your time in the program. You are being asked to provide more detail than in the case of the “Why our school?” question.

Key Considerations

From the admissions team’s standpoint, this question is a great way to weed out the less serious candidates who haven’t done their homework and to figure out if a candidate is truly prepared to maximize his or her time in business school.

Preparing Your Response

To answer the question, you need to do some real research into how the specific program fits your personal, academic and professional goals—as well as how you are going to use the program’s offerings to get closer to those goals.

Your answer should show that you have researched and considered the program in terms of at least three considerations: coursework, extra-curricular activities and career management offerings. What classes, especially electives, will help you fill your knowledge gap to prepare you for your short-term goal? Which clubs and activities will help you develop your skills and expand your network, opening doors to the opportunities you seek? How do you hope career management will help you through the internship process and with gaining employment after the MBA?

7. Describe a time someone gave you difficult feedback. How did you respond?

Why It’s Tough

It can be counterintuitive to highlight a weakness when you’re trying to put your best foot forward. You may be reluctant to share substantive criticism.

Key Considerations

It is a sign of maturity to take ownership of a weakness or area of improvement. The adcom expects you to be open-minded during the MBA program to refine your leadership skills. Many curricula incorporate direct feedback sessions, whether among peers or through project assessments, and the adcom wants to know that you will be receptive.

It’s much easier to improve a skill rather than change a personality trait, so try to center the feedback on an actionable skill. Avoid “red flags,” such as excessive confidence or short temper, or “veiled strengths,” such as perfectionism.

Preparing Your Response

There are several elements you should cover: the actual feedback, your response to that feedback and your efforts to improve since receiving it. The source of the feedback would ideally be from a performance review, as this will ground the assessment. Timing is also important; you need to be able to show that you have improved in the interim, and weaknesses do take time to fix. In other words, you should not be pulling feedback from your performance review yesterday or last week.

Other Awful Questions?

Have you faced challenging questions in your MBA admissions interviews? Heard accounts of zingers that caught your peers completely off guard? If you’d like our take on how to respond, leave us your terrible questions in the comments and we’ll share our thoughts and strategic tips! And for more in-depth analysis of interview questions and preparation, don’t miss our full series of school-specific interview guides.

Want to listen to this advice? Play our podcast episode about the hardest MBA interview questions below.

Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast
Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast
Episode 24: 7 Hardest MBA Interview Questions and How to Answer Them
See more about the podcast episode here.