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Ace These Most Frequently Asked MBA Interview Questions

In a recent article published in U.S. News & World Report, the warning business school applicants dread to hear is clear:

If you tank your MBA interview, your odds of admission plummet. You can help ensure that doesn't happen to you by thoroughly preparing for the exchange and the hardball questions that await. Some schools are known for asking their applicants out-of-left-field questions such as, "If you were a tree, what kind would you be?"

U.S. News & World Report
If you were a tree, what kind would you be? It's questions like this that throw MBA applicants off in their interview and create uncomfortable, unprepared moments.
If you were a tree, what kind would you be? It's questions like this that throw MBA applicants off in their interview and create uncomfortable, unprepared moments. Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash.

The article goes on to explain the five most difficult MBA interview prompts that often get asked of unsuspecting interviewees. These are:

  1. "What is your biggest weakness?"
  2. "Tell me about a time you failed."
  3. "Describe a poor manager you've had."
  4. "Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced."
  5. "Tell me about yourself."

So, let's look at the best way to ace the prompts when you encounter them in an MBA interview, and consider some others that also tend to be asked often.

"What is your biggest weakness?"

Before you answer this one with "I work too hard" or "I'm too much of a perfectionist," stop. Don't. It's not an honest answer and the reason the interviewer is asking it is to see how honest your response is. Obviously, you don't want to answer with "I have a drinking problem" or "I am always late," but there are still options that will give the interviewer the sincerity he or she is looking for, as well as give you an opportunity to show that you believe in personal improvement and evaluation.

The best way to answer this question is to use the moment of weakness to show your parallel strength(s). For example, if you've had a less than stellar academic record, you might say, "I struggle with test taking, so my grades in undergrad have suffered. But I've learned a few strategies that help since then and I don't foresee this being an issue in my MBA program." By admitting to your weakness, you've a) answered a red flag that the committee had already noted anyway, and b.) showing that you work on improving yourself and are determined.

"Tell me about a time you've failed."

In much the same way a question relating to your biggest weakness provides an opportunity for sincerity and showing your strengths, "tell me about a time you've failed" is a tricky one to answer. The interviewer is wanting a specific moment that you experienced failure, so it's best to approach this one with an anecdote that you've prepared beforehand (rather than being caught off guard and on the spot).

For example, you might explain about the time you needed to prepare an important presentation at work but waited until the last minute and was unable to pull it together in time, thus embarrassing your boss. Explain within in that same story the consequences you faced for that failure, and how it taught you an important lesson about having enough time to prepare something thoroughly. Be sure to accept responsibility for your failure without pinning the blame on someone else, since this is a quality your interviewer will be looking for in you.

"Describe a poor manager you've had."

Whether in life or in academia, you will always encounter colleagues and peers who underperform or who are difficult to work with. MBA interviewers understand this and want to see how professionally you handle yourself in these circumstances, so they ask questions like this one.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that even though it might seem like it, this is not the opportunity to bad-mouth someone you've worked for in the past, so don't use it as one. To answer the question honestly, you'll need to explain why someone was difficult to work with, but you should still remain as objective and professional as possible in doing so.

For example, your answer might be something like this: "A particular manager I had when working at [XZY company] was rarely on-site and didn't understand how things worked. The few times she did visit, it was rushed and she was on her phone for most of it instead of speaking with employees. I was consistently asked to bring her up to speed on things she could have learned from being on the job daily and her lack of physical presence started to become an issue for everyone in the department, especially when she gave them negative reviews."

You might then follow up that story with something along these lines: "I realize that her duties might have kept her from having a physical presence in the department, but it taught me that circumstances like that are not conducive to a healthy working environment."

"Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced."

According to the article, Situations that rest in the gray area are most effective with this sort of question, as those circumstances require leadership, nuance and maturity. This means that you need to avoid discussing any ethical dilemmas you've faced that have clear-cut answers to them, as these should not have been a "dilemma" in the first place. For example, if your manager has sexually harassed you in the past, the harassment should have been quickly reported. There is no gray area to this situation; your manager was in the wrong.

Your interviewer will want to see that you know how to approach true "gray-area" situations with maturity and professionalism. For a similar example, if you've been in a situation in which your employer was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women but you were never harassed, you might explain it like this:

"There were accusations within the department that my manager had sexually harassed multiple women. I had never been harassed by him personally but a good friend of mine had, and I believed her story. So, when I was interviewed by the investigating committee about the accusations, I clearly stated that I had never felt any level of harassment from my manager and that he seemed to perform his duties well and with integrity, from my point of view. However, I did tell them that I had heard of the allegations from accusers who I trusted to tell the truth, but I did not see the harassment take place."

"Tell me about yourself."

With an open-ended question like this one, it's easy for applicants to get off track or forget the intent of the question. Think of this question as an invitation to hear your two-minute elevator pitch as to what makes you a qualified candidate for the MBA program and what your immediate and long-term goals are. You can throw in a bit of information about your hobbies and passions in life, but remember—only hit the highlights and keep it under two minutes. Plan out this pitch before you go to your interview and know exactly what you'll highlight when you give it.

Plan out your elevator pitch before you go to your interview and know exactly what you'll highlight when you give it.
Plan out your "elevator pitch" before you go to your interview and know exactly what you'll highlight when you give it. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

More questions to prepare for

As promised, let's look at a few more frequently asked questions for MBA program applicants, along with some suggestions for how to respond. Here are some more of the top ones, along with ideas to clarify your answer:
  • Why have you decided to apply to business school? (Show that you've had a solid career trajectory toward this moment and choice.)
  • Why does this particular program appeal to you? (Do your research! Give solid, precise reasons why you're choosing this program over others.)
  • Why should we admit you instead of someone else? (Don't be humble here, let them know what you believe it is about yourself that stands apart from others trying to get into the program.)
  • How do you plan to use your MBA? (Have a list of both your short- and long-term goals ready for when they ask this question. You need to be able to articulate exactly what you plan to do with your degree, both while you are earning it and afterwards, including your intended career trajectory.)
  • If you are admitted to our program, what do you think your biggest challenge will be? (Let them know that you understand exactly how challenging an MBA program will be and how you plan to overcome those challenges.)
  • How would your colleagues describe you? (Don't use this as simply an opportunity to brag; rather, be sincere and relate some of the professional and personal qualities those who know you and work around you are likely to list. It will be an opportunity for the interviewer to see you as a person instead of just another number on his or her list of applicants.)
  • Do you have any questions for me? (Never bypass this opportunity to find out more about the program, its history, or its direction. This shows that you are paying attention and that you have a curious mind—two important and necessary qualities to make it through any MBA program.)
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