7. The interview is last in importance? That doesn't make sense.

Before you get all bent out of shape, let me explain. I agree that the interview can be a critical part of the admissions decision and should not always rank dead last in order of importance. But its importance varies dramatically from school to school and applicant to applicant. At some schools, your interview can make the difference between being accepted and spending another year riding your desk 60 hours a week. At others, however, it's meaningless and deserves to be listed last.

And the policy changes from year to year. For years Stanford, for instance, refused to interview any applicants. (It was crazy.) Now they interview virtually everyone they admit. So interviewing can be meaningless or it can be critical. That's why it got this weird position in our ranking.

Who Should and Who Shouldn't Interview?

If you think you're a bad interviewer, don't volunteer to interview. Let your application do the talking for you. I've known a lot of people who I thought were bad interviewers. They had good work experience and great undergraduate GPAs. I could see from their practice tests that they would end up with a strong GMAT score, but I was afraid they would do more harm than good if they met with their schools. So I discouraged it. All I can say is that it was a tactic that worked.

Do I Have a Choice?

Increasingly, the answer is no. Schools now decide who will interview and who won't. As applications have risen, MBA programs have had to ration interview timeslots, so interviews are now rarely at the applicant's discretion. If your application get's past the initial screening phase and a school wants to see you, the admissions people will send an invite. Never turn down a request to interview. Your chances of being admitted after doing so are zero.

Should I Interview with an Admissions Officer or an Alumnus?

It's best to interview with someone on the admissions committee, but that isn't always possible. You shouldn't worry too much if you end up having to interview with an alumnus or even a current student. That person will write up a report that will go into your file. Just try to get along with your interviewer.

A Few Pointers on the Interview

  1. Whenever possible, interview with someone of the opposite sex. (Don't make me explain why.)
  2. Dress formally unless your interview is with an alumnus and the situation calls for casual clothes. I've noticed that a lot of interviews here in L.A. take place at beachfront cafes on Saturday mornings. Situations like that call for casual clothes.
  3. Relax! Don't come off as stiff and overly formal. You want your interviewer to like you, so treat him or her like a friend.
  4. Prepare your answers ahead of time. (See the section below for common questions.)

Typical Interview Questions

The questions asked by interviewers for different schools are surprisingly similar. My students interview all over the country, but they all come back with the same list of questions. Virtually all of the interviewers cover similar topics. (Which makes sense, if you think about it.)

The basic interview process goes as follows:

Phase 1 - Your Upbringing and Undergraduate Experience

Be sure to prepare a brief outline of your upbringing before going to your interview. (Don't bring it with you.) It's easy to get lost and ramble into a long pointless diatribe when talking about your upbringing, so make your replies short and to-the-point. You will generally be asked a number of questions about your undergraduate experience.

  • What was your major?
  • Did you like it? (Meaning, was it the right decision?)
  • Do you think your grades are an accurate reflection of your ability?
  • Did you work as an undergrad? (This is important because it helps to put your GPA into perspective.)

Phase 2 - Work Experience Since Leaving College

You need to know your whole work history before walking into the interview. Look up the approximate dates of promotions or job transfers. The questions go something like the following:

  • What was your first job out of undergrad?
  • Have you been promoted?
  • Have you ever supervised employees?
  • Have you switched firms? If so, why?
  • Tell me about a leadership experience.
  • Tell me about a time you failed.

Phase 3 - Career Goals and MBA Plans

This is the part of your story that has to hold together. If they ask about career goals and you tell them something that is completely inconsistent with your experience, you're going to be in trouble.

  • Be sure to mention a career goal that actually requires (or benefits from) an MBA.
  • Be able to answer the question, "Why do you need an MBA?"
  • Be able to answer the question, "Why do you need an MBA from this school?"

Phase 4 - Your Turn to Ask Questions

Be sure to study the school before interviewing so you can ask informed questions about it. Knowing specific details about the program should convince the interviewer that you're serious about attending his school.

A Final Note of Encouragement on the Interviews

Subjecting yourself to interviews is tough. After two or three, you begin to feel like a piece of meat. Just remember that everyone has to go through the same process. Below I'll post an e-mail message I got from one of my students just hours after he had a particularly bad interview at a top-10 school. Pardon the language, but I think it will help to put things into perspective.

    "F---ed up the interview. Felt like I was being lectured by my mother.

    "I can't tell if she was assisting me on the application by giving me pointers or subtly rejecting me and preparing me for it. One thing was clear, my 2.5 GPA did nothing positive for me.

    "Apparently, applications are up 25% on top of 30% last year, and she seems to have an attitude about it. Talked about how they want the 'worldly class' of some f---ing pyramid she kept demonstrating in the air.

    "Felt like Tom Cruise in Risky Business when he blew it with the Princeton guy. Walked out thinking, 'Indiana's not so bad....'"

    — Thomas

(He was rejected.)