5 toughest questions to tackle during an MBA Interview
Updated: Feb 2
In an MBA interview, you can be sure you’ll face the usual motivation and behavioural questions, which you can read in the 10 most common MBA interview questions and how to answer them. But, you may also face some incredibly tough questions!
After my clients have completed their interviews, I ask for a report in which they share the questions they were asked. In this blog, I’ll explore five of the toughest questions my clients have been asked during an MBA interview:
Give me your elevator pitch in 30 seconds.
Which other schools are you applying to?
If you’re progressing so quickly in your role, why do you need an MBA?
What’s your backup plan if you don’t reach your post-MBA target role?
Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced.
1. Give me your elevator pitch in 30 seconds.
Very often, the opening question you’ll face in an MBA interview will be one of the following: “Tell me about yourself”, “Walk me through your profile,” or “Give me your elevator pitch.”. In my experience, the last is usually the toughest.
The key to an elevator pitch is to identify your mission. Then, explain what you’ve done so far, what you intend to do, and how these fit into your mission statement.
For example, this. was my actual elevator pitch when I interviewed for Oxford:
“I’m Sam weeks. I spent five years in Investment Banking, where I traded stocks - helping the rich get richer! I want an MBA so that I can launch my own company, which will help the little guy invest in more complex and rewarding assets.”
The point of the elevator pitch is to intrigue the admissions committee and to hook them into your profile. Make them curious to learn more about you. So obviously don’t worry about squeezing every bit of information within those 30 seconds.
2. Which other schools are you applying to?
Admissions committees are aware that you’re most likely applying to other business schools. So, they want to understand your logic for picking a certain business school over another.
So, when they ask you about the other programs you’ve applied to, pick a common theme - a common trait connecting the schools you’re targeting.
“I am applying to Kellogg because I want to be a part of a school with a tight-knit community, so I am also applying to Dartmouth, Tuck and Duke Fuqua.”
“I am applying to Oxford because I want to pursue one-year programs in Europe, so I’m also applying to Cambridge and HEC Paris”
“I am applying to Tepper because I am targeting STEM MBA programs that can help me land into a Product Management role in the US. So, I'm also applying to Fuqua's MSTeM (management science and technology management) track and Cornell Johnson's Tech MBA”
3. If you’re progressing so quickly in your role, why do you need an MBA?
It may sound a bit aggressive... get over it. They’re just testing you.
Gather yourself and calmly explain to them the skills you’re hoping to gain from an MBA. Then, put your research to use and explain why you think you need an MBA, and especially why it needs to be from this business school.
Try to avoid generic answers like “I’ve always wanted to pursue an MBA.”
Discuss your post-MBA goals also. Not only the immediate goals but the long-term goals also. For instance, you might not need a business school degree for the roles you’re targeting immediately post-MBA, but picking up those skills in advance will allow you to take on executive-level positions in the long term.
You could also discuss the exploration angle. “I’m 80% sure I want to do the following, but an MBA will open up options that I might like to consider.”
4. What’s your backup plan if you don’t reach your post-MBA target role?
Of course, you want to be optimistic and do your best to get your target role, but business schools like to know that you have a contingency option. That you’ve thought about a plan B.
Since this is also a commonly asked essay question, you might already have something in mind. If so, stick to your written answer. But, if it’s not, then a good plan is to say you’ll pursue a less radical career change. For example, if you were targeting a triple-jump (change of role, industry & geography), then maybe your backup is a double-jump (so to speak!).
Strong answers to this question include:
Return to your existing industry:
“I’ve got a strong network in my current industry, and I will return to a different organisation in the same industry, probably in a more senior role.”
I was hoping to move to the US, but if that’s difficult, perhaps because of visa issues, then maybe I’ll aim for similar roles in Europe.
“There’s a business idea I’ve been toying with for a while. So, if I don’t get my target role, I’ll probably give it a shot.”
5. Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced.
Ethical dilemma questions can throw off even the best-prepared candidates. Ethical dilemmas often are often vague or subtle, so candidates find it tough to think of an answer on the spot.
To handle these questions, make sure some of your pre-prepared stories have a tough decision at some point. Then use the same story and describe the decision from an ethical standpoint.
Some tips to think about:
Think of people you work with who broke the rules?
Are there any recurring ethical issues that come up in your industry? What is your stance on these?
Give me an example of a time when you stood up for somebody. There’s likely to be an ethical story in there somewhere!
When you’re preparing your ethical dilemma stories, consider these three steps:
Step 1: Understand the adcom's rationale behind asking you about an ethical dilemma.
Business schools nurture candidates to become the leaders of tomorrow. They know you’ll face difficult ethical dilemmas in your role so they want to get a sense of the values you’ll uphold and if you’ll take the more challenging route if your moral compass sent you that way.
Step 2: Choose your story carefully
More straightforward ethical dilemmas with a binary choice often make the best stories. Don’t feel that you have to make up a high-stakes story involving multiple stakeholders.
Structure your story using the SCAR method:
Situation - Describe the situation briefly
Challenge - Explain the challenge you faced
Action - The action you took
Result - The outcome of your efforts
Some of the actions people usually take in ethical dilemmas in the workplace are:
Use their own judgement to handle the situation when there’s no instruction manual.
Connecting with senior management personnel and escalating the issue.
Reaching out to HR and finding a solution discreetly without colleagues knowing.
Did you face leaders abusing their position of leadership?
Step 3: What did you learn from this experience
Business schools want you to show that you learn from your experiences. Even if you aren’t proud of how you handled the ethical dilemma at the time, show that you’ve learned from it. If it’s a strong answer, there may even be aspects of your decision that you’re still grappling with.
If you’d like to organise a mock interview with more tough questions, get in touch using this booking link.
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