The best approach to an admissions interview
Forster-Thomas Inc. explains why being yourself really is the best approach to an admissions interview – no matter who your interviewer is.
Andrew called my mobile phone at an uncharacteristic hour, with an even more surprising nervousness in his voice. This tall, confident trader – a lacrosse star at his Little Ivy and a standout professional at his big securities firm – had just been assigned his interviewer for Wharton. “I googled him, and he's a pretty important guy; he's gotta be in his 50s at least,” Andrew said. “How am I going to hold my own? He'll eat me alive.”
I chuckled, because I’ve heard this a thousand times. Alumni interviewers come in every shape and size, age and experience level. Some schools try to match you with someone similar, others give you a list of people to choose from, and others simply assign an interviewer to you.
While you never know what your interviewer will be like until you're seated in front of them, I've noticed some definite trends. In general, I prefer my candidates to get older interviewers, not younger – the closer in age your interviewer is, the more likely he will see you as competition. He's more likely to test you, screw with your head, challenge you on your answers, play cat and mouse. You know, pull out the measuring stick. Older interviewers, on the other hand, are more likely to want to get to know you. I told Andrew he's more likely to be offered a drink by this seasoned alumnus than drawn and quartered.
Of course, that answer spun Andrew off onto another fear: “Is getting offered a drink some kind of test? I mean, if I accept it, I'm a partier, and if I decline it, I'm being rude!”
I told Andrew to trust those sharp interpersonal skills that had gotten him this far in his career already. “As soon as you walk in, while you're taking off your overcoat and adjusting to your chair, make some small talk: ‘Have you been doing this long?’ ‘How about those Yankees?’ Whatever usually works for you. Does he just grunt or dive into an answer? If he sits ramrod straight and his desk looks like Martha Stewart herself organised it, then play it a little cooler. If he props his feet up and doesn't even glance at your résumé, adjust accordingly”
No matter what, however, be yourself, I cautioned Andrew. Calibrating your style is not the same thing as pandering to the audience.
A couple of weeks later, Andrew called me to report on the interview. “David, man, I'm so glad we had that talk, or that interview would have freaked me out!”
It turns out that the interviewer hardly asked a single question about Andrew's leadership experiences or five-year plan. After asking some questions about why Andrew wanted an MBA and why he was attracted to Wharton, the guy launched into a story about how much he loved his own time there – especially some of the “girls” he'd gone out with.
“Then he started peppering me with questions about [my private life].” I almost burst out laughing. “I mean, he wasn't creepy about it, it was more like locker-room talk, like we were old buds. If you hadn't kind of told me something like that might happen, I would have thought he was trying to trap me or something.”
The interview did get back on track – Andrew got to tell his favourite leadership story we had whittled down to a tight narrative – but the tension had gone. He spoke with the easy confidence Andrew had when he first walked into my office eight months earlier – the same confidence that got me to say “yes, I want you as a Forster-Thomas client” – instead of the nervous nelly he had become after getting the interview. Once he relaxed, Andrew got to shine, flash his hundred-watt smile, even make a little fun of himself when answering a question about his weaknesses. And Andrew got the proverbial fat envelope from Wharton as well.
Be yourself. That's much more attractive than twisting yourself into a Stepford candidate –plus, chances are, you're not a great actor. You'll be fooling no one but yourself, and stripping yourself of all the individual quirks and traits that make you memorable.
Founded in 1995, Forster-Thomas Inc is an internationally-recognised, boutique educational and career consulting firm based in NYC. Co-founders Evan Forster and David Thomas are the authors of the best-selling book, The MBA Reality Check: Make The School You Want, Want You, published in 2010.