30 things to avoid like the plague at an MBA admissions Group Discussion



You should worry if your group discussion starts to look like this. 

You are done with the Common Admission Test (CAT) and are probably lining up yourself for some of the other admission tests. This is a good time to brush up your skills for the last mile of selection – group discussion and interview (GD-PI).
Interestingly, there are lot of speculations and confusions among aspirants regarding GD-PI. Having been a part of selection panels representing both the corporate and institutional recruiters for several years, I have witnessed, moderated and assessed performance in innumerable GD-PIs. It is fascinating to see students trying really hard, but ending up doing things that they should rather avoid.
Here is a list of things candidates need to stay clear off if they wish to make the right impression on the interview panel. Avoiding the don’ts will help recognise the real differentiators, and the direct preparation towards improving ability to score higher on them.
Let’s begin with GD. A group of students is assigned a topic for discussion for 15–20 minutes. The panel is looking for an effective combination of knowledge and skills in the candidates. Some serious ‘don’ts’.


1. Arriving just-in-time, or worse still, arriving late for the selection process: Being punctual shows you value time and respect the institute’s time as well. Arriving early gives you a chance to familiarise yourself with the environment, meet your ‘competitors’ and become a little easy about the whole thing. Less stress equals better performance.

2. Not having a crisp, simple and effective speech prepared for the introduction: Often moderators ask the participants to introduce themselves. It sounds simple so candidates don’t give this part much thought. Consequently, we see poorly-structured, fumbling introductions, making a negative impression on the panel and participants.

3. Clarifying the topic with the moderator: If you do not know much about or do not understand the topic, the worst thing you can do is ask the moderator. It shows you in poor light, either in terms of knowledge or analytical ability, or both. You need to keep quiet and listen to your peers; as the discussion unfolds, you will know what to say.

4. Scrapping to start the discussion without having anything useful to say: Starting the discussion does not by itself necessarily give you extra points; it does, however, give you some visibility. So, if you do manage to start, make sure you make a positive impact. It’s better not to start the discussion than to make an average or poor start.

5. Failing to recognise that a GD is not a debate: Majority of candidates start the discussion by voicing their own opinion – that’s typically the debate situation. In GDs, moderators look for candidates who can create a framework for discussion or help widen its scope by guiding the group to explore its different aspects. If all you have to say is whether you agree with the topic or not, and that too before you get a chance to discuss it with the group, you have made a poor start.

6. Showing aggression: Many candidates believe that the corporate world is seeking aggressive managers. The industry, on the contrary, is looking for managers who can work in and with teams and who are assertive without being aggressive. To be aggressive is to impinge on others’ space and time and that’s not how a professional is expected to conduct him/her self. So, don’t come across as a smoke-spouting matador; you need to come across as an effective team-player who works with the group, accommodates diverse viewpoints and asserts him/ her-self without aggression.

7. Trying to be the leader of the group: Leadership cannot be demanded, it is bestowed by the group and you have to earn it on the basis of the quality of your performance. Candidates often try very hard to assume a leadership position in the group – obviously in the belief that the moderator is assessing them on leadership potential. The effort shows – and, almost always, with disastrous results. If you add value to the discussion by demonstrating knowledge and analytical ability and conduct yourself with dignity, you may emerge as a leader.

8. Trying to play moderator: You are an equal among other equals in the group – thus no divine power has given you the right to decide how others in the group should conduct themselves. This is usually misconstrued as team skills by the participants but is actually unnecessary policing. There is no one more irritating for the moderator than a member making inane statements like ‘we must allow everyone to speak’ and ‘we are digressing from the subject.’ You are assessed on your ability to make compelling points on the subject assigned – just do a good job of that and the assessment will take care of itself.

9. Grabbing airtime: Most people love to hear themselves speak. Most also believe that they have the most earth-shattering perspectives to share and that everyone else should just shut up and listen to them. Armed with these beliefs, some candidates talk themselves to the proverbial death in GDs. People who insist on talking a lot end up talking nonsense and repeating themselves ad-nauseum. These students are prime candidates for rejection – no B-school wants to fill up its campus with people who don’t let others talk.

10. Playing judge: I have mentioned that a wannabe moderator is the most irritating species in a GD. A very close second is the self-appointed judge, who spends his/ her time in the GD making incisive statements like ‘you made a good point,’ ‘he did not make sense to me,’ ‘I agree with her’, etc. Good to know who all are blessed with your approval, but what about making a contribution to the discussion with some valid, well-thought-out points?

11. Failing to listen to others: The hallmark of good communication is effective listening. Assessors actively seek superior listening skills in candidates. Your body language and the content of your speech have to, therefore, demonstrate attentive listening. Listening would automatically improve the quality of your content, and moderators are acutely aware of this. Interrupting others, trying to dominate the discussion, ignoring group dynamics are all examples of poor listening skills.

12. Showing lack of respect for other people’s views: A subject is bound to evoke diverse responses from the group members, in fact it is this diversity that makes for a rich discussion. I have seen candidates shut out other points of view, ridicule the comments or ideas of others and expend their energies in trying to prove others wrong. That is exactly what you should not do – you need to learn to accept others’ opinions and carry them in the group while putting your own perspective forward in a pleasant yet assertive manner. It’s about different ways of looking at things, not about right and wrong. Also, you need to be sensitive enough not to make comments that are likely to hurt the sentiments of any section or group of people.

13. Being closed-minded about issues: This is related to the earlier point. Managers need to be open minded about issues and have the capability of managing conflicting opinions. If you come across as a person with strong, extreme, non-negotiable views, you would be doing yourself disfavour in the selection process. The assumption would be that you are either unaware of the complexities of the issue or too closed minded to accommodate positions different from your own. This becomes even more obvious in sensitive issues like reservation, terrorism, etc.

14. Engaging in one-on-one arguments: A group discussion needs to involve the entire group, but students often indulge in parallel conversations with other members. This is more evident when two members get caught up in trying to ‘win’ an argument. Neither is likely to relent – so you end up not winning the argument and losing the opportunity to get selected. Avoid getting into long arguments – agree to disagree and move the discussion forward.

15. Repeating or rephrasing points: You get credit for making new, valid points – not for repeating or rephrasing points already made earlier in the discussion. If you have nothing new to say, keep mum and think – analyse the knowledge you have and try to apply it to the given situation. Bring a new perspective or build and develop on points made by others.

Added later: The author has sent the following response to reader comments about there being contradictions in points 3, 8 and 10.
Thanks for taking the time to read my views on GDs. This article was a summary of my experiences as a moderator and recruiter for institutions like Tata Steel, PwC, HP and Praxis Business School. I am glad that some of you have expressed differences of opinion – that’s what enriches a discussion, whether it’s a formal GD or an article on a website.
Some of you have asked me to clarify certain points. I certainly don’t wish to defend what I have said as; however, I think I owe it to you all to clear some of the confusion that some of my writing may inadvertently have created. The points in question are 3, 8 and 10, so I will address them in that order.

3. Clarifying the topic with the moderator: In response to a topic like ‘Euthanasia should be legalised’, I have had candidates asking me (the moderator) the meaning of the word ‘euthanasia.’ These candidates immediately get a negative, and, more often than not, the moderator does not reveal the meaning anyway — you are supposed to know what euthanasia means as it is one of the hotly debated issues in the globe. If, for some reason, you are unaware, a better way to deal with the situation is to let the GD start and listen to your peers – it takes a couple of minutes to get the hang of the topic and to start contributing. Some moderators may give candidates an opportunity to clarify – please go ahead and use the opportunity.

8 and 10. Assuming the role of a moderator or a judge: I am addressing these together as they belong to the same family of topics – in a group of peers, should I (and can I) assume the role of a moderator or a judge? Some readers have said that it depends on the situation in a GD as each GD is unique – I could not agree more. But I cannot cover all possible cases that may arise – generally, for me, a candidate who attempts to ‘run’ the group usually ends up looking a little silly because the group is under no obligation to be ‘run’ by a peer. Every fish market has a couple of do-gooders screaming that the group is turning into one (fish market) and that everyone should be allowed to speak. The group usually chooses to ignore them and carry on – so all they manage is to add to the general noise. No harm in making an attempt – but you need to be smart enough to figure out if it’s likely to work. If the group is fiercely competitive, you are likely to face an uphill task. Comments like we, or, worse still, you, are digressing, etc are likely to be met with an under-the-breath ‘who are you to decide what is digression – I think I am making a very relevant point’. Instead, make a point that brings the group back to the topic! Whom would you guys select – someone who says – ‘You are digressing from the topic’, (a judgement) or someone who says, ’Coming back to the topic, I would like to look at the social impact of this development’ (a contribution toward bringing the group back to the topic). Take your pick.
Successful GD candidates spend their effort in making compelling points – the group automatically listens to them. Candidates who repeatedly complain that ‘I had great points but no one listened to me’ need to get another opinion on the brilliance of their points – they would be surprised! If the moderator himself asks candidates to moderate the GD, you obviously go ahead and do that. I would be seriously concerned if your understanding of my writing suggests anything different. The specific situation you face in a GD and the instructions, if any, of the moderator would clearly override whatever I have said.


16. Making sweeping statements: Sweeping statements are strong, one-sided views of the world that lack factual support. Students love making these kinds of statements as they sound good; an assertion is no good unless you can back it up with facts and/or logical reasoning. Think through a point before you offer it for discussion – you are then ready to support it if required.
17. Becoming emotional: A GD is an artificially constructed situation that can be quite stressful at times. There could be comments made by others in the group that you find outrageous or plain unacceptable. If your peers manage to get you excited and emotional, they would have scored a couple of decisive points against you. The mature way to handle the situation is to control your emotions and respond on the basis of facts and sound logical constructs. Do not lose your composure and be polite and graceful.
18. Compromising content for form: In GDs, what you say is the most important component of your performance. The other component, ie, how you say what you say, is important, but comes into play only once your speech is strong in its content. Students often focus on their way of speaking and the accent, etc – more of that later – you need to focus on finding significant things to say.
19. Over-quoting statistics: Facts and figures are useful in supporting your assertion; they cannot be your assertion. Getting into too many details and quoting data extensively reduce the impact of your contribution. It also shows you as someone who is likely to miss the wood for the trees. By all means quote facts and figures – but only when you feel that the quoted data will add value to the discussion and act as a support to your argument.
20. Using complex English words and structure: The best way to ensure that the group loses interest in you is to present your opinion in a convoluted, complicated manner, using obscure English and long, never-ending sentences. The simpler your communication, the better will be the reception by the group. If others understand easily what you are saying and if it makes sense to them, they will listen to you and respond.
21. Speaking fast: English as a language does not lend itself to being spoken at breakneck speed. In a GD, candidates feel the compulsion to speak very fast, hoping that would enable them to say more in the limited airtime that they are likely to get. Wrong assumption. People who speak very fast lose track of what they are saying, and definitely lose their audience. Speak slowly and deliberately – make every word count.
22. Using a false accent: Perfectly normal students sometimes adopt the most fake of accents when they speak English in a formal situation. Avoid doing this – be yourself and speak the way you would normally speak (or slower than you normally speak – see #21) – and please don’t start sounding like an uneducated Westerner.
23. Being over-polite and over-doing the smiling part: As I have said earlier, be yourself – that is the best way to be in GDs and PIs. Over-polite behaviour is usually looked at with suspicion; plus, an artificial fixed smile with lots of nodding and shaking of the head does not endear you to the group – it usually ends up irritating the others.
24. Trying hard to be funny: The verdict here is very simple – either you have a sense of humour or you don’t. Focussed efforts to create humour often end up in people laughing at you rather than with you. Also, the best form of humour is self-deprecating – any comments that compromise a community or section of people are a big no. If you are naturally a witty person, go ahead and demonstrate that skill. If you are not, stick to the middle path.
25. Looking at the moderator while speaking: Remember, you are a part of the group and you need to look at your group members while addressing them. Gazing at the floor, ceiling or the moderator are all invalid options. The moderator is a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and is observing the group – you have to ignore his presence. Frequent glances in the direction of the moderator betray a sense of insecurity – it is as if you seek support from him.
26. Digressing from the topic: While it’s good to broaden the scope of the discussion, you need to ensure that you don’t move too far away from the topic. In addition to taking up precious airtime, you may end up guiding the entire discussion on a parallel course. In fact, your role as a good team player is to bring the conversation back on course in case you sense that it is floundering.
27. Underestimating the importance of body-language: As Peter Drucker says, the most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said. The way you sit, use your personal space, establish eye-contact and ‘appear’ to people says a lot more about you than you would believe. It is therefore perilous to not be aware of how you present yourself to others.
28. Giving your opinion when asked to summarize: This is a very common phenomenon. Students tend to voice their points of view about the subject when all that the moderator is asking them to do is give a summary of the discussion. Desist from doing that – instead, take the group through the discussion journey, covering all the significant points made till then. Make optimum use of this opportunity – for a welcome change, no one can interrupt you so you have the floor to demonstrate your listening, analytical and articulation skills.
29. Not speaking at all: I kept this for the last. This is the gravest crime you can commit in a GD – irrespective of how alien the topic is, or how boisterous the group, you need to speak and you need to be heard. Learn more about the topic as it gets discussed; seize the smallest opening in the discussion to make your entry; use the opportunity to make your point(s). If you haven’t spoken at all, you get no points.