Beware! of these 15 dreadful don’ts at an MBA admissions interview

Editor’s note: This is the first of the two-part series by guest author Charanpreet Singh that gives you a checklist about the important don’ts at a personal interview.
The journey that started with writing tests, applying to and winning calls from business schools and competing in group discussions reaches its final milepost — a face-to-face interview with the representatives of the school of your choice. This is the hour of reckoning –- an opportunity to make that final impression that pushes you past the finish line. Students have been asking me, for several years now, if I can tell them what the panel looks for in a candidate. It is a tough question to answer as panels are not homogeneous masses of predictable people. Every interviewer has his or her own perspective and every B–school has its own set of requirements. At a conceptual level, however, the panel is assessing your fitment as a part of the B-school family for the next couple of years (especially for a residential school). So, the question is, would the panel members want you to be a part of their family? Do they like you enough?

Here’s a checklist to make sure you avoid the following ‘don’ts’ when facing an interview:

1. Not paying adequate attention to application form-filling:
This is done prior to the interview – sometimes several months earlier – but I thought I would start here for the benefit of those who still have some forms to fill. Before the panel meets you, your application form defines who you are. Also, when you are interviewed, it is largely on the basis of what you have filled-in. Need one say more? Take adequate care to ensure that you come across as a clear-thinking, focussed individual.

2. Not knowing what is there on your application form: This is a common phenomenon. As discussed, your application forms the basis of your interview, at least in the early stages. Your responses in the interview must tally with the content of the application form; else you come across as an unsure, unfocussed person. It is therefore mandatory that you are completely familiar with the filled-in form before you appear before the panel.

3. Being careless and/ or casual about your appearance: The interview is a formal interaction; you have applied for admission to a business management education, which will hopefully help you establish a successful corporate career. The least that is expected of you is that you will take adequate care to present yourself as a well-groomed person. T-shirts, jeans, untidy or crumpled clothes, outlandish hair styles, etc. suggest that the candidate has not taken the process seriously enough.

4. Showing up without adequate preparation: Nothing irritates a panel more than a candidate who has not taken the trouble of preparing for the interview. You have to be prepared with answers to questions pertaining to your own self, life and goals, as well as to academics and work. Preparation builds confidence –- and confidence (or a lack of it) shows. I would further explode this into the following ‘don’ts’:

a) Not being prepared for questions regarding self: Some of the most difficult questions to answer in an interview have to do, surprisingly, with someone you are expected to know quite well –- yourself. Candidates rarely give good answers to questions like ‘tell us something about yourself,’ ‘why do you want to pursue an MBA?’, ‘what career goals do you have over the next seven-year period?’, etc.

b) Neglecting academics: Remember that you have applied to an academic institution; your objective in joining a b-school could simply be to get a good job, but the faculty members of a good b-school take academics seriously. It’s time to go back to your course books and strengthen your fundamentals –- chances are that the questions will test your understanding of concepts and not your memory.

c) Unveiling a lack of general awareness: Business is conducted in the real world and a good manager needs to be aware of and sensitive to the micro and macro environment around him/ her. You need to demonstrate an interest in and a good knowledge of what is happening around the world.d) Not knowing enough about the school you have applied to: This is a cardinal sin. If you have not researched the school, you are in for trouble — you cannot blame the panel for making the assumption that you are not really serious about joining.

5. Not listening: Listening skills are perhaps the most important part of your repertoire. You need to listen actively to not only the words but also the tone and the body language that accompany the words. Allow the interviewer to complete the question; clarify if you have not understood the question; try to understand why it has been asked before you start answering.

6. Hurrying into your answers: This is in some sense related to the earlier point. Even if you think you have a very good answer to a question, take your time to give your response. Slowing down the pace a little allows you time to think and structure a better answer; also, the answer is less likely to appear rehearsed.

7. Not answering the questions asked: This sounds trivial, but you will be surprised how often candidates fail to answer the question asked. This is partly due to something we have already discussed –- poor listening means you probably don’t even realise what is asked of you; partly, however, it is due to habit. For example, the answer to ‘how many siblings do you have?’ has to be a number — 0 being one of the options! We rarely restrict ourselves to answering precisely; in an interview you need to demonstrate this ability.

8. Making unnecessary use of jargon: Interviewers are impressed with your understanding of concepts, not your demonstrated knowledge of jargon. More often than not, the use of jargon appears forced –- an attempt to impress. The panel could dig deeper and reveal gaps in your understanding as well. I would suggest you keep your answers simple and to the point.

9. Giving long–winded, convoluted answers: This is where you need to practice structuring your thoughts and hence your answers. We already know that you need to answer the specific question asked; you also need to develop the skill to make your answers simple, clear and well-structured. Do not leave it to the panellists to pluck the answer out of a cloud of complex sentences –- do the thinking for them and present your response in an easily understandable form. This approach will encourage you to think before you speak — always a good idea! I must add here, though, that very short, mono-syllabic answers are as perilous as long-winded ones.

10. Portraying a lack of enthusiasm and energy: You are supposed to be keen on securing admission to the school; your demeanour should reflect that enthusiasm. I am not asking you to be over the top (as some candidates are), but as a part of the panel I would like to see a candidate who is hungry for an admission and who feels that this school fits in well with his/her career plans.

11. Underestimating the quality of the panel: This is a common phenomenon — and something that never fails to amuse me. However smart you may think you may be, make the safe assumption that panellists are at least as smart.  Also, the combined depth of knowledge that they will have and the breadth of subjects they will cover is likely to be quite significant. Remember this before you start giving ‘creative’ answers.

12. Believing that the interview is a one-way process: While it’s true that you are on the wrong side of the table, do not go with the notion that you are a mere ‘victim’. You can have considerable influence on the direction an interview takes. The way you structure your responses determines the areas in which you are quizzed further; be aware of this and look for opportunities to steer the interview in a direction that enables you to demonstrate your strengths.

13. Getting into an argument with the interviewer(s): Indians are argumentative by nature (were you surprised by the title of Amartya Sen’s book?). Regardless of how right you think you are, an interviewer may continue to refute you. It is a good idea not to stretch an argument beyond a reasonable point –- you may tend to get emotional and end up saying something that you regret later. Also, the ability to agree to disagree is a sign of maturity.

14. Badmouthing former associations: Another common phenomenon, and something that puts off the panel completely. Trashing organisations/ jobs that you have worked in or subjects that you have studied implies that you do not own up to events in your own life and cast the blame on others. It also suggests that you may trash the b-school in future if your career does not go the way you want it to.

15. Not having an opinion: You are expected to analyse significant events and situations and form opinions. If you come across as someone who does not have an opinion, the panel is likely to believe that you are either uninformed or uninterested. You, of course, need to back your opinion with your analysis — that is exactly what the panel is seeking.

The author is Charanpreet Singh, Associate Dean, Praxis Business School, Kolkata. Educated at IIT Kanpur and University of Iowa, he was earlier Country Manager, Marketing at Hewlett Packard.

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