Every season, I coach my clients through the MBA interview process, and it’s certain that they will face behavioral interview questions. Some years ago, most MBA applications had behavioral essays as well, so clients were already primed for this type of interview question. Only some schools currently require this type of essay prompt, so depending on where you apply, your actual interview may be the first time you have to navigate these behavioral situations.
Behavioral questions can start with the typical. Tell me about a time when… But they can also start more simply, such as, what is your most significant work accomplishment, or is there a project where you demonstrated strong leadership. The key is understanding that interviewers are not asking you to talk about your entire tenure at a 3-year job that encompassed multiple projects, or your complete undergraduate experience. Instead, it is best to focus your answer on a discrete project or experience.
Generally, it may be useful to divide your behavioral experiences into positive and developmental groupings. One of the tasks I have my clients complete in preparation for our first mock interview is to create their behavioral list into these positive and negative possibilities. Positive stories would answer questions such as: tell me about a time you went beyond your job description, talk about a project where you had to innovate or share a project where you had to persuade a group or an individual of your point of view… In contrast, negative stories might be prompted with: tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult person at work, talk about some negative professional feedback you received, or is there a time you were part of a dysfunctional team.
Now let’s cover some of the fundamentals of behavioral responses:
More Recent: All things being equal, try to choose stories that have occurred in the last 2-3 years. There can be some exceptions, of course, but you are at the height of your maturity and business powers now, so give the edge to more recent experiences. However, if an interview has 4-5 behavioral questions, you may have to go back further, and some folks have incredibly strong leadership experiences from college—like being student body president or being on a championship collegiate sports team.
Don’t Repeat: Try not to use the same project for multiple questions, as your interviewer may not feel you’ve had enough diversity of experience. Also, if you have written one of your main essays on a behavioral experience, try to vary it up for the interview. That said, if there are multiple behavioral questions, you can certainly draw on that essay topic.
Obstacles Make the Story: A great film or book has the protagonist dealing with worthy hurdles. Without conflict, there is no story. Center your answers around challenges you had to navigate to get results.
Multi-Dimensional Stories: Great behavioral answers are rarely about one hurdle. Your answer will be rich and longer if you can present multiple challenges. Hurdles are often analytical/quantitative/technical (like we had to challenge a financial valuation or I had to find a more flexible technology to handle the nature of our team project) or they are political (like we had to convince a skeptical client or I had to help a struggling analyst with his confidence). Stories will run out of gas if they have no dimensionality. Try to use both analytical and people-oriented challenges.
Structure: There are many structures out there. I favor a simple 3 act narrative structure.
- Background/Stakes: What is the situation you were in, what was the context? Why was this project important? Try to provide any metrics or stats that back that up.
- Actions Taken: What did you do to handle the challenges, both alone or as part of a team? Remember, this is where the multiple dimensions can come in. How did you think like a business person, what strategy guided your interactions with a difficult player, how did you leverage the expertise of a senior colleague…?
- Results: What happened? What metrics can you point to? If the project is unfinished, what might be the likely outcomes? Did you get promoted because of the experience or help a struggling intern to do better?
There are more elements to behavioral interview questions, but these are the basics. What I have learned about interviewing MBA applicants for 15 seasons is that everybody needs something different in terms of advice. Some people talk too fast and don’t give their brains time to switch directions. Some folks have no beginning/middle/end to their stories. While some applicants get so detailed, the interviewer starts to tune out. And we all have blind spots. The best golfers in the world have swing coaches. The top tennis players have trainers to raise their level and point out bad tendencies.
Interview coaches can see what you can’t, so invest in one when you have the fortune to receive those interview invitations. Good luck!