Common MBA interview question #2

Tell me about a leadership experience.

This question has a number of variations as well:

Tell me about your most significant leadership experience.

Tell me about a recent leadership experience.

Tell me about a leadership experience that has impacted your leadership style.

Tell me about your greatest accomplishment.

Tell me about a failure.

Tell me about an ethical dilemma.

And so on.

My point here? First, leadership is broad and encompasses a number of topics. I include failure and ethics because these too are part of being a leader. Two (my main point for the purposes of this post), all these questions are asking you to tell a story. The question and thus the required structure for the response are different from the earlier question “Walk me through your resume” (see Jan. 17 post).

Whenever you tell a story, you’ll need to do the following:

1. Introduce the setting: What is the situation? What is going on? The interviewer will need a little background information in order to understand what you are about to tell her.

2. What is the task that is facing you?

3. What actions did you take to deal with this challenge? Try to go beyond just listing actions (“First, I did this…second, I did that…”) which can make you sound robotic. Mention why you made certain decisions, show what was going on inside your head.

4. Tell the interviewer the result. What happened at the end? Was there an impact?

MIT Sloan uses the acronym “STAR” for this method where

S = Situation

T = Task

A = Action

R = Result

You’ll probably recognize that this is the same format you used for writing your essays. Telling your story in this way will allow your interviewer to visualize your actions and behavior and, most importantly, your skills and attributes.

Would you like to practice interviewing? Contact us at


Waitlisted – Now what?

When people apply to schools, they typically expect one of two fates: acceptance or rejection. They pray for the best and fantasize all the good imageries associated with becoming a part of their dream school’s entering class. On the other hand, most realistic people also brace themselves for the worst, and try to prepare themselves emotionally for the potential disappointment.

And then the decision arrives – and you are told you are waitlisted. The admissions committee tells you that they recognize your “strong achievements and high qualifications” but they could not offer you a seat just yet. What does this all mean, and what can you do?

First of all, what it means to be waitlisted

As someone who has both experienced the torture of being waitlisted (I was waitlisted by my top choice university when I was a high school senior) and monitored waitlists at Harvard, I can tell you a lot from experience.

When an admissions committee puts an applicant on the waitlist, this is what they are saying: “You are great. We like you. You have most or even all of the things that we are looking for in a candidate. However, we don’t have the space to take everyone that we like, and some applicants are a little stronger/fit our current needs more. At the same time, we don’t want to lose you. Now, we have made XXX number of offers, and not everyone is going to accept our offer. Therefore, if any spaces open up, we will consider you once again.”

The waitlist is admissions’ equivalent to being the runner up in a beauty contest.

Secondly, how does the waitlist work?

Common questions with regard to the waitlist include:


How long is it?
Is it ranked?

Is there any guarantee I will be offered a seat off the waitlist?


The answers are typically 1) it depends on the school; 2) no; 3) no.

Let me talk about the latter two points.

Admissions committees will almost always tell you that the waitlist is not ranked. However, in my experience, it would be lying to say that there aren’t some people closer to the top of the waitlist than others. Quality is one criterion while other factors will be those beyond your control. Admissions offices at MBA programs admit to using the 3rd round as a time to “round out” their classes and to look at balance in terms of diversity. The waitlist is another such time.

As for whether or not you will come off the waitlist, and when, there really is no guarantee at all and the admissions officers are being completely honest with you when they say “I don’t know.” I once worked with a student who got off the waitlist 2 weeks before school orientation started!

At the beginning of each season, admissions directors make their projected yields; that is, how many offers they need to make in order to yield their ideal class size. Let’s say that ABC University has 400 seats in its first year class. Traditionally, 55% of their admitted candidates take the offer, while the other 45% choose to attend another school. Thus, ABC University will admit 580 applicants in anticipation that 45% of those applicants will turn down their offers. If more than 45% of the admitted applicants choose to go somewhere else, that is the time that ABC University will go to their waitlist.

Finally, what can you do?

There are a number of things you can do if you are waitlisted:

  1. The most important thing you can do is follow the school’s instructions. I believe that the majority of schools welcome communication and updates from waitlisted applicants. However, there are also some schools like Harvard Business School that firmly ask applicants to do nothing. It is imperative to follow the school’s instructions because 1) you want to show them that you can listen to direction and 2) you do not want to annoy them at any cost.
  2. If you are waitlisted at a school that does welcome you to update your application, then you may submit a short note or essay that describes anything new and noteworthy that you would like to add to your application. This includes information about a promotion, new responsibilities, new awards, new coursework/grades, and stronger test scores. A brief note or essay that describes this information should suffice.
  3. Send another recommendation. Assuming your school does not tell you not to send in additional recommendations, you may consider adding another letter if you believe the new perspective will add value to your application. Related to this, you may also consider having an alum or current student send in a “push” letter for you, confirming your strengths as a candidate, your fit with the school, and your commitment to attending the school.
  4. Stay in touch with the school. This is critical, even though I am listing it here as #4. A major factor that influences a school’s decision to admit someone off the waitlist is his/her level of interest in the school. By the time the admissions committee gets to the waitlist, they want to only take people who they know will come if made an offer. They are running out of time so they do not want to make offers to people who need time to decide. Therefore, if you are waitlisted by a school that says it is okay to communicate with them, then stay in touch periodically (i.e., sending a quick note telling them you are still interested in remaining on the waitlist). By this I mean perhaps once a month or at key decision times, like the two weeks preceding their next decision round (if this is an MBA program). It is equally important not to annoy the admissions office; do not call or email every week or demand a meeting with the admissions staff or they may think you are a stalker and worry if you will be this anxious once you are a student there.
  5. Analyze your weaknesses. What in your application needed improvement? Could you retake the TOEFL, GMAT or GRE? Do your English skills need improvement? Were your achievements on the weak side? As much as possible, try to tackle these weaknesses and show the admissions committee that you have made improvements since you submitted the application. I sometimes work with students who insist on writing essays every month showing their passion for the school, but they do nothing to improve their test scores, which is the very reason they were put on the waitlist. You do not need to overly reassure the admissions committee of your strengths; you need to reassure them that you can overcome the weaknesses that made them hesitate to admit you in the first place.
  6. Continue on with your plans, and your life. Do not put your life on hold for the school that waitlists you. Statistically speaking, your chances of getting admitted off any waitlist is small (and the more competitive the school, the smaller the chances). The safest thing to do is to continue with your plans to attend one of the schools to which you have been admitted. If you do get an offer from the school where you are waitlisted, then at that point you can change your plans. It is a torturous position to place an applicant, but the best protection for yourself is to move forward with your plans.
  7. Release your spot if you are no longer interested in waiting. Many candidates prefer not to wait, and begin to lose interest over time. In this case, as a courtesy, let the school know you are no longer interested. This frees up the wait list so that someone else who really wants to attend can have a better chance of getting in.


Questions or comments? You may email me!

Common MBA interview question #1

Congratulations to those who applied in the second round! January 15 typically marks the end of the peak MBA application season. However, just because you’ve submitted your applications, your work doesn’t quite end yet as you probably know. Now is a good time to turn your attention to interviews, even if you don’t have one scheduled yet.

Interviews for international applicants are not just about good English; you will also be evaluated in terms of poise and confidence, which take time to develop. Your interviewer will not be recording every grammatical mistake or word you utter; rather, she will try to get an overall sense of your personality and communication ability to see how well you might fit in at your target school.

For the next few weeks, I’ll go over some common interview questions. This week, let’s start with a common interview opener:

Walk me through your resume.

While many Japanese applicants aren’t familiar with this expression, they are able to guess from context what this question means. If you get this question, you are basically asked to take your interviewer through your resume, giving an informative but succinct summary of your career progression. You will focus not on reading the resume or explaining every detail but highlighting the main points in your career growth.

Different people have different advice as to how to approach this question, but my personal preference is to use the outline below, which follows a chronological rather than reverse-chronological sequence as used in your resume. My reasoning is that “Walk me through your resume” is really the same as “Tell me about your career progression” in which case – when you are speaking – it feels more natural to tell your story from past to present than from present to past. If you are afraid this might confuse your interviewer, you can simply say, “Okay, I’d like to start with my university experience.”

Recommended approach:

1)    Start with your university experience. Mention anything you believe is worth highlighting – perhaps you were very active academically, or maybe you were the leader of a sports team or school organization. (e.g., “I graduated from XYZ University in 2003 with a major in political science. I was very interested in international relations and was active in …”)

2)    Proceed with your career, starting with your first position. Mention briefly what your responsibilities were, any significant contributions, and why you moved to your next position. (e.g., I started in the accounting department where I xxx and was able to contribute to xxx. Seeing my efforts, I was promoted to xxxxx in two years…”)


Remember that the main point of this question is to give the interviewer an idea of how your career has progressed since university. Highlight the most important points by briefly mentioning them only and save the details for other questions that your interviewer will likely ask you.


エッセイ課題分析: Tuck (Dartmouth)

Moto and I had a very nice visit at Tuck back in May, when we were invited to the Tuck Conference for International Advisors. To really get a sense of how strongly Tuck feels about teamwork and collaboration, one does need to make a visit on campus. Even as conference attendees we were overwhelmed by the warmth and personal attention shown to us. The community feel and supportive atmosphere are palpable. Non “people persons” and non team players will have a difficult time here. I say all this as this understanding of their unique atmosphere will give you a sense of how to approach your essays for Tuck. They are looking for intelligent, hard working and accomplished leaders, but they are also going to pay much attention to your personality and to how well you will fit into their culture and campus.




Early Action
October 15, 2008

November Round
November 12, 2008

January Round
January 7, 2009

April Round
April 1, 2009


Please see below for the essay questions and my comments and advice:


Although there is no restriction on the length of your response, most applicants use, on average, 500 words for each essay. There are no right or wrong answers. Please double-space your response.


1.   Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you? (If you are applying for a joint or dual degree, please explain how the additional degree will contribute to those goals.)


This is a straightforward question regarding your goals and reasoning for getting an MBA at Tuck. As with other goals essays, be sure to give some background of your career experiences that have led up to the establishment of your goals. And be sure to do as much research as possible to be able to explain why Tuck is the right school for you.


2. Tuck defines leadership as “inspiring others to strive and enabling them to accomplish great things.” We believe great things and great leadership can be accomplished in pursuit of business and societal goals. Describe a time when you exercised such leadership. Discuss the challenges you faced and the results you achieved. What characteristics helped you to be effective, and what areas do you feel you need to develop in order to be a better leader?


In line with Tuck’s people-centered culture, this leadership question is different from other more typical leadership questions in that it has a “people focus.” The key is Tuck’s definition of leadership as stated in the first sentence; Tuck is concerned with how you inspired and how you enabled others to carry out a team or project goal. Thus, this essay will not be simply about how you took charge of a project in order to reach a successful outcome, but how you coached, motivated, inspired and/or taught staff or team members to reach the final outcome together. In writing this essay be sure to think about both the strengths and weaknesses that you showed during this experience.


3. Discuss the most difficult constructive criticism or feedback you have received. How did you address it? What have you learned from it?


Constructive criticism or feedback is negative but helpful comments and feedback that you receive from another person. For example, when your boss tells you that you have a tendency to take on too many projects because you are afraid to say “no” to others, that is constructive criticism. Constructive criticism or feedback is something that might be a little painful to hear, but is designed to help you improve yourself. The reason Tuck asks this question is to see how you react to feedback. Do you accept the feedback in a mature fashion, or do you tend to get angry and defensive? What do you do with that feedback afterwards? Do you reflect on the feedback and try to make improvements? You may use feedback that comes from any person – a supervisor, colleague, professor, team member, friend or family member – the important information is the feedback and what you did with it. For most applicants though, a work-based example is typically most appropriate.


4. Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck?


This essay is where you are best able to show your non-professional side. The essay is quite open-ended and you are free to find the best way to show the non-work dimensions of your background. When I advise my students, I typically ask them to focus on their values, which is usually a good springboard for writing about their unique life experiences (your personal values typically come from some particular life experiences, as well as become the impetus for pursuing certain experiences and activities). Focus on what is particularly unique to you, but don’t worry about having to show something that few other applicants have. You may be an accomplished tennis player or mountain climber, or you may have lived in 5 different countries or speak 6 languages. Given the strengths of Tuck’s applicant pool, though, there will be many applicants with such impressive backgrounds. The key to making your essay memorable is not the type of experiences you have had but the impact those experiences have had on you. Just listing accomplishments and strengths is not enough; you will need to openly reflect on how these experiences have made you the person you are today, or why these experiences are important to you. The more personalized the story, the more unique it will be, even if you talk about something as commonplace as enjoying swimming and traveling.


5. Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere that may be helpful in reviewing your application (e.g., unusual choice of evaluators, weaknesses in academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes, etc.). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.


This question is self-explanatory; use this space to mention anything that might not be clear to the admissions committee. Many of my students worry about writing explanations that sound like “excuses.” If you are offering an honest explanation to clarify an issue of potential doubt, then you will actually be helping the admissions committee rather than making excuses. An explanation will only sound like an excuse if it is written in a self-protective, defensive way (e.g., “I couldn’t achieve a high enough GMAT score because I was so busy with my work, working 80 hours a week because my colleague took vacation…”). When you write this kind of essay, be sure you are offering information that will be useful for the admissions committee; think of it as helping the admissions committee to do their job more efficiently.


Also, Tuck has a reason for asking for 4 main essays (they don’t have much time to read extra essays). Try your best to include your most representative stories in the 4 main essays, and use Essay 5 only to talk about something that you really couldn’t in the essays above.


6. (To be completed by all reapplicants) How have you strengthened your candidacy since you last applied? Please reflect on how you have grown personally and professionally.


Tuck would like to see that you are a stronger candidate this year than last. When you write this essay, think about any growth areas in your work (differences in responsibility or projects accomplished, promotions, awards) and personal life (community activities, English (if TOEFL or GMAT was an issue in your last application), personal experiences (e.g., travel). If your goals were not as clear last year, you should also use this essay to discuss how your career goals and/or reasoning for an MBA at Tuck have further solidified.


エッセイ課題分析: Wharton (Univ. of Pennsylvania)

(1) The Wharton on-line application will becomes available on Monday, August 4 US time. Create your account at:

(2) Wharton will have an information session in Tokyo in October:

Date: Thursday, October 9, 2008

Time: 19:00-21:00

Place: Conference Square M+, Mitsubishi Building, Chiyoda-ku

RSVP by: Thursday, October 9 at 18:00

Register at:

And finally, the deadlines. Wharton has one of the earlier first round deadlines so some of you may want to start on this application soon. Also, because of the broad range of essay questions asked, Wharton is typically a good school to start with as it will help you form a good base for other schools.


Round 1: Thursday, October 9, 2008 (the day of the info session!)

Round 2: Thursday, January 8, 2009

Round 3: Thursday, March 5, 2009

Essay Questions – Please find the questions below followed by my comments:

First-Time Applicant Questions

1. Describe your career progress to date and your future short-term and long-term career goals. How do you expect an MBA from Wharton to help you achieve these goals, and why is now the best time for you to join our program? (1,000 words)

This is a classically worded and thorough goals question, and Wharton is giving you plenty of room to tell your story. Here you should discuss how your career has developed the way it has and how your experiences along the way have led you to your future goals. Avoid giving simply a list of positions and responsibilities held (that is better suited for your resume); you should give explanations where necessary (e.g., why you chose to enter manufacturing or a foreign firm, why you left companies) and highlight significant points along your career development (e.g., promotions, major responsibilities and/or accomplishments, important lessons learned). Then, your goals should follow and they should make sense; in other words, the reader should be able to understand well how the story of your career connects with your stated goals.

The second part of the essay requires you to talk about Wharton: why you need an MBA, why you want to study for one at this point in your career, and why you want to get it from Wharton. Make this part specific and be sure it cannot be easily cut and pasted to another school.

2. Describe a setback or a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? (500 words)

Wharton wants to know how you react in difficult situations. Do you show strength of character and humility or do you give up easily or blame others? You can choose to talk about either a setback or failure. A setback is something disappointing (or worse) that becomes an obstacle in your life, preventing you from progressing as you wish. It could occur at work (e.g., budget cuts, failed promotion) or in your personal life (e.g., major illness or surgery, inability to enter university on time). A failure is simply something you couldn’t do or couldn’t do well. Typically, the bigger the setback or failure, the better the story. However, the most important thing to focus on is what you learned about yourself in the end. It is important that you show the admission committee that you are a self-reflective person and that you can learn and grow from a difficult experience.

3. Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential? (500 words)

There are a couple of ways to answer this question – by discussing one particularly significant leadership episode, or by highlighting various leadership experiences in your background. My personal preference is to do the latter since Wharton’s wording of this question is open-ended and invites you to tell them about any evidence you have of your leadership. This is especially important if you choose not to write about leadership in Essay 4 below and if you have diverse leadership experiences (e.g., work, sports, university, volunteering). If you choose the latter option, be sure to remain focused, however, given the tight word limit. You may want to select 2 areas of your background to talk about (e.g., work and sports), highlighting perhaps 2 or 3 particularly notable experiences.

4. Please respond to one (1) of the following questions:

a. Describe an experience you have had innovating or initiating, your lessons learned, the results and impact of your efforts. (500 words)

This is like a leadership or accomplishment essay, with the emphasis placed on doing something others have not done before. Perhaps you introduced a unique or even revolutionary new method of solving a problem, or you took on a lead role when other members were hesitant to take action. They want to see your initiative and/or creativity here.

b. Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application?  If yes, please explain. (500 words)

Write this essay if there is some significant story that you wish to tell that doesn’t fit into any of the essay questions above. The topic should be one that you feel “completes” the portrait of your candidacy. When you choose your topic, be sure to keep in mind the overall balance of your essay set. Have you written many essays about work? If so, try and write about something more personal here.

OPTIONAL: If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, TOEFL waiver request, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words, maximum)

This space is for you to offer an explanation or clarification of your application. As I had done in my early career as an admissions committee member, admissions officers tend to think the worst when faced with doubt. If you do not submit a recommendation from a current supervisor, they will assume that you don’t get along with him/her; if you took 5 years to graduate from university, they will assume that you had failed your courses and thus has to study another year. Be sure to explain anything that may raise doubts or concerns!

Wharton Reapplicants

The questions below are for Wharton Reapplicants who applied over the last 2 years. Aside from Question 1 which I comment on below, please refer to my original post on Wharton for the rest of the essay analyses and comments.

If you applied for Wharton’s entering class of 2006 or earlier, you should complete the new essay questions. Wharton only keeps applicant files for 2 years so older applicants would need to apply from scratch.

Reapplicant Questions (for candidates who have applied for admission for Fall 2008 or 2007 only)

1. Describe your career progress to date and your future short-term and long-term career goals. How do you expect an MBA from Wharton to help you achieve these goals, and why is now the best time for you to join our program? How has your candidacy improved since the last time you applied? (1,000 words)

This goals question is the same as the one you answered last year; the one and important difference is your need to discuss how you have developed since your last application. Wharton wants to see that you have made efforts to strengthen your candidacy and that you are an even stronger applicant this year. Possible examples include improved test scores, promotions or increased responsibilities at work, new achievements, more focused goals, more focused reasons about why you want to go to Wharton, new outside of work activities, and awards or honors.

2. Describe an experience you have had innovating or initiating, your lessons learned, the results and impact of your efforts. (500 words)

3. Please respond to one (1) of the following questions:

a. Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership capacity and/or potential? (500 words)

b. Is there anything about your background or experience that you feel you have not had the opportunity to share with the Admissions Committee in your application? If yes, please explain. (500 words)

OPTIONAL: If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, TOEFL waiver request, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application). (250 words, maximum)

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