The Personal Interview – Goals

Another pestilential question which bothers people is “What are your long- and short-term goals?”

One key to answering this sensibly is to avoid extremes. It is not a good idea to aim for the moon (in an interview at least – in real life please aim for the moon all you wish), nor is it good to appear too uninterested in a successful career. So you need to find out what is the spectrum of achievement typical for a graduate of the college you are interviewing with after a certain number of years (which represent the range of realistic possibilities you could achieve) and mention something from the higher end of that.

These two questions are among the few where people with solid work experience can have a genuine advantage; often such people have a much clearer idea as to which field they wish to specialise in, and can articulate better how an MBA would be able to help them grow in that field (alas, software engineers usually lack this advantage, the only thing most of them know is which field they do NOT want to work in!)

The short-term goal (say next 5 years) is relatively straightforward; get an MBA for the theoretical knowledge and put it into practice at the trainee or junior management level (or if you have enough pre-MBA work experience to qualify for lateral placements, perhaps even at middle management level). There isn’t too much divergence in career paths in 5 years; some people might choose to enter their family business or start up their own company instead, but generally the expense (and opportunity cost) involved in an MBA means most people prefer to first work in the corporate sector till they are financially stable.

A long-term goal is a more delicate question. There is no easy answer, and ideally you should research well before blurting out anything here. Should you say “I wish to be the CFO of a multi-national company in 15 years” they could ask “so what exactly does a CFO do?” and woe betide the poor fresher who has to reply to this! Or they could say “why a multinational company and not an Indian one?” (note that if you say “Indian” they could ask “why not foreign?” they are not really objecting to your choice, rather they want you to defend it so that they can see the clarity of your thought and the depth of your resolve to do an MBA.) On the other hand, if you try to escape this line of questioning by saying something like “I want to start my own company”, then that opens a whole other can of worms, as I mentioned in an earlier post. If you seriously have no clue, it might be safer to hedge your bets by not committing to a specific post or role, but instead saying something like, for example, “I look forward to being in a position of authority and responsibility in a reputable company, while at the same time having a fulfilling personal life” (I tried this, by the way, and was still grilled quite mercilessly – “what if you have to make a choice between personal and professional”, “You seem to have no clear idea of what you want to do” etc etc. Whatever you say, you need to have answers!)

Being vague is still fine, but saying something outright stupid or indefensible is a no-no. Going for an interview at a B-school ranked 20-30 in India and saying “In five years I want to be a Trader at an Investment Bank in their New York office” is rather unrealistic, for example. I used to be the undisputed champ of saying stupid things in interviews in my day, and as a result, more often than not, I found myself in swiftly escalating trouble, trying frantically to talk my way out (and failing more often than not).

The Personal Interview – Hobbies and Interests

Another popular question which you should be ready to face: “What are your hobbies/interests?”

As with “strengths”, this is a very deceptive question. Again, it is not really asking “what do you do in your spare time?” but “what do you do better than most other people you know?”. In an attempt to impress, a lot of people claim hobbies which they are not really all that fond of (or good at), and this can lead to their downfall on occasion.

For example, statistical evidence (and my experience with interviewees) suggests that 60-70% of people mention reading as a hobby (and more than half of those mention it as their first/only hobby). The idea presumably being that reading sounds like an intellectual pursuit and marks one out as being erudite; not a bad impression for a potential MBA candidate to make. As usual, though, the problem is that one also has to be able to defend one’s claim, and that is where a lot of people fall short. At one extreme I have known some desperate optimists who claim to be readers, yet when asked “what books have you read?” confidently reply something like “The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho” and when asked “and what else?” give the interviewer an indignant look as if to say “what, one book isn’t enough?”. But even if you are not quite so literally challenged, can you really claim that you are among the most voracious and attentive readers you know? (In passing, I should mention that I myself read between 40-60 books in a typical year. And I still hesitate to mention reading as my main hobby!) If you are lucky, the interviewer might ask your favourite authors, some books by them, why you like that author or those books, who are the protagonists of the story, what you learned from it, and so on. If so, at least you can defend yourself if well prepared. But it is a real possibility that the interviewer might just look at it and say “oh, another wannabe claiming to read stuff” and not even bother to check!

Claiming a more interesting hobby (a true one, mind you, not just taken up for a month for interview purposes) can make you more memorable, more likely to stand out from the crowd of aspirants. In addition to the relatively standard ones like trekking, cricket, dance and music, I have encountered hobbies as diverse as macrame, karate, chocolate-making, sudoku, android app development, minesweeper, origami and scrabble. And some people have even successfully defended hobbies like “watching TV” or “playing computer games” or “listening to music”.

If you plan to claim something as your hobby, therefore, take the time to do a little research. If you say “listening to Bollywood music”, research 4-5 favourite songs – movie, actors, composer, lyricist, what you find special about that particular song. If you mention “reading”, do the same research with a few books and authors. If you like “watching cricket”, know some of the major records and the important recent occurrences, if you prefer “playing cricket” know the basic rules – ways for a batsman to get out, size of the ball, length of the pitch…but in all cases, show your passion for it.

Additionally, if you claim something which can be tested on the spot, it is entirely possible that an interviewer will do so. If you sing, or dance, or play the flute, they might ask you to demonstrate, if you sketch, they may ask you to draw them, if you do sudoku, you might find yourself handed the day’s paper and asked to prove your claim. (I claimed a high reading speed in one interview, and they tested it!). The good thing is, if you live up to your claims, they are more likely to give credence to everything else you claimed (but the reverse is true as well, so claim nothing you can’t back up!)

The Personal Interview – Why MBA?

A question that bothers people a lot is the short and not so sweet “Why MBA?”.

The true answer, for most aspirants, is pretty obvious – more money. But that seems such a crass thing to say in an interview (besides which, the interviewers already know that part). So you need to find some more palatable reason to present, which you can defend. Effectively what is being asked here is your statement of purpose, your manifesto so to speak.

And a good answer is not just a matter of saying “I want to learn how to manage a business”. At best, that’s a space-filler answer which the interviewer will accept and ignore. At worst, the interviewer might decide to get into specifics and ask you exactly how an MBA is going to teach you to manage a business. The thing is, this answer is kind of missing the point – even if an MBA will teach you that, you need to explain why you wish to be taught how to manage a business in the first place, and why at this point in your career/life. So you need to lead up to what it is in your past life which led you to this fateful moment of the interview.

Note that this is not a clichéd or one-size-fits-all response. Like most of the standard questions, your answers needs to be tailored to you, and compatible with the other answers you provide and the overall picture of yourself you are attempting to build in the interviewers’ minds.

For example, a person with 2-3 years of standard work experience could talk with quiet sorrow about how there is little new learning and opportunity for growth in the role, and how an MBA would revitalise an otherwise dormant career. A fresher might talk enthusiastically about how a specific subject led him to consider getting into management (or even a specific field in management – for example Industrial Engineering leading to Operations, Organisational Behaviour leading to HR, a course on Options leading to Finance). A budding entrepreneur might talk about how an MBA would enable him to avoid the common pitfalls which await careless start-ups, while someone who has already been part of a start-up might explain how they were often hampered in their work by a lack of knowledge outside their narrow and specific domain. You could mention a relative, or a teacher, or a well-known business maven, and enthuse about how that person has inspired you to go for an MBA.

But in every one of the above cases, you have to be willing to defend your answer, and for that you need to think about the further questions which are likely to ensue from your statements.

To take just one example, if you claim that entrepreneurship is what drives you, then it wouldn’t hurt to be able to talk confidently and passionately about the kind of company you intend to start up, the current state of that particular sector, the potential initial investment needed, the number of people would you need in the first couple of years… Too much, you think? Perhaps – but remember that saying “I want to be an entrepreneur” is a very fashionable answer among aspirants (who seem to think that it will sound impressive while saving them from specific questions on Finance or Marketing or any such field). What’s an interviewer to do when everyone claims entrepreneurial talent? Quite often he’ll decide to check. And so you had better be prepared!

Also, if you claim entrepreneurship, the interviewer is well within his rights to ask something on the lines of “so why do you need an MBA? Tell me three famous entrepreneurs who are MBAs” and for an unprepared candidate, this line of questioning can be quite a googly…

The Personal Interview – Strengths and Weaknesses

The next question we should examine is “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Again, let’s look at this question unemotionally. It is very tempting to say “my strength is my sincerity” (or hard work, or determination, or any other standard prized quality). But it is quite likely that the examiner will counter this by saying “So you mean to say all the other candidates are not sincere?” for which there is no good answer! Or even worse, that the examiner will just ignore the answer filing it as “standard cliché, no point questioning further”.

The thing is, the examiner is not really asking “what are you good at?” If he were, you could well answer “I am good at eating – I do it thrice a day without any particular effort” or “I am amazing at breathing, I do it all the time!”. What the examiner really means is, “what are you better at than most of your competitors?”

Accordingly, you need to introspect and figure out what strength you have that you can defend with examples from your life (preferably genuine ones). If you want to claim that you are good at managing people, you will have to provide anecdotal proof of the same. If you state that you can handle pressure, you would need to show examples of how you have faced a pressure situation and overcome it. And you will also have to think about the repercussions of your answer – for example if, wishing to demonstrate the quality of hard work, you explain how you worked harder than anyone else for your CAT, the examiner might well foil this by saying “So how come you didn’t score higher than the others then? Are you more stupid than them?”

A weakness is an even more fraught question. I notice that many people try to present a strength masquerading as a weakness. As an interviewer, when a candidate comes up to me and says “My weakness is that I am a perfectionist” I frankly feel like doing a facepalm. Being a perfectionist is not a weakness, folks. If it makes you behave in an unacceptable way towards your colleagues, then that behaviour could be a weakness, yes (Virat Kohli, I’m looking at you here).

So why is the examiner asking for a weakness? Why shouldn’t you just reply “Sir, I have no weakness!”? The problem is that in the (justified) opinion of the typical interviewer, everyone has weaknesses. So if you claim not to have any, the only conclusion that would be drawn is that you have no self-analysis skills. So you would definitely be expected to identify some reasonably genuine weakness. The next logical question is, what is the point of identifying a weakness? To improve it, of course!

And hence, when choosing a weakness to present, you need to preferably identify a weakness about which you can present anecdotal evidence about (a) how it has cost you in the past and (b) what you are doing to improve yourself in that area. Whether you choose to claim to be short-tempered, prone to procrastination, or unable to stay focussed doesn’t matter – the key is how you choose to elaborate on your choice.

To sum up, both in strengths and weaknesses you need to identify something where you can give examples from your past to illustrate the point you are trying to make; you need to find a way to make your answer relevant and memorable, while at the same time being consistent with the overall picture of yourself you are trying to present.

The Personal Interview – Tell me about yourself

Today we’ll look at a question commonly posed at the start of an interview: “Tell me about yourself”

The knee-jerk response to this question is often something like “My name is ABC. I am an EXTC engr from XYZ college. I come from a middle-class family. My father is a government servant. My mother is a housewife. I have a brother who is an engineer and a sister who is doing her MBA….” and so on. But it is worth asking yourself: is this what the interviewer wants to hear?

Let’s examine this questions from the interviewer’s point of view. Is the interviewer interested in you as a person? Not really (though a good interviewer will pretend to be). Then why ask this question?

The key thing to understand is, the interviewer has a limited time with each candidate (around 20 minutes on average). To make a reliable decision in 20 minutes is already a daunting ask. How should he go about it?

One way is to make a pre-defined list of 20-25 questions and ask them to all the candidates. But this is quite likely to be unfair as those topics might not lie in the comfort zone of some of the candidates.

Another option is to spend the first 7-10 minutes of each interview probing the candidate to find out his/her area of comfort and then going ahead to ask questions on those areas. While some interviewers do this, it can end up being a waste of already limited time.

A third option is to start off by asking the candidate “what do you want to talk about?” and then taking cues from the answer received. However, an interviewer cannot phrase the question in such direct terms, and therefore instead couches it in a more neutral way as “tell me about yourself” – the implied meaning being “tell me where you want to take the interview”.

In other words, this question puts the reins of the interview into the hands of the interviewee; a skilled candidate can use this to guide the interview wherever he/she wishes to take it. There is a flip-side, of course – if, not being aware of this thought process, you mention a topic outside your comfort zone, the interviewer will assume that you are eager to talk on that topic and will judge you based on your answers.

A sensible answer would thus be to very briefly introduce yourself and then quickly move on to those topics which you are eager to talk about. So your pre-work for this would be to identify (a) those topics in which you know you can make a good impression with your knowledge and passion and (b) those topics which you absolutely wish to avoid. So if your academics are stellar, you will quickly bring them into the discussion. But if your academics are terrible while your extra-curriculars are impressive, just pass over your education in one line and jump to your other interests. If you feel that your work experience is your USP, bring that in as early as you can.

Most importantly, don’t bring in unnecessary, extraneous elements without a reason. If possible, every point you bring up should bolster your candidature. Bringing in your family to demonstrate that they inculcated good values in you is fine. Bringing them in just to introduce them is pointless – the interviewer is considering you as a potential student and not your family.

With luck, if you answer this one question right, the rest of the interview can be a breeze as the reins will be firmly in your hands.

The Personal Interview – Introduction

In the next few posts, I’d like to share my thoughts about the PI, an integral part of the admission process in most top colleges (and incidentally, in most jobs as well). We’ll start with an overview of the PI in today’s post, and in future posts I will try to dissect and analyse individual “standard questions” and how to come up with answers for them.

Let’s start by asking ourselves one simple question: “Why the PI?” When entering, let’s say, an engineering college, one does not typically undergo a PI (or a GD for that matter). A simple written test suffices. But in most MBA colleges, the PI plays an important role. Why is this? One probable answer is that an MBA requires you to deal with people, first and foremost, and hence an aptitude test alone is not enough to judge one’s abilities in this sphere. There are three types of people one would typically interact with in the corporate world – superiors, peers and subordinates. An interview tests how one deals with one’s superiors. (Similarly, a GD tests how well one deals with one’s peers).

From the candidate’s point of view, though, a PI is a golden chance to sell yourself. In the first shortlist, which is typically done by cut-offs and cold equations, you get no chance to defend yourself in case something in your resume is sub-optimal (for example, you have no work experience / you graduated as a five point someone / you have a gap of a year in your education). But once this hurdle is cleared and you get an interview call, you at least get a chance to explain, to justify your past sins.

I often see people getting discouraged even after getting a call; a common remark I hear is “I only just cleared the cut-off. I have no chance whatsoever of making the final cut”. I have even heard people say things like “They called me with such a low score…‼ I am sure they are just calling me to laugh at me”. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Remember that the people who will be conducting interviews will be important people (at least in their own minds!) and have a very inflated opinion of the value of their time. They are not going to waste time on interviewing you if they have no likelihood of selecting you. This means that once you have a call, you have a significant, non-zero, chance of getting through. Obviously you need to perform better in the interview than someone who cleared the cut-off with marks to spare; but it is not impossible.

Conversely, I see people who become over-confident (or at least complacent) because of a very high score in the written tests; who assume that it automatically guarantees them a seat. While it does increase their chances, it is not a certainty; in the second stage of the selection process, most colleges give relatively little weight to the written test scores and as much as 60-70% of weight to the PI/GD/WAT processes. And certain colleges will be harsher on the high scorers in an interview precisely because they are high scorers (for example, looking at the past few years’ data, around 50% of those who get a 100 percentile in CAT do not get a final call from IIMA)

Either way, what it boils down to is this: for the interview round, a typical college would call maybe 5-10 people per seat. So if you have a call, you have a 1 in 10 chance or better of making it through; around 1 in 5 for the top colleges. While this might seem an easy proposition compared to the 1 in 100 chance of getting a call through CAT, you have to remember that in CAT over half the competition is fairly casual. But in the second round, nearly every single person is dead serious – and good enough to have made it to the top 1 or 2 % in the first round. In other words, your preparation has to be very thorough, else you will be found wanting.

Next time, I’ll look at one of the standard questions – “Tell me about yourself”