Monday, April 22, 2013

Assessment day, part II - The 1-on-1 interview

This is the second of a four-post "series" where I will write about my experience during IMD's famous Assessment Day. Here is a link to the previous entry:    

Assessment Day, part I - Getting to Lausanne

The 1-on-1 interview

The 1-on-1 interview was my first "activity" during the Assessment Day. After a brief tour of the campus, we were taken to the building where we spent most of our day. Me and one other candidate had our 1-on-1 interviews while the others were taken to the "group" room to prepare their impromptu presentations.

My interviewer was Lisa Piguet. I was a little nervous, but thankfully Lisa was friendly and didn't start firing questions right away, so that helped me settle down the nerves a little bit. In my preparation I had read that the interview was supposed to be pretty straight-forward and casual, but I found those reports to be a little misleading.

Here are some of my "misconceptions" based on my research, and my actual experience:

  • Misconception #1 - you will only be asked the typical MBA interview questions
It's true that I was asked a lot of the typical questions. I talked a lot about my goals, my work experience, my leadership style, my strengths and weaknesses, my hobbies and activities etc. However, I was also faced with a few curveballs and  "trick" questions. I was given a market-sizing/estimate type question, sort of like "how many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?" Although she didn't ask me to give her a definite number, she did ask me to walk her through my thought-process and which assumptions I would be making. I hadn't seen anyone report that they faced those types of questions before. She also asked me to "surprise her." Fortunately I was prepared but that could have been a tricky one if I hadn't been!

  • Misconception #2 - One or two examples will be sufficient 
I found that Lisa asked questions that were very specific to my profile, and followed up with many probing questions and lots of examples. For example: I don't have experience managing a team or a budget at work, so on paper my application doesn't demonstrate a solid amount of leadership/managerial skills. Naturally, Lisa asked me for multiple examples of situations where I demonstrated leadership at work and in my personal life. I knew coming in this is an area I would need to cover well, and I did have a few examples in mind, but she still asked a lot of probing questions and asked for enough specifics to really push me beyond what I had prepared. I heard a lot of "Ok, but give me a more specific situation." From what the other candidates reported, they experienced a similar "grilling" about the weaknesses in their profiles.

Be prepared to talk candidly about your weaknesses, and either mitigate them by having solid examples of what you have done to overcome them, or explain how they feed into your motivation for getting an MBA.
  • Misconception #3 - Wasn't expecting too many "behavioral" questions
The interview was actually pretty heavily focused on the "behavioral" aspects of my profile. We talked a lot about how I've performed in the past, what I've learned from my work/personal experiences, how I leverage my strengths and mitigate my weaknesses, and how I handle (or have handled) different situations. Considering IMD's focus on self-reflection, it's not surprising that you have to be able to look at your experiences and your behaviors objectively.

  • Misconception #4 - It will be very casual and actually pretty enjoyable 
Lisa was very personable and we did have some nice casual conversation at the beginning and at the end of the interview. But it was still a pretty intense 45 minutes, and when you're facing an unexpected question or being asked a lot of probing questions, it can make you break a bit of a sweat.

My preparation advice for the 1-on-1 interview

General advice:

- Do your research online to find common IMD questions, and write out bullets for how you would generally tackle each one. See below for my list.
- Know your application
- Be confident and positive
- Avoid sounding "rehearsed"
- Remember to say *I* rather than *we* when referring to your actions and accomplishments. It's nice to give credit to your team and your coworkers, but ultimately they want to know about what *you* did.
- Practice with your wife/family/friends, and be open to their feedback
- Take your recommenders out to lunch and talk about your application, goals etc. They can be a great resource.
- Read "Case in Point" by Marc Cosentino. There's a whole section about how to tackle market sizing/estimate questions. It will also help with the other activities you will face later in the day.

And here's a big one:

- Try not to let any doubts about your interview linger in your mind after it's done. In my case, the interview was the toughest part of the day (and many of my fellow candidates said the same). Remember you still have a presentation to give and a case study to discuss!

Typical questions

Here's the list of questions I used to prepare. I tried to think about at least one "work" example and one "personal" example where applicable (although a lot of the time the examples applied to multiple questions). In my opinion it's better to have general bullets that give you a good idea what you would say to each, rather than of a full written-out answer.

- Why do you want to leave a perfectly good job to pursue an MBA?
- Why do you want to come IMD's MBA program specifically? What is different about IMD for you, and why is it better than other programs?
- What do you not like about IMD?
- Why are you coming to Europe? Why not USA/Asia?
- Why is now the right time for you to pursue an MBA? Why not one year ago? Why not next year?
- What are you short-term goals after the MBA? If you are switching industry/function/geography, is your switch realistic or is it a big leap? How does it connect to your existing experience?
- What aspects of your experience do you wish to "transfer" into your post-MBA position, and what aspects do you wish to change?
- What are your long-term goals? Do your short-term goals position you in the right direction to accomplish those?
- What other programs did you apply to, and why?
- If you were accepted into both IMD and your other programs, how would you choose?
- If you were not accepted into IMD, what is your plan?
- How are you better than the next candidate?
- Give me two or three of your weaknesses.
- Give me two or three of your strengths.
- How would your co-workers and managers describe you?
- Your recommenders said "X" about you - would you say that is accurate?
- What does leadership mean to you?
- What is your leadership style?
- Tell me about a situation when you faced a tough challenge at work. What did you do? What did you learn?
- Tell me about a situation when you failed. What did you learn?
- Tell me about a situation when you had to deal with confrontation. How did you handle it?
- Give me an example of a time where you demonstrated team work.
- Give me a situation where you demonstrated leadership.
- Give me an example of a time when you managed a project from beginning to end.
- Tell me about a situation where you found yourself out of your comfort zone. How did you navigate it?
- Tell me about a situation where you had to make a tough decision. How did you handle it?
- Tell me about a time you had to deal with ambiguity or incomplete infomration. How did you manage it? Could you have done better?
- What is your greatest achievement to date, aside from the one you wrote in your essay?
- Tell me about your hobbies? Why do you do these activities?
- Surprise me.
- Do you have any questions for me?


  1. Hi Marshmallow,

    This is that scientist (engineer really) from South Africa who also sat in on the April 5th interview. I can only concur with your statements - I felt that my interview was as tough as it gets. Quite often the interviewer asked me very specific questions, and then drilled down into the details of those - if you were faking anything in your application they are bound to find out.

    Even though I have had plenty of leadership experience, it struck me how difficult it is to define exactly what it is that you did in a certain situation that took "leadership". I've been thinking a lot about this since interview day, and have realised that it is a whole list of different things that come together to demonstrate leadership. My advice to potential candidates: be well prepared with examples of the things YOU did that shows leadership in your life/work. They will dig at least three levels deep in your answer.

    I was very well prepared for my interview, and had practised some of the obvious questions to fluency as I knew that I would be nervous for the first 15 minutes or so. After about 15 minutes (thankfully after the nerves wore off) the questions switched from the standard "obvious" ones to some very probing questions. As difficult as it was, I REALLY enjoyed this part of the interview as I got to show the interviewer who I was and what I was made of.

    When I walked out of the interview room, I knew it was game on. I had become fully engaged, switched on my business persona, and I was going to go all out until the day was completely over.

    I'm grateful I got accepted! I think the interview process makes you want to get in even more!

    1. Hi Christiaan! First off, I was very happy to hear you got the call! Very well deserved! I am glad you found my blog, and thank you for your insight. Well said! One thing I really appreciated about IMD's admissions process is that they put a lot of effort in getting to know you and seeing what you are all about. The tough interview is a testament to that. Of course, intense as the assessment day is, you have a whole day and multiple different ways to show them who you are and how you work. I walked away knowing that if I didn't get in, it wouldn't be because of just one thing, like a bad answer in the interview.

  2. Hey!

    Absolutely. I don't really know how one can possibly make any kind of accurate assessment as to a candidate's ability in a one hour interview. I mean, see this article for some potential problems:

    So all the other tests that happened during interview day provide the admissions committee with a MUCH better insight into a candidate's true ability. I would hate to have classmates who happen to interview well, but can't participate meaningfully in group discussions or work in a team. I think IMD's process will be able to identify such candidates, as well as give those who deserve to get in but don't happen to interview well a chance.

  3. Hi Marshmellow

    Your detailed interview experience is an asset to someone like me who is preparing for the interview, has heard a lot about it but does not really have a clue on how to prepare!

    I read somewhere that Lisa asked you to "surprise her". I am not sure if she is probing to know some hidden talent or looking for an accomplishment that you haven't mentioned before? Can you tell me more about this?

    Also, how do you approach the - How are you better than the next candidate? question.

    Thanks again for this wonderful writeup!

    1. Hey there - first off congtrats on getting called for the interview! I'm glad you find my write up useful!

      That is a good question about being asked the "surprise me" question. To be honset it's not my favorite interview question but surely the admissions staff must feel they get something out of it, which is why many people seem to report they are asked that one. In my opinion that question can do one of two things: it can either stump you, in which case they want to see how you can think on your feet and get out of a sticky/uncomfortable situation; or it can show them that you are prepared and have a good answer ready to give them. I think IMD is really going for the former, they are trying to stump you. So they could even come back to you and say they are not that surprised by your first answer, if it's not a good one!

      As far as how to answer it, it's probably a good chance to throw in a tidbit about your personality or something cool that you've done that didn't come through in the application. My answer was that I once slept outside on a boat in the middle of the Amazon. I guess it worked because I don't seem very "outdoorsy." Whatever answer you come up with, it's probably best to play it safe and make sure it's not inappropriatee or anything.

      As for how you are better than the next candidate, that's really a different way of asking what your strengths are. I wasn't asked that question directly in the interview, but someone asked me that during my preparation and I thought it was an interesting way to think about what I bring to the table. Try to think about what is unique about you that not every other candidate may be able to say. What will you contribute to a team setting? Maybe your background is in statistics so you can be the "numbers guy", maybe you're detail-oriented so you can be the one who "double checks" the work and catches errors, maybe you're just an easy going, fun person to be around so you can keep the mood light. I think the key is to show that you're confident in yourself and know how you will contribute to the class.

      Hope this helps! Best of luck on the big day!

  4. Hi Marshmallow,

    Great blog with very useful advice. Christiaan the "South African scientist (really engineer)" ;) forwarded me your blog. I have my assessment day next week Friday and appreciate that you took the time to post the information you did. It has given me more of an idea on how to go about preparing.

    I am meeting with Christiaan on Friday but if there is an opportunity I would like to meet you . I very curious about the name Marshmallow?

    Best Regards,

  5. Dear Marshmallow,
    Thank you for such a detailed yet fun read about your assessment day at IMD. As a potential applicant appearing for the same in 3 weeks, i have found through your writing- the starting point to my prep.