How do I prepare for an admission interview?

09 Abril 2013

It is not very common for someone just out of high school to be interviewed as part of an admission process. Actually, most universities and institutions of higher education require only standard tests: either a nationwide assessment such as ‘Selectividad’ in Spain, or tailor-made tests that try to predict performance as a student or as a professional in a specific field. As we consider interpersonal competence to be a vital issue, we have included an interview as part of the process for joining our undergraduate program, the Bachelor in Management.

If you are a concerned, highly motivated and inquisitive student, may be you have done your research online to find information on how to prepare an interview, and you may have come across great material such as MBA Admissions Tips – The Interview (Georgetown University). The problem is, these materials are meant for MBA applicants who are just not the same as you, although, of course, you may follow many of their recommendations. Alternatively, College Interview Skills (My College Options) can give you a closer look at the kind of experience you are going to have, but it’s still not quite the same.

Because we want to identify the best possible candidates for our programs, we want to offer you some tips and information to help you show yourself at your best during your interview with us.

What am I going to say?

The truth, to start with. Nothing is worse than having the feeling that you are being ‘sold’ something or catching someone in a lie. Yet, as many times in life, context is important, and in this particular context you are being put to the test, and it is a rather formal occasion. All this means that you will need to make an effort to show the best of yourself. It is the same rational used by your friendly fruit seller: it is not that he fakes the tomatoes he sells, but certainly he will polish them, put them in some kind of order, he will surround them with leaves and sprinkle them with water to make them look fresh, so when you pay a visit to the shop, you get tempted and you buy them. If you think about it, it’s the same kind of rationale for you in a recruitment interview: polish yourself, have an order to the information you want to provide, look as fresh and sparkling as you can and tempt us with your candidacy.

Talking about being truthful and honest, consider the following: If you live in Spain and watch TV often, you will have probably noticed a proliferation of talk show guests exhibiting their ignorance with pride and a smile (“The Middle Ages comprises the Paleolithic and the Neolithic” asserted a local celebrity some time ago, exuding charm and self-confidence). Be sure, as truthful as you may want to look, we do not think ignorance is something to be proud of.

Ok, but truth about what?

Mom and Dad, or your older brother, or someone you really trust gave you a hand completing your application dossier? No problem! But reviewing and suggesting is not the same as doing it for you, so the interviewer’s expectation is that you own up to everything that is said in there.

In addition, this is an admission to a Bachelor in Management program, so interviewers will want to know about your motivation, how this is going to be useful for your professional future, whether you are following an impulse or if you have given it deep thought, how you are as a student, and so forth.

Mind the following: You’ll see a lot of information online on how to prepare an interview and you will be recommended to have a clear idea as to your personal strengths and weaknesses and to not forget to mention that being stubborn is your main weakness. What? Did you think we haven’t seen or read those tips already? If it’s true, you should mention it but be prepared to see your answers confronted.

Yes, but if I knew what you are looking for I could show the best of me in that sense…

Probably most business schools will not look for a single winning candidate profile, as for all of us, diversity is important. Do you want to show yourself at your best? Bring us some evidence that you are a resourceful person. Evidence means being prepared to show ‘the how’, and providing examples and details. Personal resources can be of different natures. Some rely on their intellectual capacity, some on their social skills and capacity to lever collaboration, others on their capacity to exert effort towards the achievement of a goal or their self control; all of us rely on a combination of the before-mentioned plus other resources. Do you know yours? Be ready to show them.

Furthermore, we business schoolers are very aware that learning is changing, and therefore, you are not expected to start out being a proven effective team leader or a mindful visionary problem solver, our job is to help you get there.

Let’s drop that for the moment, how should I communicate all this?

Aaaahhh! Communication is such a complex, fascinating human process with so much to it. You should know that you will in fact be starting the interview, either positively or negatively, at the very moment an interviewer comes to greet you and invite you in. Check Watzlawick first communication axiom to see why we are sure of this (Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J., Jackson, D. 1967. Some Tentative Axioms of Communication. In Pragmatics of Human Communication – A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes. W. W. Norton, New York). Being fully aware of it, mind the following aspects.

> The looks

How you look and greet will cause the first impression. Are you going to be faithful to your uncaring style wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with bushy hair and a 4-day beard, ok, but it will be harder for you to convince your interviewer that you take the interview very seriously and that you want to show the best of yourself. I’m telling you, this is nothing personal. You are right, it is all based on stereotypes and prejudice, but that’s just how we people are, and if we see somebody running towards us with a knife in their hand, we do not first think he or she is just going to show us it’s real steel. Think about it; it is, after all, a business school and somehow suits and ties fit better with the general atmosphere.

Well, don’t get me wrong; a tie is neither mandatory nor a guarantee of success. Personally I think it can be a bit too much, but whenever I have had candidates who wear a tie, I can’t help thinking “this guy really takes this interview seriously”.
Ladies have it easier, they have a normal tendency to look good. For them, only one recommendation: make sure your appearance does not attract more attention than you do, i.e. don’t go too hard on the complements, take it easy on the makeup, etc.

> Mind your words

You have probably heard the common cliché about the glass half empty or half full. Yes, it is a matter of perspectives. Choose, then, the best way to present yourself, inducing a positive impression of your persona to your interviewers. For instance, it is very different for a candidate to say, “I don’t do very well in Spanish, but in the rest I’m ok” than saying “in general terms my performance is satisfactory, but I do have to put in more effort to succeed in Spanish”. It is basically the same information, but the latter expression leaves a more positive flare, plus showing what the person does when facing difficulties (she puts in more effort).

Be concise. Get to the point, cut out the superfluous. Don’t use words to fill empty moments. As an Argentinian rock song says, “silence is not wasted time”. It sometimes happens that your interviewers will need to think before asking another question, which will not be a bad sign, plus the fact that if you can handle silence, that actually speaks well about you.

You will probably have a strong temptation to use sophisticated wording to show off your language skills and appear more intellectual. Ok, that should work if at the same time it is genuine, i.e. you do that often, with different kinds of people and in different settings, because that’s just your way. Otherwise it may be unadvisable, as you may fall for artificial expressions or plain wrong ones, or, if the interview is in a language that is not your native one, be tempted by a ‘false friend’ (“discúlpeme, es que estoy algo embarazado” -pregnant in Spanish, instead of avergonzado = embarrassed). Don’t make your life unnecessarily complicated; simple and direct always work fine.

> Care about your attitude

There is a fine balance between confidence and arrogance, between being discreet and inhibited, and that balance is something for you to explore. Your facial expression and non-verbal communication in general will say a lot about this. Show your hands, don’t play with objects, look people in the eye (not a piercing look, just friendly casual contact), sit straight and above all smile every once in a while and you should be alright.

Got that part, so what was it that you wanted to hear, again?

The truth, as I told you. Most of all, we want to get as much of you as we can in a limited period of time. Still, if there are messages about yourself that you feel you want to get through – for instance an achievement you haven’t been asked about, a good word about you in your recommendation letters, etc. – find your spot to drop it, elegantly if you can, or simply and directly if you must.

Talking about myself is easy, does it mean that I don’t need to prepare?

It’s good that you know about yourself, so you will be at ease with the content. Still, you can prepare for this. You don’t want to lose your spontaneity, but you could always use some training to make sure you get the right ideas across and in the best possible way. Practice, practice and practice.

But practice will do you no good if you only repeat. As in anything, practice is useful if you get feedback and do better next time. A teacher, a tutor, your parents, your older brother or a good friend can role play an interview with you and feed back to you on how they saw you, what image they would make of you if they knew only what you had told them, if you looked confident or not, if you were clear or not, etc. Do you want to increase the odds of causing a great impression? Practice.

That’s it?

Just one more tiny little detail. If there is an admission process, it means that not everyone is going to pass the test. You have been appraised and judged and in the worst case, you are not going to make it. This is not the end of the world for you, nor it is a final, categorical judgment about your personal worth or capacity. It just means that it is unclear that entering this program will be a good idea for you and the school -both at the same time-, and we are actually doing you a favor. Or even simpler than that, that just too many other people tried out with better results. Maybe if you tried again, giving it your best effort, you would succeed. It has been the case in the past (students passing the admission at their second try) and I am sure it will be in the future.

Find more useful tips to succeed at the TBS Admission interview on Twitter under the hashtag #TBSAdmission

Are you going to pass the interview from afar? Check this specific post! Ready for a Skype presentation?


Gabriel Zúñiga (@gz_BCN) – Director of Studies – Toulouse Business School – Campus Barcelona

Thanks to Bob Flory for his careful revision.


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