Most interviews conducted today are standard interviews, but alternative types of interviews are becoming increasingly popular, especially for graduate schools that are looking for very specific traits in their applicants. There are three major types of specialized interviews: behavioral, group, and case. This article will address why schools use each kind of interview, what interviewers are looking for, and how to prepare, as well as offer some specific example questions.
If a school requires a specialized interview, they usually notify the applicants ahead of time, and sometimes even give specific information about what topics will be covered or the format of the interview. Because of this, many applicants feel intense pressure to prepare in excruciating detail, often looking up past years’ questions or trolling applicant message boards for advice.
Beware of this rabbit hole. Specialized interviews are designed to be unpredictable precisely so that you cannot be completely prepared. You will not be successful if you attempt to prepare for every possible scenario or question. There is no way to prepare for everything, so instead, you must be prepared for anything. Your best bet is to review your own strengths, weaknesses, habits, and personality.
First, know yourself. Then, focus on what schools are looking for.
The Behavioral Interview
The line between a standard interview and a behavioral interview is pretty thin these days. Most standard interviews involve a few behavioral questions, and almost every behavioral interview will include some standard questions. You can use the same knowledge and strategies provided here to tackle both full behavioral interviews and behavioral questions interspersed within a standard interview.
The behavioral interview allows the interviewer to assess how you will behave in the future based on how you’ve responded to real scenarios in the past and how you decide to respond to given hypothetical scenarios. The interview will be focused on areas of importance to the school. Your interviewer will ask you a handful of questions, and will likely ask follow up questions, encouraging you to provide more details and specifics.
What They’re Looking For
The interviewer will be looking for concrete and specific examples that reveal one or several of the following traits:
- Influencing others: the ability to influence a person, group, or organization
- Relationship building: the ability to build and maintain professional relationships
- Drive: the ability to set an objective and achieve it
- Grit: the ability to endure difficulty, and to struggle and push towards a desired outcome
How To Prepare
There are two basic ways to prepare for a behavioral interview. First, you need to know your brand. And second, you need to practice. When examining your brand, ask yourself: Which of my character traits differentiate me as a candidate? And then ask yourself: Under what circumstances have I exhibited these traits? The stories or examples that demonstrate these traits will be the foundation of your behavioral interview answers.
You can’t change who you are or what you’ve done, but you can arm yourself with an array of your very best stories, so you’re prepared to answer any question that comes your way. Remember: the key is not to memorize your answers, but simply to adequately prepare, so you aren’t caught off guard. Other than those two steps, you should prepare the same way you do for a regular interview.
Behavioral interviews can ask you about either your past or a hypothetical future scenario:
Questions about the past
- Tell me about a time that your opinion was challenged and you had to defend yourself.
- Describe a time you were rejected. How did it feel?
- Tell me about a time you set a goal and worked toward it.
Questions about a hypothetical future
- What would you do if a team member wasn't pulling his/her weight?
- What would you do first if you had to take over a broken project?
- What would you do if you had to execute work that wasn’t exciting/interesting to you?
The Group Interview
Although it used to be quite rare, the group interview has become more common in recent years. Schools choose to administer group interviews because they want to see you in a situation you can’t easily prepare for (as opposed to essays, for example, which are carefully written and edited over several weeks or months). A group interview will not only tell a school how you interact with your peers, but also demonstrate your communication skills and critical thinking under pressure.
Group interviews generally take 30-40 minutes and involve groups of 3-6 applicants. Your group may be on its own, or you may be competing against other groups of a similar size. Usually there is a school official either observing the group or acting as a facilitator.
- Group interviews can be set up in many different ways; here are a few examples:
- A challenge your team needs to address
- A thoughtful debate about a particular world issue
- An idea your team must critique or improve
What They Are Looking For
Schools are looking at four major criteria during a group interview.
- Leadership. This applies to both business-oriented and academic programs.
- Intellectual horsepower. Essentially, are you smart? Do you learn and adapt quickly? Do you come up with good ideas?
- Outliers. This means applicants who stand out for either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad behavior during the group interview. Noticeably good candidates will let everyone be heard, believe the best idea should win, and aim to get everyone on the team involved in discussion and decision making. Noticeably bad candidates might talk over others, talk too loud or speak up too often, and generally steamroll or be unkind to their group mates.
- Specific traits. Schools might be looking for specific traits that align well with their program. For example, a school focused on collaboration will look for teamwork and how you treat your fellow group members; an analytical program will focus on how you use data and information gathering to back up your opinions; and a case-based business school might look for how well you can articulate your ideas.
While some schools are more focused on collaboration than others, no school would perform a group interview unless teamwork was important to them to some degree. Keep this in mind.
How to Act
While they may seem obvious, here are some simple rules to follow during your group interview that real applicants have broken:
- Be polite
- Don’t brag
- Back up your ideas and contributions with facts or specific examples from your life/career
- Watch and respond to others’ body language
- Don’t react to trouble-makers or bad apples (let them sink their own ship)
- Don’t cut off or interrupt a teammate
- Do not shout or disparage another applicant
How to Prepare
It is very hard to prepare for a group interview, since you never really know what you’ll be getting into. Even if you know the exact prompt, you can’t predict your teammates. But this unpredictability is exactly what makes the group interview so valuable to admissions reps. A group interview is a kind of “admissions lab” where administrators can see your true self unfold.
For this reason, preparing for a group interview is by and large just about getting to know yourself. If you know your positive and negative biases going into it, you can better control your own behavior. For example, if you know you’re the kind of person who tends to jump right in and take the lead, give yourself five minutes to let everyone settle in before you take an active role. At first, just observe your teammates and how they interact.
The best practice for people who tend to be more shy is the exact opposite. The danger here is that if you don’t shoot your shot, no one will know that you’re good. If you usually take a backseat in team settings, push yourself to get an early win. Make a contribution right at the start, and then you can give yourself time to settle in.
- There are a dozen laminated cards on the floor with words like “clever,” “efficient,” “compassionate,” and “ambitious” on them. Every applicant in the group interview is asked to pick out a card that describes them and explain why to the group.
- The administrator presents an ethical dilemma and asks the group what they would do and why.
- The administrator provides an example of a real-world organizational challenge and asks the group to come up with an idea to solve it.
The Case Interview
Case interviews aren't very common, even for business schools, for several reasons. First, solving business cases (like a detective!) is one of the major skills you learn at business school, so it would be kind of weird if they only wanted students who already knew how to do it.
Second, using a case interview may give applicants who work in business or studied business in undergrad an unfair advantage (since they’ve likely analyzed a case before, while other applicants likely have not). It is much more common that employers, rather than schools, conduct case interviews.
What They Are Looking For
While case interview questions can be quite challenging, they generally do not have explicit “correct” or “incorrect” answers. The purpose of these types of interviews is to assess your ability to think through a complex problem on the spot. The interviewer will observe how you collect and organize information, strategize, and approach problems that you encounter. While it may feel unnatural, it is important to provide your thought process and assumptions verbally throughout the interview so that the interviewer understands your logic. Remember, it’s not about the outcome per se; it’s about your thinking process and how you get to a reasonable outcome.
How to Prepare
The only real way to prepare for a case interview is to analyze cases with other people. You can attempt to solve new cases with a team, or you can review how previous teams have attacked existing cases; but it’s a learn-by-doing situation.
In regards to case interviews, there are two kinds of questions. There’s the traditional case question, which might be used to screen recruits at a consulting company, and there are less specific case questions that are more commonly used by schools in the admissions process.
A typical business case question might look something like this: You have a client in the consumer products industry. Their revenues have been declining for several months and they don’t know why. What do you do?
Each question you ask the interviewer offers an opportunity to gather more information about the case (for example, “What is the revenue breakdown by division?”). The interviewer will give you a general answer to these questions and see how you go about analyzing the case and solving the problem.
- A more general case question might look like one of these:
- How many stamps are used in a given year in the United States?
- How many manhole covers are there in New York City?
- How many license plates are produced annually in the state of Iowa?
The interviewer doesn’t expect you to actually know the answer to any of these questions, rather, they want to see how you would go about estimating the answer (for example, beginning with the country, state, or city population and working your way down).