IIM Admission Interviews - some myths, some truths and some advice - Alok Mangal, IIM Calcutta
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Alok Mangal graduated from IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta. He has 30+ years of experience across industries and he is the CEO of GetYourMBA, a consulting agency aimed at young professionals who wish to apply for admission to MBA programs.
I am often asked by IIM aspirants what the IIM Admission Interview Panels look for in candidates. Many others are apprehensive about the kind of questions they will need to answer. What topics will they quiz me on? What all do I need to read up on? Hours are spent scouring the net for questions asked by interviewers from each institute. So I want to dispel a few myths and misconceptions on the subject.
Myth 1: I must tweak my profile a bit and present it in a way that will please the interview panel.
The thing to understand is that IIM students do not come off an assembly line. They do not conform to any one or more stereotypes. They are all different from each other. At any great learning institution, particularly at IIM’s and other Business Schools, a student learns as much from the lectures and such, as from his batch mates. And this is made possible because each student brings their own unique perspective, based on their individual backgrounds, their knowledge and ideas, their various skills etc., to the discussions in and outside the class, so each one gets the benefit of everyone’s experiences. To this end IIM’s also try to create a diverse class each year with students from different backgrounds, while of course maintaining certain academic standards. Therefore the best approach to the interview is to be yourself.
Each one of us is unique in our own ways and it is important to let this uniqueness show through in your behavior. And the way to do this is to not try and give answers that you think the panel wants to hear; rather, give answers that you think are correct because that is what brings out your own unique way of thinking. Moreover the interviewers will find your uniqueness refreshing and that will keep them interested.
Myth 2 (and this is a big one): I need to mug up on every possible subject because who knows what the interviewers will quiz me on.
The reality is that an interview is not about the interviewer trying to find out what all you don’t know. Rather it is just the opposite. The panel only wants to be sure that you know reasonably well, those subjects that you claim to know, by way of what all is claimed in your CV/ Application form. In fact I recall many instances when we would ask the candidate what subject he would like to talk about in the interview and then proceed to talk about just that.
So the first thing to be prepared on for the admission interview is your own CV. Be fully aware of everything mentioned in your CV, application form, any other application material and your certificates. But this needs more preparation than many candidates allow, and I say this from my own experience of having interviewed hundreds of them. If you are a Mathematics graduate, should you not be able to prove that the product of any three consecutive positive integers is always divisible by 3? This is not graduate level maths. Remember the 3 times table you mugged up in class 2? Does it not tell you that every third number is a multiple of 3? So any three consecutive positive integers would always include one multiple of 3 and so their product would always be divisible by 3. This should be elementary for anyone who has cleared class 5, and that also because in class 2 they might not have used terms like integers. And I have seen graduates fumble to answer this one.
Another time I asked a Civil Engineer to draw a simple beam and its bending moment diagram, and he could not. But a simple beam is among the most basic elements a Civil Engineer learns so it is not acceptable that one from a reputed institution does not know it. It does not show you in a good light. Let me be very clear. The admission interview is not an engineering exam or an exam to test your knowledge of your graduation discipline. In fact in most cases the interviewers would probably not even be qualified to test you on your subject. But it is definitely expected that you should be familiar with the basics of your field. Otherwise what is the value of your UG degree? And without the UG degree, are you a fit candidate for the IIM? So brush up on your basics.
And be prepared likewise, on all other achievements, experiences, qualities mentioned in your CV. Did you organize your college festival? Great. But can you talk about the experience if the interviewer wants you to? Do you claim to be a trekking enthusiast? In the high mountains perhaps? But do you remember the exact location of your last three treks? Where did you start the trek from? How do you get there? How many days did you trek? At what altitude? How much distance did you cover each day? What were the places, villages, rest stops along the way?
And this brings up the importance of always stating the truth and only the truth, whether it is in your CV, your application form or the interview. Never state a falsehood or exaggerate any aspect in your profile. Interviewers have an uncanny knack of finding out those claims you make that are not wholly or partly true.
Myth 3: IIM interview panels are just looking for any reason to reject you. So any slip-up, just a single mistake and you are out. So it is absolutely critical to give correct answers to all questions.
This is far from the truth. Because the interview is, by itself, not the deciding factor in a candidate’s admission. You can check out the website of the IIM’s for the evaluation process and see how points are awarded for each individual element of a candidate’s profile including their academics, the CAT score, their work-ex etc. and of course the interview. So the interview is just one of several factors that affect your chance. To grade you on the interview, the panelists will encourage you to come up with good answers during the interview and if you come up with one bad answer but a bunch of good ones, they will rather grade you well for your good answers than grade you poorly for the one bad answer.
Myth 4: One needs to be careful not to disagree with the interviewers or say anything they might not like or they might reject you.
First get one thing clear. Interviewers are tasked with SELECTING not rejecting. These are selection interviews. The panel is actively looking for good candidates. I remember how exhausted and fatigued the whole panel would feel at the end of a session if we did not come across good candidates on a day and by contrast how refreshed and satisfied we were on days when we met some bright sparks. The point is that Interview panelists always hope that the next candidate will be a bright prospect, one who will be a pleasure to talk to. Some candidates, either for the fear of saying something wrong or maybe because they are just plain nervous, hardly say anything at all. Perhaps the notion is that the lesser you speak, the lesser the chance of making a faux-pas. But if you do not speak out your mind, how does the panel find the reasons to select you? Interview questions may be of the problem solving kind or of the type when you are asked to describe a situation or event, or where you are asked for an opinion on some subject or simply to check if you know certain facts. In some cases there might be a right or wrong answer as with solving problems or with fact based questions. But even here, if you know the solution to the problem you should be able to also defend your solution logically by explaining each step of your working if needed. And if you are asked for an opinion, feel free to give it but also know that you might be asked to explain why. If you differ from something the Interviewer says, speak out your mind freely but also be prepared to explain your point logically. Interviewers love to get into a lively dialogue with candidates on any subject. The Caveat here is of course that you should always be polite, If you disagree with the interviewer do so politely, try not to interrupt unnecessarily, no curse words obviously, never be rude, avoid making any politically incorrect statements, do not display too radical views. For example never say something that could be construed as a racist remark. And in general do not talk negatively of anyone.
And yet, while this may be obvious to most people, it is a typical mistake many candidates make. Particularly in response to a question like ‘why should we select you among so many others like you?’, candidates often take off in describing how others have this short-coming or the other and so try to show they are better. This is not a good answer. Instead concentrate on your own strengths, your own abilities. Give examples of how you demonstrated some good quality from situations in your past.
Myth 5: IIMs prefer engineers – just check out the class profile of any IIM and a large percentage is always engineers – so non-engineers are at a disadvantage.
While it is a fact that engineers form a large percentage of admits to the IIMs, this is certainly not because the IIMs prefer this to be so. In fact going back to what I wrote earlier in this Blog, the attempt is always to provide as much diversity in the class as possible. So then why do the IIM classes consist of so many engineers? Well, because quantitative skills do form a necessary requirement for a candidate to successfully complete the MBA curriculum. Quantitative and Statistical Analytical tools and techniques are increasingly becoming part of the skill set of the Business Manager of today. And to grasp these well, a certain level of quantitative ability is necessary and engineers by virtue of their education, possess these abilities in larger numbers than many other graduates. The CAT also tries to assess this skill among all aspirants and the ones with better quant skills score better.
But once you have been called for the interview, this is no longer a factor. Even though there might still be a few stats or maths questions you may be asked in an interview, these are always very simple, easily answerable because you prepared for the quant section of CAT. And overall, at the interview stage, the non-engineers in fact have a better chance simply because they are different by the very virtue of not being engineers among the pool of applicants. So instead of worrying about the engineers, bring out your own strengths, speak up from your own different perspective and demonstrate how you are unique.
Coming now to some advice and suggestions:
Some questions do tend to be asked very often in admission interviews and you will find them on many a website. Questions like ‘tell us something about yourself’ or ‘what are your strengths and/ or weaknesses’ etc. And while it might be a good idea to write down few points you can use to answer such standard questions, DO NOT rehearse your answers too much. Definitely do not rehearse in front of a mirror or anything. Rehearsed answers always sound very flat and jaded. Let your answer be extempore even if you did some preparation for it. It will sound fresh and will therefore be more convincing.
Similarly, never use answers written by anyone else for you. If you want to go over the points you wrote for an answer, with someone else just to check if they sound good, by all means do so. But finally, make your own list of points, in your own language, so that when you are answering to the interview panel, you will speak in your own words, with your own language signature. Interviewers have a knack of catching on when you provide ‘coached’ answers and they usually do not like that.
Among the subjects to prepare on for the interview, I have already highlighted the importance of being well prepared on everything that is written on your CV and anywhere else in your application documents. If you worked with a company or if you interned with one, make it a point to know about the organization, its products, its main competitors and the industry in which it operates. If you organized an event at college, be prepared to describe what you did, how you did it, what problems came up and how you solved them etc.
It is also important to realize that an MBA is about running a business. So make the effort to become aware of the general business climate in the country, read up on the general economic scenario, read up on data like the rate of inflation, rate of economic growth, its trend in last few years, projected outlook for the economy etc. Also be generally aware of the political goings on in the country and how they might impact the business climate etc. If you are asking for admission to an MBA course, you must demonstrate an interest in managing businesses and must therefore be aware of the climate in which businesses operate.
And finally, understand that more often than not in an interview, what matters more is NOT the exact answer you give, but the way in which you give it. Demonstrate to the panel that you are confident about your own abilities (not over confident please) and in full control of your emotions. If asked to solve a problem, provide the solution and also, if asked, be ready to explain how you arrived at the solution. If asked for an opinion, feel free to give your own point of view and be prepared to engage in a discussion on the subject with logical arguments. Even if you do not know the answer to a question, have the confidence to say so, without feeling nervous about not knowing it. “No one knows everything on this earth and if I am not able to answer this one particular question, it in no way reduces by suitability as a candidate for admission” – that is the impression you want to convey to the panel.
All the best for D-day. Be cool. Be confident. You can do it.