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Queen’s MBA program director Shai Dubey acknowledges that admsissions interviews can terrify people, but they should be seen as a conversation. ‘If it is a conversation, then we’ve done a good job.’

Susan Darrach

Sitting across from one or two people knowing your future is on the line can be a nerve-racking experience.

For those interested in earning an MBA at nearly all the business schools across Canada, an interview is a vital part of the selection process.

"It terrifies people. The tone of the interview makes them feel pressure," explains Shai Dubey, director of the MBA program at Queen's University in Kingston.

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But it's not meant to be that way. It's supposed to be a part of the grander selection process to determine whether a prospect makes a good candidate for an MBA program.

"It's not an interview, really," Prof. Dubey says. "It's a conversation. If it is a conversation, then we've done a good job."

For many schools, the interview completes a prospect's application – along with his or her transcript, graduate management admission test (GMAT) scores and usually a personal essay or résumé, and Prof. Dubey says it's a crucial process.

"When you think about getting a résumé from someone, it's a high-level sketch that they want to tell you. Résumés are usually polished, while an interview is raw," he says. "There's no voice for them [résumés] – it's black ink on white paper. We still don't know the personality of that person. So the interview answers questions that you can't find out about by looking at numbers."

The MBA interview isn't meant to trick anyone, contrary to popular belief.

A story from Business Insider reports that people who interviewed with Google were once asked, "Why are manhole covers round?" MBA hopefuls might think these are the kind of questions they'll be greeted with, but it isn't true.

"There are a lot of behavioural questions that are asked – 'Talk about a time where you had difficulty with a colleague or superior and how you dealt with it,' [for example] – but they're standard questions," explains Prof. Dubey. "[The applicant's] personality comes out and we start to see the motivation for why they want to do the MBA. It's not so much the questions we ask them, but the questions they ask us."

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Dylan McGuire is a graduate of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and now works as an investment banker at a large Bay Street firm. He's experienced how tough interviews for both school and work can be.

"It's the prospect of a job versus an offer to go to school," he says of the difference in interview focus. "Investment banking is known as a high-intensity field of work, so it comes through in the interviews. You get more rapid-fire questions."

Mr. McGuire recalls one interview where he was asked something fairly uncommon.

"Somebody asked me a question that involved calculating what you would do if you were asked to play Russian roulette. 'Assume the other player had just taken their turn and survived, then handed you the gun for your turn. There are six chambers in the gun, the first three chambers have live bullets and next three are blank, would you want to spin the barrel first then shoot, or just shoot automatically?' And you need to think about the probabilities," he says. "It gets hairy."

But Mr. McGuire says his MBA interview wasn't like that.

"They didn't ask any brain teasers. There were a lot more standard questions, although they were ones where you really had to articulate how you possess a certain skill, or how you would act in a certain situation," he explains.

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Some schools, though, don't even include the interview as part of their application process.

One of those is Carleton University's Sprott School of Business in Ottawa. Lorraine Dyke, the school's associate dean of MBA programs, says the way it does things – by looking at the GMAT, grade point average (GPA) in a prospect's undergrad program, letters of reference and a statement of intent – has worked very well so far.

"We're trying to assess the student's ability to succeed in an academic environment and their GPA tells us that. Second, were looking for aptitude in studies in business and that's what the GMAT tells us. Then, we try to get a picture of maturity and motivation and that's where a lot of schools slot in the interview," Dr. Dyke says.

Sprott, instead, reviews an applicant's statement of intent, which asks them why they want to do an MBA and how it fits into their lives.

"We're still assessing the same three things [as other schools], but we're doing it without the interview. I'm not saying interviews are bad or wrong. We just haven't felt the need to do them," Dr. Dyke explains.

But for recent graduates, like Mr. McGuire and Mike Kenigsberg, an alumnus of the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont., the interview was a key piece to their applications. This was especially true as they looked for jobs after completing their degrees.

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"What I needed confidence in was that there was a sense I was joining a place that, essentially, would prepare me for success. The interview process is the first signal a candidate gets that indicates they're working with people who have gone through this process," says Mr. Kenigsberg, now the director of talent acquisition at a major health-marketing agency.

Mr. McGuire agrees.

"There's nothing that can take the place of a one-on-one interview," he says.

"I've seen people with amazing GMAT and test scores just not do well in the actual business world. I believe there's incredible value in one's ability to communicate with people, to read a situation live when interacting with another individual, and none of that comes through in a GMAT score."

So what's the secret to success?

Mr. Dubey says students need to do something they don't realize is important.

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"Think of this as your first job interview," he says. "If they start thinking of this as a job interview, the light switches on. … 'Oh, this is how I'm supposed to do it.'"

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