We regularly receive enquiries about Wharton’s group interview and have begun offering mock team-based discussions for those looking to practice. However, we thought it would be helpful to also analyze Wharton’s interview here on our blog as well.
Although quite innovative among U.S. business schools, group interviews have been used for years by other leading MBA programs, including IMD. Because of their increasing importance for applicants to top MBA programs (Michigan Ross announced a similar move towards group interviews recently), we’ve decided to provide our readers with some advice to prepare for their upcoming group interview, using Wharton as an example.
Perhaps the most important — and often forgotten — mindset to have heading into the group interview is this: You aren’t competing against your fellow group members. You are competing against other groups. Those who succeed at the group interview will often do so as a group, with the stock of all five or six team members rising in the eyes of the admissions committee. On the flip side, those who fail often do so as a group as well. Based on estimated acceptance rate at Wharton (more or less 20%), 2 to 3 applicants in each group should receive an offer (the school interviews roughly 40% of its applicants), and groups that work well as a team can expect to be on the higher-end of that range.
This collaborative mindset should help ease the pressure on you to have a brilliant idea. The exercise isn’t about which team members come up with which ideas, it’s about which team members best advance the group discussion. So if you’re struggling to brainstorm ideas that add depth to the conversation, don’t panic. As long as you’re building on the rest of the group’s ideas, asking smart questions, and respecting the other members in the group, you’re doing your part.
To that point, it’s important to appreciate the value of three character traits the admissions committee will look for:
1. Ability to provide and receive feedback — learning how to provide good feedback is a big part of the business school curriculum, explicitly or implicitly. This goes two ways. If a group member has an idea, it’s important to acknowledge its value. Let that member know what you like about it with enthusiasm. If a group member is falling short, constructively address that, too. This can come in the form of encouraging quieter members to speak up more by asking what they think, or suggesting revisions to a group member’s idea.
Additionally, learning how to receive feedback is an important skill. If another member critiques you or your idea, acknowledge the merit of their feedback. Go as far as to thank them for it (but don’t be overly polite: a “thank you, this is a good point” might suffice in most cases), and then demonstrate your ability to learn from it by exhibiting a change in behavior or offering an alternative idea.
2. Flexibility – you have to be adaptable in group situations. If you get too attached to an idea, especially your own idea, you could seem unreasonably bull headed. Be willing and eager to change your opinion as new ideas and information is introduced. Evolution of opinions must be part of any group brainstorming process, otherwise you’re just wasting time. Try to constantly help the group make progress by keeping track of time, taking notes, and offering to recap your team’s discussion if necessary in order for everyone to stay focused. If you see that your team is stuck in a dead-end, remind everyone that this is a team effort and try suggesting a different approach.
3. Active listening – you should only be speaking for a few minutes during the group interview (45 minutes divided among 6 people is 7.5 minutes per person), and it’s important to devote some of that time to demonstrating that you’re actively listening to other members’ ideas. Ask them clarifying questions when a point needs to be honed a bit. Use phrases like, “I’m hearing you say that…” or “I liked when you said…”. Always be respectful of other points of view. Make sure to take mental notes of what is happening, since you may have to comment on the group performance during your follow-up 1:1 interview.
Preparation is an important part of this exercise, but it can be a dangerous one. Wharton suggests you spend about an hour preparing your one minute answer to their prompt, and that seems reasonable (although perhaps a little light). Part of that time should be spent thinking about and flushing out your own ideas to bring to the discussion. But don’t overdo it, or you’ll risk becoming too attached to an idea. In some ways you want to bring unfinished ideas to the group so other members can build on and improve them. Instead, a majority of your preparation time should focus on getting smart on the question you were asked to prepare for. Read as much material you can about the subject so you understand the finer ins and outs of the problem. For example, if asked to reflect about possible changes to the school’s curriculum, make sure that you are aware of its current priorities and initiatives.
On a final note, try to enjoy the process as much as possible, or at least pretend that this is the case. Smile, stand tall, and keep in mind that you may leave the conversation smarter.
If you are interviewing at Wharton in coming weeks, we’ll be happy to help you get ready, either on an individual basis or through a mock group interview. Feel free to consult our services page for details, or send us an email should you need expert advice for your Wharton interview.