How to Present Yourself during the Personal Interview

Saturday, January 16th, 2021

Personal Interview Tips
Having looked at the pre-interview preparation in the previous post, we can now focus on what happens in the initial stages of the personal interview.

There is one factor of your PI performance that invariably shapes your first impression in the minds of the panellists even before they meet you. Can you imagine what it is?

It’s not your CAT score, or your academic scores, or your work-experience, or your hobbies and interests.

It is your punctuality.

Whether or not you turn up on time for the interview greatly influences not only the panel’s first impression but also your own state of mind immediately before the interview.

For most of us the interview is already a stressful affair. Therefore do not compound your stress with delay.  Allow yourself sufficient time to reach the venue. If you are delayed due to factors beyond your control, please inform the office at the earliest. If you are so delayed that the interview needs to be rescheduled, please request the staff accordingly.

The worst thing to do when you are delayed is not to inform the hosts. Condescending as it may seem, this must be pointed out, as there are always some who are simply not aware of the interview etiquette, or those who simply do not care for it.

Having arrived at the interview venue, you may be required to wait for a while before your interview commences. Please remember that from the moment you step into the venue, you may be under observation. I remember I was once conducting personal interviews in a glass cabin. The glass was mostly opaque except the 3 inches at the bottom, through which the panellists could get a glimpse of what was happening outside. We could see only the feet of the next candidate, who was pacing furiously. This was as curious as it was distracting. So when he came in for the interview, the interaction began with the exploration of his pacing, and ended with his admission of his anxiety and his consequent unsuitability for the rigours of management education.

It’s like being at Quantico. Everything could be a test.

Therefore, conduct yourself professionally at all times. Be relaxed and attentive. The only way to do that is to stop worrying about what will happen after the interview.

Inside the Interview Room:

Before you enter, first knock on the door and upon receiving the permission, enter the room with a smile and greet everyone appropriately. The smile will mask any inner anxiety you may be experiencing, and more importantly, it is the minimum courtesy we owe to the panellists who have given us an opportunity. The last thing any panellist wants to see on a candidate’s face is a look of bewilderment, confusion, arrogance, irritation, or abject horror!

DO NOT plonk yourself in the chair as soon as you enter the room. DO WAIT till the panel offers you to sit. I know this sounds patronising, but I would rather err on the side of caution.

Some candidates like to shake hands with the panellists. The handshake etiquette says that it is the host who must first offer the hand. The guest (in this case, you) does not initiate the handshake.

Please carry extra copies of your form, CV (if applicable), and also both soft and hard copies of all your relevant certificates.   Once you have settled down, the panel will begin to examine your pre-interview form. Alternatively, they may have even examined it earlier.

This is when the interaction begins.

How to Introduce Yourself:

Most interviews usually begin with a standard ice-breaker: “Tell us something about yourself”.

The answer to this question is your single most valuable opportunity in the entire interview. What you say in response to this question determines the direction of the first half of the interview.

This is your winning the toss in cricket. Or opening a game of chess with white pieces. Or starting a tennis match on your service.

Simple as the question may seem, most candidates blow this opportunity in a number of ways. Some introductions are so short (20 seconds or so) that they invariably elicit the response “Is that it?” from the panel. When you hear that in an interview, you know that you have started off on the wrong foot.  Some intros are so long and boring that the panel has to interrupt the candidate. Some are just a word-by-word repetition of what is already stated on the form, so the panel has to remind the candidate to tell them something else. And most of the introductions that are none of the above have another common problem: aimlessness.

The intros that I call aimless may generally be considered good intros in other settings, such as a social gathering. They may be of appropriate length. They may elaborate on some details of the candidate’s life. They may be considered good party introductions. But they are not strategised to cater to the requirements of a B-school interviewer.

Here is an example: I am XYZ. I was born and brought up in XXX city. I went to XXX school and YYY college. I scored XXX in my graduation. In my free time, I like play the guitar. I have performed in my college fests. I like to listen to Bollywood music, which helps me de-stress myself.  I am also a big foodie! I am not into much reading though. And I would like to pursue MBA through your esteemed institution.

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In my humble opinion, this intro is poor even for a date, let alone a B-school interview. It fails on a number of fronts: first, it does not seem to offer much beyond what the interview form may already contain; second, its poor choice of words (‘foodie’ being the case in point) projects a frivolous image of the candidate; third, its wrong emphasis on an inadequacy (lack of reading) raises serious questions on the candidate’s standing; fourth, the speaker’s (not-so) subtle reference to the ‘need to de-stress’ is like committing three double-faults in a row against Rafa Nadal in the 5th set when he is already a break up. It’s going to break the back of whatever courage you have summoned.

And yet this is not the worst part of it.

The worst part is that this intro does not focus on the candidate’s learning, which is the sole purpose why he/she is in the interview room.  Furthermore, it fails to offer the panellists any leads that they can use to question the candidate on his/her strengths. Therefore, the interview will be conducted on the panel’s strengths, which means that they will ask you any questions they feel like.

Now, have a look a better intro by the same candidate, offering the same information:

I am XYZ. Being born and brought up in XXX city, I have been greatly influenced by the rich culture and diversity of my environment, which has given me a broader outlook on life. Apart from motivating me to excel academically, my school XXX, and my college YYY have inculcated in me several important values, such as ABC. In my free time, I like to play the guitar, through which I have not only pursued my passion for music but also learnt the importance of perseverance, dedication, and sensitivity. I have frequently performed in my college festivals. Through such performances, I have learnt to cope with pressure and developed self-confidence. I like to listen to Indian film music. The great musical works of both contemporary and past musicians and singers are a source of both my learning and my inspiration, which propels me to strive for excellence in any task that I undertake. Additionally, gastronomy is another area of my interests, and it underlies my attitude of exploration, experimentation, and innovation. The common genres of my reading include XYZ. I wish to have a career in management, which, I feel, will allow me to best combine my learning through life experiences with formal education in management.

Ask yourself: if you were sitting in front of yourself, which one of the two of your selves would appeal more to you?

I feel a good intro cannot be given impromptu, unless you have achieved a very high level of self-awareness. The next best thing is the good old preparation.

I recommend that you write down an intro of yourself and have it evaluated by your trainer/mentor. Try to write an intro that will last at least two minutes on paper, so that in the actual interview, it may last about a minute. That is the minimum time needed to give enough details about yourself.

Make sure that the intro focuses on your strengths and your learning. Keep negative thoughts out. DO NOT berate yourself. I have sat through intros which included lines such as, “I am pathetic at maths”, or “Lack of confidence has always been my problem”. DO NOT include weaker aspects of your profile, such as a gap year, or poor marks in class 12. Some candidates feel a burning desire to make a clean breast of it, because they want to ‘get ahead of the situation’ before the panel starts poking in. It is nothing other than getting ahead to dig your own grave. The panel may not wish to attribute too much importance to one poor area if the rest of the profile is good. Your insistence may prompt them to think otherwise, and in a minute the interview will reach a point of no recovery.

Once you have written down the intro, anticipate the questions that can be asked on that intro. Answer them to yourself, and if needed, keep changing the intro till you are sure of your words.

Once you have finalised your intro, take a leaf out of Anthony Hopkins’s book and read your intro in front of the mirror at least 200 times.

This is not to ‘mug it up’ but to internalise it, which means that you no longer remember the words, because you are the words.

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