Show Some Backbone! (Don't Be an MBA Coward)

A couple months back, I was talking to one of my clients about interview strategy. He said something that was simultaneously laughable and heartbreaking. On an MBA forum, he came across a discussion involving the following interview question: "What don't you like about your current boss?" I haven't seen the thread in question, but according to my client, the consensus was that the question was a trap to see if the interviewee would badmouth someone. The suggested approach was to dodge the question and discuss your own strengths instead.

Now, I've heard a lot of dumb MBA strategies, but that is one of the dumbest. It is also one of the most infuriating, and ultimately counterproductive for reasons I'll explain below. It falls under the generally spineless belief that you should never say anything negative for fear of "offending the adcom" or "sounding like a negative person". (The reason I'm writing about it now is that the issue came up again.)

The reason this thinking infuriates me is that MBA applicants are expected to be leaders. How can you be a leader if you are afraid to point out that something is less than ideal? Will you be equally silent when you face an ethical dilemma or when you have a chance to help a teammate see a blind spot that is hurting him and the team? What about when you are a manager? Will you refrain from giving your subordinates negative feedback or point out an improvement that can be made in a product? I would hope the answer is no in all of these cases, and I'm certain adcoms feel the same. They certainly don't want trembling applicants who are afraid to express what they really think.

In the question above about the critique of your boss, you could easily start out by explaining his good points before moving on to the areas he could improve, which everyone has. Or you could describe how his weaknesses can serve as strengths in some situations or your analysis of why that weakness exists. Perhaps you've even "managed up" and given your boss feedback about how he could improve. That would provide an amazing answer! But dodging the question is a sure way to show that you are not ready to have an honest and open discussion, and that will backfire every time.

I believe that you can discuss almost anything in your application materials, but you have to do it in the right way and in the right context. In fact, the more unusual or risky the information, the more chance you have of standing out. Of course you always have to express yourself thoughtfully, productively, fairly and diplomatically, especially when expressing negative or critical information, whether it is about a person, your current organization, or even yourself. You might even have occasion to offer suggestions about how an MBA program itself can be improved. Take it, and show your character, communication skills, and confidence.