Tell me about a time you handled a difficult situation.

NOTE: This post is a work in progress. I am sharing this messy prototype in case it sparks your imagination.

How to frame answers for MBA interviews

Related post Got frame? How to organize MBA and graduate school admissions essays

I have compiled several frameworks that my clients use to structure their essay and interview answers. Once you understand the method of telling stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end, I suggest you abandon these tools and practice speaking in a natural and spontaneous way.

Remember, your interview is a conversation.

Do you enjoy meeting new people?

Show your interpersonal skills at the interview - you can impress your interviewer and boost your chances of admission.

VINCE BEI FRAMEWORK (beta)

1. Headline / summary / result

2. Message / meaning “This example shows my X characteristic”

3. Situation / context / disruption of the norm

4. Task narrow objective ex. I changed my supervisor’s mind from “no” to “yes” or I convinced my team to try something new and different

5. Action step(s)

6. Turning point - how / when you knew you were successful

PAR


PAR stands for Problem-Action-Results

  • First you state the problem that existed in your workplace, then you describe what you did about it, and finally you point out the beneficial results.
  • Here’s an example: “Transformed a disorganized, inefficient warehouse into a smooth-running operation by totally redesigning the layout; this saved the company thousands of dollars in recovered stock.”
  • Another example: “Improved an engineering company’s obsolete filing system by developing a simple but sophisticated functional-coding system. This saved time and money by recovering valuable, previously lost, project records.”

Write Accomplishment Statements

For each accomplishment, write out not only what you did (the key skills and actions you took), but describe the problem as well as the result. Accomplishment statements can highlight one primary action and result or may contain a few lines of information that stress additional skills and specific results.

Use the Problem-Action-Result (PAR) approach for each accomplishment

State the Problem - (The challenge, need, opportunity or goal.) Aim to state the main problem/challenge in one to two sentences. This provides the context for the actions you took.

State the Key Actions Performed - (Begin each sentence with a key skill word.) This helps to target your skills to the requirements of the job.

State the Result - (Quantify the result(s) when possible.) Use percentages, numbers etc. to demonstrate the significance of your actions. If you cannot quantify the result, try to qualify the result by stating the type of improvement you observed.

Example:

  • Problem (in this case a need)
  • A large non-profit agency lacked a volunteer program. Valuable staff time was used to perform services which volunteers could do.
  • Action (key skills used)
  • Researched volunteer management theories. Interviewed volunteer coordinators. Prepared a cost/benefit analysis of hiring a coordinator to recruit and train volunteers. Drafted and submitted a proposal.
  • Result (quantify or qualify benefits of your actions)
  • The organization created a full-time position that expanded the agency services and maximized staff time.

Summarized PAR for Use in Resume

Expanded agency's service and maximized staff effectiveness by researching and recommending new volunteer program with a full-time volunteer coordinator.

Incorporate your completed accomplishment statements into the body of your resume and expand upon these accomplishments in your interview to communicate the specific skills and unique benefits you bring to the position.


(found at http://www.skillscan.net/intro/Cap/Self-Promotion/SPTips.cfm; accessed 2009/10)

Source for above plus other "par" related info here: http://delicious.com/admissions/par

Variation 1: R-PAR

I suggest using a modified PAR template: R-PAR. Put the result at the beginning.

  • Results (headline)
  • Problem
  • Action
  • Results (paraphrase)

Variation 2: STAR

  1. Situation: give an example of a situation you were involved in that resulted in a positive outcome
  2. Task: describe the tasks involved in that situation / what was your ultimate goal? try to define your task as narrowly as possible
  3. Action: talk about the various actions involved in the situation’s task. Show your progress in implementing your idea / trying to reach your task. This should include:
    • Problems - what obstacles did you encounter that threatened your project / kept you from achieving your task? How did colleagues and/or supervisors resist your efforts?
    • Solutions - specific actions and decisions you took to overcome the obstacles. How did you overcome the resistance of others?
  4. Results: what results directly followed because of your actions? show the impact of your success as broadly as possible
  5. Takeaways/Learnings: what did you learn from this experience?
  6. Application: when have you applied your lessons in another situation (optional in many cases but good for brainstorming to test if your "learning" was real).

Example of a STAR Answer

Situation: During my internship last summer, I was responsible for managing various events.

Task: I noticed that attendance at these events had dropped by 30% over the past 3 years and wanted to do something to improve these numbers.

Action: I designed a new promotional packet to go out to the local community businesses. I also included a rating sheet to collect feedback on our events and organized internal round table discussions to raise awareness of the issue with our employees.

Result: We utilized some of the wonderful ideas we received from the community, made our internal systems more efficient and visible and raised attendance by 18% the first year.

(found at http://web.mit.edu/career/www/guide/star.html; accessed 2011/10)

Variation 3: PART

  • Problem
  • Action
  • Results
  • Takeaway (what you learned)

Variation 4: SOAR

  • Situation
  • Obstacle
  • Action
  • Result

Provide a structured framework to keep your answer clear and concise, while conveying how you effectively overcame the challenge.

Variation 5: SOFT

  • Situation
  • Obstacle
  • Failure
  • Takeaway (what you learned)


Constructive Criticism Definition and Story Templates

Gregg Walker, Dept. of Speech Communication, Oregon State University, says: Criticism may occur within conflict situations or can foster conflict. Criticism, or the generation of "evaluative judgments," is often painful or difficult to "give" or "receive." If handled appropriately by both the person criticized and the person being criticized, critical feedback can promote constructive growth in individuals and relationships.


Constructive Criticism - Some Assumptions

1. Criticism arises out of interaction, rather than simply action. Evaluation is important to improvement, but criticism should follow a "two way street." Criticism is more valid when all parties involved interact both as the "critic" and the "criticized."

2. Those who criticize need to value and invite criticism. Criticism can be promoted if the critic first invites criticism of his or her own behavior. By inviting criticism, a person can create a situation in which her or his criticism of another is perceived as appropriate.

3. The "Critic" and "Criticized" guidelines that follow are pertinent to all parties involved in "criticism" discussion.


Constructive Criticism - Guidelines for the Critic

1. Understand why you are offering criticism. Feel confident that doing so is appropriate to the situation and constructive for the parties involved. Criticism voiced out of self-interest or competition may be destructive.

2. Engage in perspective taking or role reversal. As you develop a criticism strategy or response, try to understand the perspective of the person being criticized.

3. Offer criticism of the person's behavior, not on her or his "person." Refer to what a person does, not her or his "traits," or "character."

4. Even though criticism implies evaluation, emphasize description. Before offering any judgment, describe behavior you see or have experienced.

5. Focus your criticism on a particular situation rather than general or abstract behavior. "Index" and "date" your criticism, much like a "journalist": deal with who, what, where, and when.

6. Direct your criticism to the present ("here and now") rather than the past ("there and then").

7. Emphasize in your criticism your perceptions and feelings. Indicate what you think and feel about the other's behavior that you have described. Use "I" statements.

8. Invite a collaborative discussion of consequences rather than offering advice. Form a partnership to deal with problems. Do not compete with the other party; compete with the other person against the problem.

9. Keep judgments tentative. Maintain an "open door" of dialogue rather than presenting your "analysis" or "explanation" of another's behavior.

10. Present criticism in ways that allow the other party to make decisions. Do not force criticism on the other. Encourage the other to experience "ownership." People are more likely to comply with solutions that they generate.

11. Avoid critical overload. Give the other an amount of critical feedback that she or he can handle or understand at that time.

12. Focus criticism on behaviors that the other person can change.

13. Include in your critical feedback a positive "outlet." Reinforce positive actions and invite the possibility of change.

14. Invite the other to present criticism of you.


Constructive Criticism - Guidelines for the Criticized

1. Recognize the value of constructive criticism. Such criticism can improve relationships and productivity.

2. Engage in perspective taking or role reversal. Try to understand the perspective of the person offering criticism.

3. Acknowledge criticism that focuses on your behavior. Attempt to transform criticism that seems directed at your "person" to specific behavioral issues.

4. Listen actively. Even though criticism may hurt, seek to understand accurately the criticism being presented.

a. Paraphrase what the other is saying.

b. Ask questions to increase understanding.

c. Check out nonverbal displays (check your perceptions).

5. Work hard to avoid becoming defensive. Resist any tendency to want to dismiss criticism or retaliate.

6. Welcome criticism; use the criticism appropriate to improve.

7. Maintain your interpersonal power and authority to make your own decisions. Criticism, when directed at one's "person," may weaken one's resolve. Focus the other's criticism on your actions. Seek ownership of solutions.

8. Seek constructive changes to the behavior that prompted the criticism.

9. Insist on valid criticism. Valid criticism: (a) addresses behaviors, (b) is timely, and (c) is specific.

10. Communicate clearly how you feel and think about the criticism and receiving criticism. Use "I" messages.


(found at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/comm440-540/criticism.htm; accessed 2010/02)


Constructive Criticism Templates


FOR ESSAYS

1. Situation

2. Your mistake / incorrect attitude / misplaced motivation

3. Constructive criticism – where were you? What were you told?

4. Your initial reaction

5. Your efforts to understand the deeper meaning of the criticism

6. Your decision to change

7. How you changed (actions)

8. How you recovered

9. The results of your new actions at that time

10. A summary of your overall lessons

11. A more recent project where you have applied your lesson


FOR RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Problem (why did the recommender feel the need to give you constructive feedback?)

2. Recommender's feedback (what s/he told you)

3. Your reaction

4. Your efforts

5. Result


For more hints, please check out these links

http://delicious.com/admissions/constructivecriticism

ETHICAL DILEMMA QUESTION

Consider the following structure:

● Setup – an explanation of the situation

● Progress – the sequence of events and your role in them that led to the crisis

● Analysis – a detailed explanation of the pros and cons of each choice

● Choice – the choice you made

● Result – the results of your decision


or this one

● Background – a brief but focused explanation of the situation, built around the details that illustrate the difficulty and importance of the choice you will face.

● Progress – the sequence of events and your role in them that led to the difficult choice.

● Choice(s) – the detailed pros and cons of each option; the more nuances of each choice that you can explain, the stronger you can demonstrate your ethical decision-making skills.

● Results – to make a strong statement about your values, you should explain what you decided and how you reached your decision. You may also want to include the reactions of others involved to show either the positive influence your decision had or, in the case of a negative reaction, your ongoing commitment to your values.

● Lessons – Why was this experience valuable? What did you learn? How has it impacted you as a person and/or as a business leader? Can you make a broader statement about the role of ethics in your decision making process?

To help you begin brainstorming, please check out Vince's links: http://delicious.com/admissions/ethical-dilemma

RELATED POST

Clients often ask me, “How can I tell my story in as few words possible?”

It is all about framing, which is really just a fancy word meaning, “the way you organize your topic sentences.”


WHAT IS FRAMING?

Perhaps this article explains it best: "Systemic Causation and Syria: Obama's Framing Problem"

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/systemic-causation-and-sy_b_3916092.html


Why does framing matter?

I strongly believe that most admissions readers skim.

They cannot possibly read every word on the page in 20 mins or less. Or could they? Of course they will claim otherwise.

OK, so maybe their eyes touch every ink drop or pixel. But they are probably not subvocalizing (reading aloud in their heads).

Put yourself in their shoes. You have a huge pile of stuff to assess. The faster you get it done, the sooner you can see your family, or hit the gym, or eat something.

They are incentivized to skim. They are not motivted to linger over your unstructured pile of thoughts and feelings.

But here's the good news.

Admissios readers do, I believe, AT LEAST subvocalize topic sentences.

That is how I was taught to speed read in the mid-1980s. And please let me know if something better has come along. I am all ears.

And even if I am wrong, and I love to be wrong when it matters, and every single admissions reader assigned to your file reads every single word you wrote, you STILL need to tell your story in as few words as possible because, clearly, admissions board directors are tired of reading for a living.

Or maybe they just miss having true fiction in their lives between October and February :)

Speaking of, ever read Tom Tryon's "Harvest Home"? Haunting. I have rarely seen a writer put things together so well. Nor had more terrifying nightmares after finishing a novel.

But back to your essay.

Here is what you need to do to make your story as concise as possible:

Remember, they read every topic sentence carefully.

So, you need to dedicate extra time to make sure these few sentences carry the weight of your entire written structure (and superstructure :)

Alright, we can do this in just three steps.

Are you ready?


STEP ONE

First, deconstruct.

As an exercise, strip your essay down to only the topic sentences.

What is a topic sentence?

In Western, or more precisely, New York / Boston logic, it should start every paragraph.

Still, I suspect that many of you have “buried the lede,” which means you hid your main idea in a land far far away from the headline.

What are you afraid of?

Take ownership for your ideas. Who else do you expect to do it for you?

Please remember -

First and foremost, a topic sentence is a piece of analysis, NOT summary. Every topic sentence represents your original interpretation based upon the facts of your story.

(found at http://www.essayedge.com/academics/writingadvice/course/lessonthree.html; accessed 2011/09)

In TOEFL or AWA classes, you might have been told that it is sometimes OK to write a flat summary of your topic. Yes, that is true. But not if you want to stop a reader dead in her tracks to say, “Wait a minute. This person is GOOD!”

The first of the following examples illustrates a statement of fact, rather than an argumentative topic sentence.

  • Weak Topic Sentence: "Two years working in my present position has allowed me to develop technical, analytical, and interpersonal skills”
  • Improved Topic Sentence: "I now feel ready to share my accounting, new business development skills, and team building skills with my Wharton peers.”
    • BTW, my improved version still has a long way to go…

STEP TWO

Second, read these topic sentences, and ONLY these topic sentences, aloud (or at least, aloud in your mind — subvocalize :)

As you read, ask yourself:

  • Does my story make sense?
  • Will a non-expert be able to understand me?
  • Most importantly, will a complete outsider, who is PAID to find a reason to love or hate me, think what I want them to think as they read my words?


I know that last one is hard to imagine.

So, to be more concrete…


As you read, ask yourself:

  • Do I appear as a character, actor, agent, entity, thought, etc. in my own topic sentences?
  • Am I the center of attention?
  • Even if you are an introvert like me, remember: shyness does not sell shoes (nor HBS admit letters)
  • In your next draft, work to put yourself at the center of the action, or at least as the owner of your hypothesis

I think

I believe

I feel

I know

I learned

I care about this idea because

This concept matters to me because

You get the idea, right?


STEP THREE

Finally, focus on mechanics

  • Do my verbs convey power? Will my readers feel them in their bones?
  • Are my nouns precise and easily imagined?
  • Are there a few, well-chosen adjectives, and are they well-placed?