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Winning your B-school Group Discussion
Career Launcher Research Team
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December 10, 2008

For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost -- an oft-quoted proverb deduced from a nursery rhyme teaches us that big things can be lost over trivial matters. When I decided to write the article, I thought of taking the example of this proverb and telling the reader, "Look kid, candidates have been rejected in the group discussion/ personal interview (GD/PI) stage over very small things and you better take care of such things, otherwise you know the consequence."

But when I read the entire nursery rhyme there was another message. The lyrics of rhyme are set in a very clever way to make the reader apply his/her own logic to the events and to deduce his/her own lessons. "For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost" is just one moral that the reader can draw.

What is more important is to understand the entire process of how one thing led to another and ultimately to a bigger consequence. It was not simply the want of nail that led to the loss of kingdom. It was a chain of events -- one mistake after another -- an offshoot of want of a nail. The process of winning and losing in GD/PI is also like this. One mistake can lead to another and then the next. So it's important to critically analyse the entire process and see where you can lose or win.

There is no set of rules that can teach you what to and what not to do in GD/PI because it is a process to assess a candidate's personality, and you cannot apply the same set of rules to every individual. What becomes important in such a scenario is to understand the why and what of GD and arrive at your own rules that fit your personality.

First things first: Why
B-schools conduct GD/PI when students have already gone through an acid test. Isn't clearing MBA entrance test enough to show that you are worth it? The simple answer is NO, because B-schools are simply not looking for walking dictionaries or logarithm books. They want candidates who can be trained and polished to be managers.  

The entrance test is just one stage where they see whether you have basic acumen to understand the course that will be taught during the MBA programme. In that too some parts of personality like ability to take decisions, ability to perform under pressure and analytical and logical thinking are assessed. But in order to get a complete idea of a candidate's personality, B-schools go through this long process of assessing candidate's personality.

There can be various ways of assessing an individual's personality but group discussions and personal interviews are accepted tools to select a student because in a limited time they can give a fair idea of whether a candidate can become a manager or not.

Students may argue that if this is the case, then knowing what B-schools are looking for and presenting yourself accordingly can actually help. Knowing what B-schools are looking for can actually help but not in preparing you for a superficial mask but to help you assess whether you have the traits they are looking for.

This brings us to other question: are managerial traits natural or can they be acquired? If they are natural, what is the need to do MBA? An MBA course teaches students how to achieve larger goals and it polishes those personality traits. But there are some basic traits that a candidate should have to go through the MBA process and to know that institutes conduct GD/PI.

Group discussion
A group discussion is generally a 20 to 30 minute process whose larger objective is to select those candidates who have the ability to perform in a team. Apart from this, the kind of topic given also helps panellists know the various traits of a candidate's personality.

In most GDs you are made to sit in a semi-circle and discuss a given topic. The topic can be as general as 'Women make better managers' or as specific as 'the India-US nuclear deal.' What matters in a group discussion is your stand on the topic, your ability to analyse the given topic, your awareness about the topic, and the way you present the topic.

One person from the group is asked to introduce the topic, what follows is the discussion and the conclusion. The focus here is more on leadership and decision making, because in a GD you may or may not reach a consensus since the issues given to you are debatable. The end result of a GD will not always be to reach a consensus but to assess your people skills.

Who wins?
Those who have:

Good listening skills: Listening doesn't mean hearing. It means listening and understanding what the other person is saying. If you have good listening skills, you will be able to keep a track of where group discussion is moving. You will know different points that have already been raised and you have to bring in some new point.

Knowledge of the topic: Some years back content was the most important aspect of a GD. Although content still holds its importance, now you are also judged on how analytical and aware are you about your surroundings. Earlier it was just about discussing pros and cons of an issue but now knowledge gathered from various sources, analysed and presented in a structured form holds the key to success in GD. Reading newspapers, magazines, and going through Economic Survey would help in enriching the content of a GD. 

Confidence: You have all the knowledge and good listening and analytical skills, but if you do not have confidence to assert what you are saying is right, you may prove a negative point. In a GD, panelists do not know you personally; they would only be able to judge you from what you speak.

Introduction: Introducing the topic can make or break the situation. Maybe you do not speak for the next 10 minutes, but if you give a good introduction you are in. When the GD begins, everybody is speaking and you might not even be heard. But when you are asked to introduce the topic, you can take the situation forward. Explain the topic, don't read what is written. Give a brief introduction to the topic and what you think of it. People think that taking a stand in a GD might to go against them. But there is difference in being assertive and in being rigid. You are expected to give your point of view.  

Who loses?
Those who speak a lot: Of course not speaking in a GD will not take you anywhere but speaking too much can also make you lose the GD. You have all the points and you can speak a lot, but it is not a one-man show. It is a group discussion. If you try to grab the attention of the panellists by cutting the other person off, it shows that you are not a team worker. Also speaking a lot on the topic and just repeating one point will not be appreciated. You do not need to speak through the entire GD, but give valid points twice or thrice that add value to the discussion.

Those who become emotional: There are topics that involve some sensitive issues. You have all the valid points to support that women make better managers, but bringing in the element of argument and accusing other persons in the group will only help you in getting rejected.

Those who over-dominate: You are taking and managing the group discussion well, listening to the arguments, giving your point of view and letting everyone speak, everything is in your favour and suddenly you decide to be a godfather of somebody who has not spoken at all and who doesn't have one single argument to present. Cutting short somebody who is making a valid point and asking the silent one to speak, can actually cut your points.

Tomorrow: Score points in your B-school Personal Interview

Career Launcher is an institute that prepares candidates for competitive exams like the CAT, SNAP etc.

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