ESP Project Leader Profile: Vince Ricci

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP project leader profile, we meet Vince Ricci, who wears many hats. He is both an ESP practitioner and a graduate school/MBA admissions counselor when he works with his Japanese clients to prepare them for the top universities in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Vince’s bio describes him as follows:

Vince Ricci has been a full-time graduate admissions consultant since 2002. After launching in 2007, Vince returned to AGOS as a Director in 2014. Vince has been recognized with the Lyons Award for Service to Stanford University, a Distinguished Teaching Award for the State of Louisiana, and Non-Profit Program of the Year for the City of New Orleans. Before moving to Tokyo in 2002, Vince completed his M.A. in Digital Media Design for Learning at NYU. He currently serves as President of The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC).

As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Vince was a leader of an improvisational (improv) theater group. Such improv theater is fascinating to me because of its focus on communication and relevance to leadership development. Vince talks about leadership in his interview responses.

Vince Ricci
Founder and CEO, VincePrep, and Director, AGOS

(1) Define leadership in your own words.

Leaders identify and capture opportunities—for themselves and others. As a leader, I provide tools that help my colleagues and clients get where they’re trying to go.

(2) Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

Since 2002, I have been preparing Japanese and other nonnative English speakers for Harvard Business School (HBS) interviews. Over the years, I have noticed that many applicants struggle with the unpredictable and conversational nature of the HBS interview.

What is the HBS interview like, and what are they evaluating? As explained on the HBS Admissions Director’s blog (retrieved 2013/10):

Your interviewer will be a member of the Admissions Board and will be very experienced in meeting with candidates. He/she will have read your application thoroughly. There is no formula for how an interview will be conducted or list of standard questions. Your written application will be a starting point but the conversation may not stay there very long. Your interviewer is trying to understand you and assess your ability to thrive in our case method classroom.

First, an applicant must understand how the case method classroom works. Professors “cold call” students, and then challenge their answers. Students are also encouraged to challenge each other. Meanwhile, a scribe sits in the corner marking each time a student speaks. Class participation counts for 50% of a student’s grade. Not everyone who starts an HBS MBA can finish. Every year, students are asked to not return for the second year.

Second, an applicant must understand how her interviewer thinks. The HBS interviewer has read the applicant’s entire 30-page application. Sometimes the interviewer wants the applicant to dig deeper into something that he has already shared. Other times, she asks applicants to surprise her by sharing information not included in the written application. The HBS application contains lots of personal and professional information, so it’s pretty hard to surprise the interviewer.

Until 2008, I only provided one-to-one mock interviews. In these mock interviews, I play the role of a proxy interviewer.  MBA alumni interviewers ask a relatively consistent list of predictable questions, with minimal follow-up. By contrast, HBS interviewers ask whatever they want, in any order they want. A domestic Japanese client with limited English who had written about eating raw horse meat while on assignment in Kazakhstan was asked, “How was the horse?” as soon as he took his seat.  A returnee client was asked for 10 minutes about a decision he had made at age 13.

After 15 years of seeing who gets admitted and who gets denied, and what they report after their interview, I see a clear pattern: Those who prepare more usually do better. I wondered: How could I motivate clients to dedicate more time to interview prep? Then it hit me: Let them meet their competition. Thus, in 2008, I began offering Japan’s first HBS Interview Seminar because I wanted to help Japan-based MBA applicants who have been invited to interview with HBS practice as a group.

From 2008 through 2015, I continued to modify the three-hour seminar. I asked everyone to answer a few common questions, including “Tell me about yourself” and “Why MBA?” I provide feedback, and ask everyone to critique each other, offering one point of praise and one improvement point. Clients left the seminar feeling confident and glad to know their peers who might be joining them at HBS. Still, after the real interview, I consistently heard from clients that they struggled with surprise questions. I knew each interview is truly unscripted. Still, even if I could not help clients guess what interviewers might ask, maybe I could prepare them to select and prepare stories that they wanted to share.

In October 2016, I asked my clients if they were interested in learning a new method that I was still testing. I called it 16 Stories. I told my clients:

Once we know which stories demonstrate our core values and potential contributions to the school and the learning environment, then we can look for opportunities to share those stories—to tell the right story at the right time. Starting today, and continuing on your own, with each other, and with me begin to gather a mix of stories from your professional and personal life. These stories should demonstrate your ability to drive results, bridge diverse teams, motivate peers and junior colleagues, and influence senior colleagues and decision-makers. Be sure to include both successful examples as well as times when you failed or felt like you failed, to achieve results. Most importantly, think about what you learned about yourself in the process.

The seminar I delivered in October 2016 was my best ever because I fostered a community of practice that continued to thrive after the seminar ended. After the seminar, my clients met and tested the 16 Stories method on their own and gave me hints about how to improve it.

Of those in attendance, two were admitted to HBS and two to Stanford GSB. My 16 Stories method works particularly well for Stanford interviews, which are usually conducted by alumni who share the applicant’s industry background and usually consist primarily, if not entirely, of behavioral questions. Preparing a broad range of stories, and understanding what those stories might indicate about one’s future behavior, is the best way to prepare for a behavioral interview.

If you wish to learn more about 16 Stories, please visit my YouTube channel.

I read Vince’s description of his interview training program with much interest! In government-sponsored Hello Work programs in Japan for unemployed Japanese professionals preparing to re-enter the workforce, I also have my students prepare each other for their future interviews in English. They are usually not future competitors, and they often have different language abilities. Through such training, they learn how to frame themselves for successful interviews.

Do you have questions or comments for Vince? Please feel free to contact him directly!

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ESP Project Leader Profile: Vince Ricci

  1. Tarana Patel says:

    Vince’s story and his journey towards creating his 16 Stories Method are inspiring. As ESP’ers, we have to think like entrepreneurs. And successful entrepreneurs love to find and solve problems. Vince’s case here exemplifies his pursuit of the problem and the solution that gave new power to his work so well. I really enjoyed this Blog Post. Thank you, Vince and Kevin!

    • Vince Ricci says:

      Thank you, Tarana. I am grateful to Kevin for including me in this project. I wish you the very best!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.