How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

by John A. Byrne on

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

By now, most of the round one applicants to Harvard Business School have heard whether they’ve been invited for an interview with an admissions official. If you’re one of the estimated 800 applicants who won an interview opportunity, you’re bound to be jumping for joy. But in all probability, you’re also filled with anxiety over the final hurdle you have to overcome before getting into Harvard.

This crucial step of the process confronts applicants to most of the other highly ranked schools, from Stanford and Wharton to Columbia and Kellogg. At Harvard, virtually all the interviews are by admissions staff. At Stanford, where nearly 400 first round applicants will get invites for interviews, alumni do the vast majority of interviews. At Wharton, second-year MBA students, admissions staff, and alums are called into action. Wharton, which interviews between 30% and 50% of all its applicants, can invite as many as 900 MBA candidates for interviews in its first round.

HOW THREE TOP SCHOOLS WINNOW DOWN THEIR APPLICANTS

School      Applications    Interviews    Acceptances    Odds For Interviewed    Seats
Harvard 9,524 1,800 1,160 64% 910
Stanford 7,204 1,000 475 48% 390
Wharton 6,819 2,700 1,150 43% 860


If you get invited to an interview by Harvard, you stand a 64% chance of getting accepted to the school–much better odds than if you were invited to an interview by either Stanford (48%) or Wharton (43%). Application numbers are for the classes that entered this fall. Numbers for interviews and acceptances are rough estimates based on interviews with admission directors at each school.

The big question now: How do you not screw up your interview?

For some smart, tell-it-like-it-is counsel, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting. The highly opinionated Kreisberg has been advising applicants to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other elite B-schools for some 15 years. During the 2009-2010 application season, Kreisberg conducted mock interviews with more than 100 applicants to Harvard alone, a service he offers for $300. (For details, see his website.)

Obviously, if you made it to this stage in round one, it’s a big deal. The interview is the only thing separating you from a seat in the class, right?

Yes, but it’s like being born. It’s a special passage where awful things can happen. Tremendous damage can occur in a very short period of time. You should worry about it, and you should prepare for it.

What have you picked up so far in your coaching of applicants who are prepping for these interviews?

The real news this year is that Stanford and Wharton are trending toward behavioral questions versus the more typical ones like ‘why Wharton, why now, why do you want an MBA.’ Of course, it would still help to prepare for those questions as well. But if you are being interviewed by Stanford or Wharton, you should Google behavioral interviews and you’ll get some bad advice about how to answer those questions but at least it will help you get some standard questions. They’re asking people things like, ‘Tell me about a time you worked on a great team, or a bad team, or worked with a great leader. Tell me when you disappointed yourself and what would you do differently if you had to do it again. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a person and how you resolved it. Tell me about a time you dealt with an ethical issue.’ For some reason, Stanford and Wharton seem to be tilting toward those questions this year.

Sandy, what’s the most common misperception about these interviews?

Some think this is like an audition for a symphony orchestra where the conductor is choosing one violinist out of ten and you have to be .001 better than nine other people. It’s not that. It’s more like an audition for a marching band. You just have to be able to bang a drum in terms of talent and not appear to be arrogant, inward, unsure of yourself, or confused.

At Harvard, that means if they interview ten people, they will reject one with marginal English right out of the box. If you can’t speak English, you’re done. You won’t be able to survive. Then, of the remaining nine English speakers, one to two people might have a meltdown of some kind. They have a bad hair day or a bad tongue day. So the way that smart people blow the Harvard interview is to have a bad half hour.

And what does a bad half hour look like?

The most common way that smart people blow a Harvard interview is to get lost. Talking too much. Digressing. Getting lost in the weeds. That is the most common mistake. It outweighs every other mistake. You’re asked a simple question like, ‘Why did you go to Cornell for your undergraduate degree?’ And you begin with a history of Cornell and tell the admissions person all about your family. You’re eight minutes into it and you haven’t yet answered the question. It is one of those moments where you hear yourself speaking and you cannot believe you are saying this. You just generally come off as inarticulate and struggling.

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  • http://CaliforniaEquity.com Bruce Conn

    Sandy, I stumbled upon your article by pure accident. It’s really good. You have a talent for “telling it like it is” in the most straight forward manner I can recall. What an intimate insight you have to the workings of the process, the people, and especially their personal agendas.

    Enough from me. Great article!

    Bruce Conn
    Trabuco Canyon, CA

  • Kyle

    There’s something inconsistent with the HBS figure. According to their website, their yield is around 89%. Shouldn’t that put their number of acceptances around 1,020, rather than 1,160?

  • someone

    You make it sound like not getting in to Harvard is the end of the world. Harvard MBAs honestly don’t have the best reputation in the real world, so I’m not sure it’s the best example, but your career prospects 5 years after graduating from Harvard aren’t noticeably different than 5 years after graduating from any of the top 25 schools.

    It also comes down to fit. Didn’t get into Harvard? Maybe that’s because it wasn’t the best fit for you and the interviewer could sense it. Maybe they’re right! There are a ton of EXCELLENT business schools; and the students at all of them are incredibly smart and driven. I didn’t get into Harvard myself, but after visiting a number of schools, I found another top school where I felt very much at home. In the end my job prospects aren’t damaged in the least (actually; they’re probably better since the class size is much smaller than HBS yet most of the same companies recruit here.)

    Basically, the gap between HBS and the rest of the top 25 has narrowed significantly in the last 15 years; both in terms of salaries and job opportunities. Students who restrict themselves to a couple of top programs are doing themselves a disservice.

  • Bruce Vann
  • hbs alum

    Sandy, this interview was interesting and thoughtful, and in many ways true. That said, I’d like to offer some additional perspective based on my experiences in the interview and ultimately at Harvard.

    -I went to UVA. I’m pretty sure I got directly asked about the case method question and discussed why I thought it would be good for me to go through the process again (with a classroom of people, including myself, who had several years work experience, versus a group of ripe-eyed 20 year olds who had very little prior experience). I think there is a benefit to some people having gone through the case method before, and I don’t think it’s necessarily detrimental to have said you have done so. They admit people into HBS who went to the McIntire School (UVA’s school that uses the case method) every year. They also admit several JDs from a range of schools who teach through this method.

    -With regards to the finance / investment banker questions, I think that your comment about discussing what makes a difference vs. what makes you money is spot on, but I’d also add that quite a few people REALLY DO WANT to make a difference! HBS is not a place where being solely focused on money (or yourself) makes you all that popular, or well-liked (I’m not saying it’s not there, but it’s probably there a lot less than one would think.). It’s not about putting on a facade at the interview – it’s about really believing you want to make change and explaining how you would like to do that with your talent, experience, and skills.

    -Regarding “questions that question” HBS, there’s generally a good and a bad way to ask them. In the above example, you could say “How does HBS think about teaching subjects, such as finance, using the case method when it’s taught so differently elsewhere?” I think the advice that Sandy gets to is correct – don’t be judgmental about HBS’s choices – but it’s also okay (and well received!) to be inquisitive. Despite popular belief, very few people at Harvard think they’re perfect (or the school is perfect), and the entire case method in and of itself is designed to help people get to answers that might not be obvious from the getgo.

    Lastly, what “someone” said was right; there are a lot of great schools for everyone, and more than one for lots of people. I adored Harvard, but would have been really happy at other schools as well. Look at it this way, you wouldn’t have plunked $250+ on an application to a school if you didn’t think you’d be happy there, right? So embrace the admissions that you do get and enjoy the experience!

  • Carlos

    John:

    I am surprised of how much importance the admissions consultants culture has gained, in the near future I wil begin with my admissions process to several schools.

    Which consultants you think are the best and pay special attention into the clients particular features such as personality, abilities, interests in order to choose the schools that best fit him?

    Thanks, Carlos.

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