How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview
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
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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.