How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

Another mistake people make is they think they have to deliver their whole package. They already have your package. Some people come out and say, ‘We never talked about my plans for health care reform.’ They don’t care. A large part of a Harvard interview, like 40%, can be your college experiences and internships and some jive about clubs you will join at HBS.

What’s your best advice on the famous closing question of many interviews, “Do you have any questions for me?”

The way you can kill yourself at the end is when you’re asked do you have a question for me? Basically, the interview is over, your grade has already been faxed in. They are just trying to get you out the door. But you can screw this up at the last minute. You can pick an argument. You can say, ‘Do you really think you can teach finance through the case method?’ That is an awful question to ask because you are calling their baby ugly. They believe you can learn anything through the case method. So you don’t want to get into a debate over it. A better answer is real light. If you’re from another part of the country, you might say, ‘I’ve never experienced a New England winter. Have you got any tips?’ One of the best questions would be, ‘How hard would it be for me to organize a forum around one of my passionate interests?’ They’d love that one. If the chemistry was right between you and the interviewer, you might even ask if they could recommend an Indian restaurant in Harvard Square.

What are the basic differences between interviews at Harvard vs. Stanford, or Wharton?

One big difference between Harvard and the other two is that the Stanford and Wharton interviews are run off your resume. At Harvard, they have your entire folder. That’s because admissions staff does most of the Harvard interviews. Stanford and Wharton don’t have the essays, for example.

Alumni do up to 90% of the interviews at Stanford and it’s well known that the interview is more of a marketing device to get alumni involved. You have to do something really dramatic to commit suicide in a Stanford interview.

Wharton interviews are a mixed bag. Second-year students on the school’s student admission committee do a lot. If you can, my advice is to try to get an admissions board member first, then a student, and finally an alum, simply because alumni interviews can be odd. If they don’t do many interviews, alumni of a school can have un-normal standards. If you only do two interviews, your standards tend to be higher than if you do 50 interviews. And some alums are just nuts and in rare cases predatory.

Sandy, you’ve got to be exaggerating.

Well, predatory is rare but not zero. If you can help it, you’ll always be better off with an interviewer with a lot of experience because they are less likely to make oddball judgments. You want a normative interviewer, someone who knows the standards and who has been through it a million times. Alumni often have a chip on their shoulders. They may have issues with the school that can get projected in the interview. They may want to use you to deliver a message to the school, or they could have a prejudice against people who are in Teach For America or other non-profits. That happens a lot.  And some alumni interviews can go on for more than an hour. They’re just so much more unpredictable.

You’re obviously doing a good number of mock interviews right now. What most bothers you about the whole process?

What upsets me is people who are good people but who have a bad hair day. The call I fear is from the person crying on Amtrak. They had their interview at HBS. They are on their way home on the train to New York, and they call in tears because they think they have blown their interview. If you think you’ve blown your interview at Harvard, you probably have blown it. Those are real sad calls, especially if you like the person, and they rehearse how they lost a step, then another and then tripped. If you could have prevented the first lost step, they would be in at Harvard. That happens, man, trust me. That happens. Years of work and hours of preparation and poof, it’s gone, because they could not explain why they went to Cornell for college in 30 concise seconds.

For more admissions advice from Sandy Kreisberg, also see “The World, According to Sandy.”

  • Carlos


    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.

  • 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!

  • Bruce Vann
  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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