The Dillon House Questions: What Harvard Asks MBA Applicants

by John A. Byrne on

Dillon House is where Harvard Business School makes all of its admission decisions.

Dillon House is where Harvard Business School makes all of its admission decisions.

What kinds of questions do Harvard Business School applicants have to answer before they are finally accepted or rejected for admission?

The editors of the HBS student newspaper, The Harbus, have just published the “2011 Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide ” that offers not merely questions asked by admissions but guidance from current MBA students on how to best answer them. Among other things, the new guide, available via PDF for $35, lists 50 questions with detailed advice. As its authors put it, “all questions come from current students, meaning you’ll be just one or, at most, two years removed from their interview experiences. Likewise, the analysis we provide comes not from ‘recent applicants’ but from those who got in, enrolled, and are now immersed in HBS culture.”

A CURVEBALL: ‘WHAT KIND OF INSTRUMENT WOULD YOU BE AND WHY?’

The guide offers some smart counsel on how to prep for an interview, including a step-by-step walkthrough of things the editors suggest you do a week before the sit-down session, the day before, and the day of the interview. It also offers a lot of quirky suggestions on your ideal appearance for an interview: For women, the editors recommend no cleavage and shaved legs. For men, they urge no baggy suits or mismatched ties.

More importantly, though, the guide serves up actual questions asked of applicants, many of which would be equally effective in typical job interviews. Many of them are fairly typical “walk-me-through-your-resume” or “tell-me-about-a–challenging-situation-and-how-you-overcame-it” kinds of queries. But then there are the oddball questions thrown to applicants that can puzzle, if not startle. Examples: “Imagine the HBS classroom was an orchestra. What kind of instrument would you be and why?” Or, what some might call the quintessential Miss America question: “If you had 30 seconds to speak to the United States as a whole, what would you say and why?” Or, believe it or not, this odd curve ball: “What is one product you can’t live without?”

Catherine Leary Tomezsko, general manager of The Harbus, believes the most valuable section of the guide is the analysis accompanying each of the 50 questions. It’s largely cobbled together from the comments of 20 current MBA students who are on the board of The Harbus News Corporation. “We sit down with the board and ask, ‘What do you think you did wrong? How could you have done better?’” The newspaper first began publishing the guide last year and has had “enormously positive feedback” from users, adds Tomezsko. The Harbus plans to launch a separate website, hbsinterview.com, to sell the guide in early March. The proceeds will go to non-profit educational ventures in the Boston area.

EDITORS INSIST THEY’RE NOT PUTTING ‘WORDS IN YOUR MOUTH.’

The editors say that the analysis “is in no way intended to provide scripted responses” for the roughly 1,800 applicants annually interviewed by staffers at Dillon House where HBS admissions is based. “Every applicant is different and every interviewer is different, so any attempt to put words in your mouth would surely do far more harm than good,” according to the guide. “Rather, we’re hoping only to get your creative juices flowing and to give you an idea of what lines you should be thinking along, what traps to be sure to avoid, what sorts of things your interviewer will likely want to hear, and so on. But most importantly, be genuine, because that’s what every interviewer is looking to see.”

With the permission of The Harbus, we offer a small sample of some of the “personal” questions along with the accompanying analysis from currently enrolled HBS students:

Walk me though your resume.

“Make your resume tell a story rather than merely relate a series of unconnected events. Focus on upward progression. If there’s a gap in your resume – perhaps from a period of unemployment – don’t shy away from that but also don’t dwell on it. Just mention it and move on. Now more than ever, the Admissions team will understand – even expect – brief periods of unemployment. Also be sure to cap your time. Keep your “walk” to 5 minutes, and don’t spend all your time in one area versus another. For example, don’t dwell on your college experience to the detriment of your actual relevant work experience.”

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    Harvard is more interesting school. I wanna study there two years later.

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