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Interview Questions Harvard Will Ask

When Jehan deFonseka did his Harvard Business School admissions interview two years ago, there was one question that surprised him.

“What’s the last book you’ve read?,” an admissions staffer asked him during his session in Dillon House, where Harvard’s admissions office is located.

Luckily for deFonseka, now a 26-year-old, second-year student at Harvard, he had a ready answer and a good one. He had just completed reading a substantive book and one that reflected his career interests and direction–“Sustainability Without the Hot Air.”

Now editor-in-chief of The Harbus, HBS’ weekly newspaper, he’s put that question and others to good use in the newly updated Fall 2011 Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide published today (Oct. 26) as Harvard began to invite hundreds of round-one applicants to yet another cycle of stressful interviews.

The new guide contains 60 questions, as many as 20 of them new this year, culled from actual HBS interviews with current students and recent grads. Each question includes an analysis of what exactly Harvard is looking for and how an applicant might best answer the query. The commentary comes from a group of seven current students who obviously overcame the interview hurdle in previous rounds. Another 50 to 70 MBA candidates responded to a Harbus survey, providing questions they were asked in their session.

“These are well-practiced interviews,” says deFonseka. “They can tell when someone is faking it. At HBS, applicants are not interviewing with students. You are interviewing with pretty seasoned professionals.”

deFonseka says his team cut back on a lot of the dress and behavior advice the guide dispensed last year. Among other things, the Harbus staff advised female applicants that cleavage was a no-no along with shirts that revealed any part of one’s thigh. He concedes his predecessors went a little “overboard” last year in devoting far too much space to such frivolous issues.

“It was completely overdone and unnecessary,” says deFonseka. “It was great for a little chuckle, but there is a time and a place for that kind of thing.” This time, the Harbus crunched the advice on dress and appearance into a half page of bullet points from the five full pages it gave such subjects last year.

Instead, there’s much more focus on the questions an admissions officer is likely to ask an applicant. deFonseka says the new $35 guide contains 50% more pages of real interview questions and analysis. The guide, which can be downloaded for $35 in PDF form, was made available today.

Among the new questions and the advice:

“What company in an industry outside of your own do you find successful?”

Says deFonseka, “The reason that is an amazing question is that it gets to how you define success. It’s very much a personal answer. Do you define success as making a huge amount of profit or do you define success as having social impact? There is no correct answer but it does reveal your own values and beliefs as an individual. The second reason the question is so good is because the interviewer is trying to see how familiar you are with companies outside your industry. They’re trying to see if you have the intellectual curiosity HBS is looking for. It’s a signal to see if you are a good fit for Harvard.”

“Why do you need an MBA to achieve your goals?”

This is often a standard question in B-school admission interviews. “An MBA can be a powerful tool for your future but you should think deeply about the specific skills and tools you are trying to develop when you answer this question,” advises deFonseka. “As Professor Youngme Moon told entering students, ‘There is a difference between building a resume and building a life.’ That phrase captures how you should be thinking about answering the question. If you want the MBA to be a bullet point on your resume, you should not be spending two years of your life and $160,000 to get one. You need to think about what long-term goal in your life you want to accomplish and how an MBA will allow you to achieve that goal.”