How NOT To Blow Your HBS Interview

Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBSGuru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting

More than a thousand MBA applicants to Harvard Business School will receive email invitations tomorrow (Jan. 31) for their admissions interviews, the final step before a candidate can win admission to the prestige school.

Round two applicants who fail to get an email shouldn’t completely despair. The school also will send out additional invites on the following two Tuesdays, Feb. 7 and Feb. 14. On that final Feb. 14th date, candidates who fail to be invited to interview will be notified of their “release,” the school’s euphemistic way of rejecting an applicant. The interviews will be conducted between Feb. 15 and March 9, according to “Dee” Leopold, director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard.

During the first application round, Harvard sent out 855 invitations to applicants to interview. The bulk of them went out on the first day of notification when 750 candidates received notice from HBS. On the second day, only 80 additional applicants were invited to interview. On the final day, even fewer had good news: 25 candidates. “Round 2 won’t be identical, but I think it will be directionally similar,” said Leopold in a recent blog post on her director’s blog.

If you’re one of the more than 1,000 round-two applicants who win 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.

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.




    1. THEORY: The ABSOLUTE thing you want to avoid in an HBS interview is real unpredictability, since that can lead to a bad flare of some kind–to wit, some 6 minute patch of odd questions, or one odd question which you flub, and then that unbalances you, which can turn what should have been an otherwise OK interview into one which is NOT OK. For example, some interviews have begun by saying, “I’ve already read your app, tell me 3 defining moments in your life . . .” or some BIG, BOLD question like that. I personally think question is unfair because if you have not prepared for it, it can, in fact, rattle you, with the outcome that rest of interview can be sub-par. It is no defense, by adcom, to say that ‘case method’ can rattle you blah, blah, so the question is fair b.c. once you get to HBS you will be facing stress jive like that. It is unfair to the degree that other interviewed kids don’t get tested in that fashion, and instead, cruise thru stuff like, “What was your favorite course in college?” A question you can also falter on, and one to which there are better and worse answers, but one which is normative and to some degree expected. My point here is that you want to avoid interviewers who have a propensity to ask potentially “destabalizing” and stress and, ahem, ‘interesting” questions (in bad old days, about politics, altho that was rare, and more currently maybe about tech trends, Occupy Wall St, etc.) There used to be a question, “If you were starting a business in the x space, what information would you want to know?” Is that a ‘fair’ question, hmmmm, not to me, because it can be too easily destablizing and most other candidates don’t get asked questions like that. Sure you might say, this is HBS, you should be able to answer that, but if so, ask questions like that to everyone. Similarly, I think it unfair to ask random kids ‘consulting’-type questions like “how many ping pong balls can you fit in a Jumbo Jet?” or “if it is 12:15 pm, what is the angle between the little and big hand on a watch?”

    2. PRACTICE: As a rule, the adcoms who do interviews on the HBS campus do a lot of them, they take their job seriously but NOT TOO ZEALOUSLY, and they have, by and large, come to the same conclusions I have in THEORY section above, and ask
    ordinary questions, which are fair and not “exciting” or “stressful” or overly “imaginative” in a “non-protocol way.” They may drill down on your areas of expertise out of interest, because that seems fair, but not to “test” how much you know (although that happens). The presiding theory of HBS interviews, as I discern it over the past 15 years, is that kids who cannot cope with the case method, either because their English language skills are sub-par or because they are verbal bed wetters, can be sniffed out (phew, quite a metaphor we got going here) during an ordinary interview and you don’t need stress questions to do it. Similarly, kids who are ‘ticking bombs’ (a famous interviewer red-flag category), unpleasant, overly scripted, pre-mature articulators, or just “too dumb” to know that you are not supposed to say things like ‘well, everyone does it’ in response to some ethics question, can be revealed without asking what they would do if they had one super-hero power,and what would that power be.
    I have no objection to asking someone what vegetable they would be, or what they would do in the first three months if they were handed dictatorial power over the US GOVERNMENT, or what they would say if they had a 30 minute audience w. President Obama (real question actually!) so long as everyone is being asked that, and to some degree, everyone “knew” it was coming.

    All that said, most HUB interviews, are, in fact, conducted by the same adcom ladies who do them on campus (“Go to Paris? Not me, send someone else OK, I’ve got a reservation at Legal Sea Foods on February 28th and you cannot get food like that in Paris!”). Most, but not all. Historically (and this always changes!), London, New York, Paris, Mumbai and Dubai sometimes employ a mix of non-full time adcoms, semi-retired adcoms, ringers, and on rare occassions, HBS non-adcom administrators freeloading a trip (“I’m talking to you *********”). San Franciso on Feb. 27-29th AS WELL AS 13 MENLO PARK DATES, I smell a junket. !!!!!
    How about an interview date in Indianopolis this Saturday and heading back on Monday, nothing else going on there on Sunday.

    The ex-adcoms are more in line with the usual campus adcoms. But the other pick-up interviewers are, by some small but real degree, more likely to ask non-traditional questions, which have the danger of being destabilizing. They try too hard, think they are supposed to “test” you, want to make your 30 minutes “exciting” (the last thing you want!) etc. Some folks have those interviews and love them, and you often hear about that, b.c. the interview is fine and they get in. I get to hear the stories from kids who are a bit perplexed (“Tell me something you want to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing???”) and sometimes don’t get in. That’s a real question by the way, and well -known, and about time it was put to rest. Of course, there are some pick-up interviewers who have been doing it so long, they are,by dint of practice or nature, more like reg. adcoms.
    Menlo Park is a special case: You will, in most likelihood, get one of two people, Hilary or Lauren (sp?), who have both done tons of hi-tech and West Coast PE interviews, and enjoy at times gabbing about somewhat granular industry this and that. That has thrown some peeps off, and there used to be theory that they were a bit tired of PE and banking types, but no more so, IMHO, than the gals back at campus. Some West Coast PE people go to Boston to avoid that possibility and then run into a Boston Marxist adcom mole, hahaha. My point being, it is hard to game this much.
    If you are thinking of Paris or New York and are REALLY worried about this (more so than is normal) it might be worth coming to campus. Otherwise, chances are, you will get a reg. adcom anyway, or a lively ringer whom you enjoy, etc.
    At that point it becomes more important to think about time, expense, and how tired and stressful the trip will be. There is something to be said, if you live near Paris or London or New York, to just doing it, and POOF, it is over by lunch, not a 4-day, 3-TSA frisk, flight and taxi-rumble to Boston. With the real possibility of snow storms.

    The idea of seriously gaming hubs is pretty new and prob a result of everything becoming more stressful. Maybe someone should write a book called Interview Ball, which really collects data on this (ah, but where would you get that data!!!) My own personal opinion is that it aint worth all that much thought. If the trip to Boston is not a big deal, well, come to Boston, otherwise, just do what is easiest and least stressful.