Toughest Questions HBS Asks Applicants

In a typical year, slightly more than 2,000 highly driven people are interviewed for admission to the prestigious MBA program at Harvard Business School. They’re subjected to a 30-minute grilling by an admissions official to see if they are Harvard material.

Other than some Q&As that are held via Skype or a few in some far-flung cities, the vast majority of the interviews are on the Harvard Business School campus. In earlier years, they were held in small rooms in Dillon House, where the admissions staff makes its home. These days the interviews are scheduled in the project rooms on the second floor of Spangler Hall.

HBS admission interviews are now held in the project rooms on the second floor of Spangler Hall

HBS admission interviews are now held in the project rooms on the second floor of Spangler Hall

The questions in these sessions usually come fast and furious, with little comment from the person asking them. It’s as if the admissions officer doesn’t want to waste any of the 30 minutes with an applicant and wants to get in as many questions as possible.

The queries cover everything from an MBA candidate’s undergraduate experience to an applicant’s leadership ability. Many of them are routine: Why do you want an MBA degree? Why do you want to come to Harvard to get it? Walk me through your resume? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How did you choose your undergraduate major and why?

Almost always, however, there are a few unpredictable zingers, the kinds of questions that can take a person by surprise. These are questions that can easily throw an applicant completely off his or her game. They are designed to narrow down the more than 2,000 interviewees, chosen from 9,315 overall applicants, to about 1,100 who were accepted for one of the 941 seats in Harvard’s Class of 2015.

What are the ten most unpredictable questions?

The following queries, along with advice on how to approach the answers, are from current HBS students who have successfully gained admission into the school. They’re among 96 questions gathered by the staff of The Harbus, the school’s MBA student newspaper, for its recently updated “Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide.” The Winter 2014 edition includes brand new questions that Class of 2016 applicants received in Round 1.

The most intriguing questions below are reprinted with permission from The Harbus.

Explain to me something you’re working on as if I were an eight-year-old?

This question gauges your ability to distill the essence of your job into very simply language. Think of how you would explain accretion/dilution to your grandmother at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Take the question quite literally, but don’t talk down to the interviewer. The ability to communicate complex information to laymen who may not share your grasp of the subject material happens to be a very important business skill. Clever metaphors can add color or flair (as in Sherman McCoy’s explanation to his daughter of what selling bonds entails in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities).

Describe something that you should start doing, do more of, and do less of?

This question is driving at your ability to step outside of yourself and perform an honest appraisal. Can you see and act on your areas for improvement? Self-awareness and the ability to make sound judgments are important here. HBS is looking for someone who knows they don’t have it all figured out yet and is reflective about what they can strive towards.

What’s the one thing you’ll never be as good at as others?

If you respond ‘nothing’ to this, it indicates a lack of self-awareness. If your response is ‘modesty,’ you’d better hope your interviewer has a good sense of humor. There are so many honest, personalized answers to this question that it should not be difficult to come up with an example. Be honest: don’t try to hedge it or spin it. Just own it.

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  • Arya

    loved this too!

  • Arya

    I appreciate your answer, as it is exactly what is right! Don’t change yourself and attitude, because the progress of world belong to the persons like you! Cheers!

  • Jill

    My god says your God doesn’t exist.

  • John

    Can you suggest an observation (see, touch, feel, hear, smell) or test (experiment using falsifiable evidence) for your intuition that your god exists?

    You do realize that any natural evidence for a supernatural being would immediately render the being natural or else it could not be detected in the natural, using the natural.

    Will you now admit that you have no falsifiable evidence, but only faith for your claim that your god exists? That is merely admitting and adhering to your own faith dogma.

    If all you offer is faith (no evidence, no proof), then why do you think that is rational to hold a belief in something that can not have evidence or proof for its existence?

    Seriously, if your god is something (material, or immaterial, or whatever), then please tell me:
    How can something (your god) exist inside/outside nothing before it created everything (our universe) some 13.7 billion years ago?

    You have to reject logic in order to think that something can exist inside/outside nothing before it created everything. Furthermore, only an illogical belief would hold that there can be evidence in the natural for the supernatural without rendering it natural.

  • John

    I asked you to only reply if you are willing to admit that your belief in god’s existence is based on faith. And if so, to tell me how you can rationalize faith. Why did you deliberately refuse to acknowledge this?

    Once again did you fail to address my questions.
    You have shown a great tendency for obscurantism, ignorance and to twist my words. That is called being dishonest. I have now repeatable asked you “how do you know your god exist?”. And you offer me unfalsifiable objective option (your intuition, lol) and you fail to even understand that your faith says you no evidence. But you can not stop there, you have to be dishonest and twist my words: “However, your intention is to know who is God, not the existence of God.”
    My question is: how do you know your god exists. How can you know someone if you do not even know if it exists? This level of irrationality masqueraded in your post is only evident when people start talking about beings that are not beings.
    Do you understand that intuition is based on a personal subjective option that is unfalsifiable? Extraordinary claims (like the existence of you god), requires extraordinary evidence. Unfalsiviable opinion is not extraordinary evidence for your god. It is evidence that you do not understand epistemology.

    Your belief in your god is based on faith. And the irony is that you refuse to admit this. More seriously is the fact that you have no idea what faith is. You do not even know what faith means, what the description, epistemology, and use of it is. How ironic. Your filter of reason are letting garbage come though, it is clouding your judgement. It seems to me that your filter has been installed for so long that you do not even realize it is faulty. This is quite evident when your belief was merely an adoption from someone else; authorities (parents, priests, etc.) faith.

    Tell me: does everything exist, until shown not to?
    Your god exists until it is shown not to? According to your logic Zeus, Vishnu, Apolo, Santa, and Magic ferries also exists until shown not to. By your own illogical logical, there can not be only one god. Or is your intuition telling you that only your god exists, and all other ones are false? Your intuition is never wrong, correct? You have just demonstrated that your god always agrees with you. Therefore, you have shown to all here now that the idea of your god is grounded in your intuition, making your god man-man. You created your own god, to your own liking. No wonder you do not know what faith is, or how to rationalize it.

    I am not trying to convince you of anything. I am merely asking you how you know that your god exists and showing where your answer fails. The burden is not on me to show you that your god does not exist (even-though i can argue that if you want). Your refusal to admit this says more about you than it says about me.


    Only reply if you are willing to admit that you have no evidence for
    your god, all you have is faith. And then I want you to tell me how
    faith can be rationalized. Good luck.

  • Le Tri Thanh

    Oh, brother!!! You twist things very well. However, your intention is to know who is God, not the existence of God. Therefore, if you believe in witch craft, and woo-doo power that can make you ill or well, then you must believe in the existence of God.

    I do not know how God looks like, but I believe in the existence of God and Angels. As a result, I do not have any better resources to offer your rational mind. I use the story of 5 blind men who touch the elephant as an expression, or an analogy of people who rely on their own experience limited by physical faculty of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste. People forget about their awareness from the pure mind = intuition. Don’t you think that if 5 blind men are open minded (are willing to switch their position) or are allowed to touch the same part of elephant , one by one, then the result on these 5 blind men’s description of elephant must be similar.

    Like I said earlier that we cannot convince each other regarding our mindset about the spirit, except that we need to go on our own journey to find out the truth, Yes, we need to sharpen our body, mind and spirit at the elite level in order to experience the existence of God, rather than just believe in it.

  • LogisticsEngineer

    A few things to rebut your point:
    -Many MBA students in the Top 15 schools are aspiring to work for companies that use colleges as a screening tool. Surely it’s possible to use your MBA from San Jose State to get into Google if things are lined up in your favor, but your chances of getting in if you attend HBS or MIT are far, far greater. Same can be said with M/B/B and the consulting firms.
    -The possible career trajectory you can have with a Top 15 MBA vs. a Top 200 MBA is far different. It’s up to the graduate to put in the work to make it happen at the end of the day, but with a Top 15 school you will have far more opportunities available to you. It really depends on what you want. If the MBA at a lesser-known school helps you accomplish your goals, then great. But Top 15 aspirants want something that the vast majority of other schools cannot offer.
    But I do agree with one point you make, it’s not where you graduated from, it’s what you do once you’re working. However, I still feel a top 15 MBA (and HBS too) offers far more beyond business knowledge- it offers the opportunity to explore different career paths, learn from your great classmates, etc. I feel the vast majority of MBA graduates will possess everything you mentioned (drive, character, good attitude, etc.) as even the entire business school application process, if one wants to execute it properly, truly requires a LOT of that (heck, P&Q is an entire site dedicated to it)

  • John

    Let me summarize your reply:
    1) Neglected to address your lack of understanding of capitalism, which is basic economics.
    2) Offered your personal experience as the reason you believe in your god. And you try and argue your parents taught you about belief, whilst completely neglecting faith (a type of belief that is held with lack of, in spite of or against reason, evidence and proof). Your argument has many problems.
    Firstly, subjective opinion (your personal experience of god) is not falsifiable. Besides, courts know that hearsay and eye whiteness testimonies are the weakest type of information that can be submitted for evidence. And in most cases, your unfalsifiable ‘subjective opinion’, the information is rejected and as a non sequitur.
    Secondly, you can not have evidence for god because that would contradict your faith dogma that clearly says you have no evidence for your god’s existence. If you offer evidence for a faith based belief in a god, then you are arguing that your faith dogma is erroneous and you are arguing for a different non-faith based god. Nice try from you to try and reject your faith dogma to argue for a god that can’t be your faith based deity. It is so ironic that you clearly do not understand your own faith and faith dogma. This however, is in line with your understanding of economics. Therefore, I am hardly surprised. Your faith dogma clearly says you have no evidence for your god. It is so ironic that you reject this.
    To answer your questions to me:
    I am I skeptic, Skepticism operate using falsifiable evidence. I do not blindly believe what authorities (eldery, parents, government, priests, etc.) say and I reject arguments from population / popularity / authority. How can anyone believe in sacred books (the KJB version of the bible has some 66 books) when no one knows who wrote it, when it was written, are littered in many contradictions, it rejects basic science, and has so many references to an evil jealous demigod? Why accept truth declarations based on faith? if you do, then you reject basic epistemology and science.

    And, btw, my heart is used to pump blood, it can not do everything as you mentioned. You are amusing that I do not care for the welfare of others, whilst suggesting that I need to love my enemies to acknowledge the existence of your god. The same god the committed genocide (Noah’s flood), and condemn people to his infinite eternal personal torture chamber knowing in advance he made people that can not help but to do finite sins. How utterly ridiculous and illogical from you. Responses like yours are the reason why people move away from religion.

    Only reply if you are willing to admit that you have no evidence for your god, all you have is faith. And then I want you to tell me how faith can be rationalized. Good luck.

  • Le Tri Thanh

    Thank you John for your interest in my answer. Philosophical subject is not to convince or persuade others to follow. Power, magic trick and terrorism are to convince, persuade, or force others to follow.

    Therefore, neither you or I will need to convince other to agree on whether there is one God or more than one. If you would remember the story of 5 blind men who touch the elephant, you see that each of them describes an elephant according to the part of an elephant where he touches. Likewise, if I describe my experience that I know God exists, then you would not understand to agree with me.

    My question to you is that are you willing to spent 50 years to do what His Holiness Dalai Lama has done and is still doing now, in order to experience the existence of God? I am lucky to have my parents who educate me very well regarding kindness, being considerate, honesty, perseverance in doing everything to my best, so that my belief in the existence of God become my nature without any doubt.

    You are welcome to believe in 4 principles that my parents keep reminding their children:

    1) Do not believe in what the most powerful people say. (WHY? – for their own gain)

    2) Do not believe in what the elders say (WHY? – different generation, different thinking, different environment)

    3) Do not believe in what sacred book says (WHY? – can be fake)

    4) Do not believe in what the majority rumor says. (WHY? – no fact)

    However, you only believe in what you can experience at your best within your ability (educate with intellect) and capacity (with time to digest, and research, and with money to pay for a collection of fact.), so that nobody can manipulate you in causing trouble to others and maybe to yourself.

    If you do everything with your pure heart and mind, without any hesitation because you truly care for the welfare of others, you will eventually acknowledge the existence of God. That is how I learn from my parents and practice naturally. I have survived many times from a childhood, adolescence, adulthood and toward my old age. I just know that God exists.

    Thank you John for giving me an opportunity to tell my story. I hope that you will quietly practice whatever that makes sense to your intellect, not emotion in order to experience your own enlightenment without the need to follow others’ belief.

  • John

    It is clear that you have no appreciation of capitalism.
    As for your god, your favorite god:
    1) You have not answered my question. Remember, I asked you how do you know your favorite god exists?
    2) To address your red herring “There is no preference or favourite God in me because God is the only one.” How do you know your god is the only one? Are you saying that the bible is wrong when it referred to other gods? The 1st 3 of the 10 commandments are wrong?
    Please pay attention this time. Answer me how you know your god exists, and is the only true one god.
    If you an convince me then I would surrender my critical faculties to your god, to accept that he made us ill and are ordering us well.

  • John

    The question was directed at you, why would you think it was not given that I replied to you.
    Your attempt was a fail.
    Good day.

  • Le Tri Thanh

    I am sincerely sorry to make you feel like a personal attack. I do not know you to have any personal liking or disliking. I am just plain and honest in my view. I really appreciate the capitalists who are greedy enough to sponsor the poor for higher education (through scholarship). The rich has its greed and the poor has its lust. Whenever the wheeling dealing between the rich and the poor contradicts, the frustration will happen. This is what we call the war. Laterally, this is a business in controlling between supplier (=the rich who supplies scholarships), and demand (=the poor who needs money for higher education). I see that Stanford shows their leadership skills through spearheading for MOOCs. I am patiently waiting for any university whose administrative staff can successfully produce lots of best leaders for community, and its country through meaningful curriculum in each of their faculty, or school whether it is art, linguistic, engineering, computer, medical, pharmaceutical or business. These young, honest and strong minded PhDs will be truly noble citizens, professors, and leaders.

    To answer your question about God. There is no preference or favourite God in me because God is the only one. Any sentient beings will gradually become God with time and training. Most of all, the strong will in an awareness of the impermanence in material, and of the humanity in the soul will lead human beings to detach greed, lust, and anger in order to become kind, considerate, and tranquil within body, mind and spirit.

    We should nurture our body, mind and spirit according to our ability (=intellect), and our capacity (time and money). Whenever our want exceeds our need, we will be manipulative and controlled by whoever supplies our want. With time, with working experience at the elite level, with sharp observation, with honesty, with appreciation, with lateral and critical thinking skills, everyone will have his/her chance to realize that the inner peace will reign in the end. This is what I call “master of my own destiny.”

  • Tam St.Armand

    Refusing to answer your question? To be completely honest I did not realize you were posing to me directly. I thought it was to everyone on this thread in general. With that said, judging from your response – I won’t be answering any questions from you and ask that you not contact me again.

  • John

    You have not answered my questions.
    Am glad you agree that supply does not create demand. With that you ironically rendered your first reply irrelevant and contradicted your ” once you successfully create chaos (=demand), you will be the supplier”. I can tell you are very ignorant of economics. That is quite evident in your belief in your god that you posit followed now with your personal attack (ad hominem) on me. What universal law are you making up now – really?
    Why would anyone want to employ someone that believes in beings that are not beings and economic obscurantism is easy to answer.
    I would not want to employ you even if you work for free, nor would you be able to take over rational critical thinking.
    How do you know your favorite god exists?

  • John


    Why are you refusing to answer my question?
    I find your attempt at dodging the question an indicator of your answer, or reason for a non-answer. But you littered your attempt with a red herring. I’m convinced that is was not intentional, but probably due to the same reason as your refusal to answer the question “why is the sky blue”. If you are thinking about your own life and answers then the question should be an easy one for your. Unless you deliberately were just rambling in your original response.

    Once again, take your time and enlighten yourself with the answer. or in your case, the attempt.

  • Le Tri Thanh

    Thank you John. You just miss the point. Of course, the entrepreneurship of today (MBA) or of many years ago (corporate), they are hunger for voluntary from all sources whether it is intellect, or it is manual. So, I guess that you are just professor or writer, not the real MBA, because the arrogant way you wrote:”I would not want to employ you even if you work for free.” I am a master of my own. I would take over your business with ease if your attitude is so arrogant. Believe it. Again, supply does not create demand. But, once you successfully create chaos (=demand), you will be the supplier. That is the universal law regardless old school or modern school. The virtue of kindness and integrity will reign in the end.

  • Tam St.Armand

    John, That’s an unusual one. Explain why you would value someone answering that and what answering that would mean to you? You have me wondering.

  • John

    Why is the sky blue?

    Try and answer without looking it up.

  • John

    And you completely neglect the fact that you already decided if you like the candidate in the 1st 10 seconds after you met?
    These questions are there so that the team, not group, can discuss if they find the candidate suitable. Not for you to try and justify your liking/ disliking of the candidate.
    I would not take your job offer when you select me.

  • John

    How do you know your god exists?

  • John

    What is wrong with micromanagement?
    Think, before you answer.

  • John

    But you posted on this forum and answered the question. Therefore clearly, you do what others do.
    Why are you so dishonest about this, or are you just being unintentionally ignorant? I would say that is something you do, that not all other do.

  • John

    Why would you suggest subjective experience and not objective fact?
    Maybe Jill has some falsifiable evidence for her claims. This would render your request to attend some HBS classes irrelevant and actaully a waste of time and money. And that does not even say anything about how Jill is suppose to know if the HBS content is questionable or not.

    It is clear that you are an executor, follows instructions and are not a critical/lateral thinker.
    If you can answer my question then, I may give your response some weight.

  • John

    Are you saying your grandma has the mind of an 8 year old?
    How do you extrapolate that to make a blanket statement that it applies to the general public? Are you basing it on declaring that your subjective opinion outweighs objective fact?

  • John

    Correlation does not always imply causation.
    Are you also tracking (in addition to the most successful MBA startups of the past five years):
    the most successful non-MBA startups of the past five years,
    the least successful non-MBA startups of the past five years,
    the least successful MBA startups of the past five years.

    I would read that, if you can produce it.

    Statistics are not your strong point now, if it John A Byrne?

  • John


    I think your 20 years lack of experience is shining.
    Harvard and the applicant are both the customer and supplier. This is more about an agreement where 2 entities help each other than a one sided Harvard = supplier.
    Think about this: Why would Harvard not only seek rich applicants, or not care about the pass rate or graduate employment adoption/salary post MBA?

    Asking “if college X cost 45k for 4 years and Harvard is, say 250k, and in general, you will have a similar job/career opportunity when you graduate, what’s your decision?” is only answerable if you know the future. Also, you are assuming that MBA students are only in it for the job/career. Your presupposition renders your argument fallacious.

    Your admittance that you never care where a person graduated from is because you are only looking out for yourself. That says more about your attitude and aptitude than you think.

  • John

    You wrote: “I Believe that business are run by humans and not robots.”

    WOW, so you are saying that you are not sure if there are evidence or not that robots run businesses? Do you know what the words “believe that” means?
    And then you go on and offer evidence that business are run by humans. This type of cognitive dissonance that you employ can only be stifling to you. You are clearly not a leader as you do not understand this.

  • John

    Supply does not create Demand. How ridiculous to even think so; old school thinking.
    No wonder you posit a god as an answer. God’s and the supernatural are unfalsifiable, illogical and have zero sound arguments for existence claims; belongs to antiquity.

    I would not want to employ you even if you work for free.

  • fhcgsps

    There are other ways to learn…an MBA program is a limiting point of view…if you are committed to learning, study something useful. MBAs are a dime a dozen…focus on your passion.

  • fhcgsps


  • fhcgsps

    That depends on your idea (and their idea) of presenting yourself well…it sounds like Frank has the backbone to call bull…and those who are at HBS’s door panting to get in like it’s the only key to success are the one’s trying to figure out what the “right” answer is.

  • fhcgsps

    Frank, I couldn’t agree with you more…but have you looked at what HBS turns out? How do you think we all got in this mess we’re in? The world according to WS’s quarterly numbers. Please. Of course you’re right. But HBS is a business, too…and that is their business model.

    The system is broke…very broke and the world is suffering at the hands of a minority of fools.

  • DavidMichaelRich

    I disagree with you Frank because the track you’re recommending is based on an insulting assumption that the interviewer is an idiot; someone who got some coaching from some consultant and is deploying it “as is” rather than separating the valuable from the inane and reshaping it through their own filter. There are no “beach ball” questions in the list contained in the article. Some of these are actually pretty thoughtful and provide the chance to talk about yourself, the reason you chose the school and what you want to get out of it, if you know how to make those links. People being considered for this school probably should already be smart enough to know that in making deals in which one holds no cards, it’s highly risky to piss off the one who does. So why not go about pursuing the mission you’ve outlined in a way that also makes the interviewer feel respected so you both win?

  • Le Tri Thanh

    Let go back to the very basic rule of supply and demand. If you have the talent and skills to create the demand (or the fashion of wants for flashy as in needs for necessity), then you do not need to go for MBA. Most importantly, if you are truly powerful in resources, you will be a puppet master without MBA. Therefore, what makes a distinctive difference between a lion king and the gang of hyenas is the virtue of kindness and integrity in a leadership. If you ask me what is kindness and what is integrity, my answer to you the quality in God is the answer. Powerful and manipulative manner for material gain is evil. I would prefer to follower my inner peace more than being trained to be evil with or without MBA. Back2basic

  • Chaitanya

    IMHO I find explaining things to grandma is fairly tedious; in that I need to explain the fundamentals and then move on to the real topic. While I’ve not tried explaining complex things to an 8 year old, I expect it would be similar assuming that child does have the attention span and grasping power available. If yes, it would be basics, concepts and then the main topic – much like it works with grandma.
    So not a particularly bad comparison there.

  • There was one thing that was weird during my HBS interview last year. Instead of asking questions on a wide array of topics and/or parts of my resume, they picked one line from my resume and asked 90% of questions on that one project.

    I guess this allows them to check the truthfulness of your resume… and how you react when put under pressure on one specific topic.

  • God

    only one of those is a question.

  • riya

    Really its a nice book ..but i found Finally An inspirational & Life

    changing book in this Decade-One Book for Life Success by Mr Venu


  • jujubug

    How did you make your assessment? I suggest you visit some classes there (or at any other top b-school) and see if you leave with the same opinion. Then, I may give your response some more weight. (An example of what they teach is your last sentence; of course, some people are better at executing this than others.)

  • jujubug

    This is a super fluffy representation of the kinds of questions asked. My interview experience was rather different than described here. My easiest question was “Tell me a little bit about yourself,” and every follow-up question forked from some response about my story (how I approached a problem at work, why I thought about it the way I did, how it fit into my company’s strategy, etc.) It was an analysis of how my brain worked and how my views/analyses were formed and communicated. Absolutely no part of it felt prescribed. At the end, my interviewer did ask me if there’s anything I wanted to add.

  • SUP in USA

    This is just an excellent one! Congrats!

  • John

    Well, I have applied and success on harvard. They asked me a question: if you saw an old man sitting on the floor in China, injured, what would you do and why?

  • anirban chakrabarty

    I Believe that business are run by humans and not robots. If i have to run my business by a set of algorithms then just spread sheet mentality will help. However, business are ran by human beings and is a part of society. So you have to get your products manufactured by humans, get market research by humans, do advertisements by humans, run the logistics by human, set up distribution by humans and obviously sell to you see frank, everywhere there is a HUMAN ELEMENT to a business. Leaders are those who understands this human element first and then develop spreadsheets to match such understanding ! Questions asked by HBS are perfect in the sense that it tries to understand that HUMAN and thus the LEADER within you

  • Anony

    Lol, no problem. Thanks for being cool about it 🙂 best of luck w b-school or whatver your goals are.

  • Name

    Eh, the point was more that you need to be smart enough to know how to act in certain situations. You just made your own scarecrow argument of what I said and argued against it. A little pompous.

    Like I said, the application process is a game and you have to navigate it properly to be successful. Your rant is strange and I’m sure you’re a special unique snowflake, but you need to know that there’s a time and a place. Your hypothetical response to an AdCom would be construed as disrespectful and arrogant (because it is).

    The whole point about an interview is to see whether or not you can present yourself well and represent the school well. Your hypothetical answer is too aggressive, and if that was any indication of how you’d act in the business world after b-school, it’s fairly clear that you don’t know when to shut up and follow the rules (or at least be smart enough to pretend to follow them).


  • Renault

    Yeah, all of those socialist/communist doctrines at the best business school in the world…

  • Renault

    Anyone who honestly thinks Chicago ranks above Harvard is either lying or lying to themselves.

    (You could make a case that Stanford should be #1, but no other school even comes close — not even Wharton.)

  • alan

    Funny, as a 20 year, experienced executive recruiter, I have been asking the 8 yr old question for 10 yrs. It is a good question, for many reasons.

    I like Frank, and the comments of most here..

    Maybe I missed it in these posts… Allow me another view here. Harvard, and/or any university, in in the higher education industry. Put emphasis on industry.

    The questions to ask is….what is Harvard promising you, the intended customer? In the end, the same thing all other colleges have, a piece of paper. What backs up that paper and is it worth the cost? Harvard and many others promise the name brings a great deal. Does it…. Maybe, maybe not.

    Before accepting any college acceptance letter, their final pitch to your, take a breath, and really consider things.

    If college X cost 45k for 4 years and Harvard is, say 250k, and in general, you will have a similar job/career opportunity when you graduate, what’s your decision?

    Dirty little secret in the world of executive search. Except for very few companies that use a particular college as a screening tool, I have never cared where a person graduated from. As long as the college was well rounded, and the person graduated with decent grades. Attitude and aptitude and drive and character have always been more important to companies hiring.

  • Karl

    The quality of being able to describe something in as simple form as possible is essential.

    I am not surprised these are part of the interview process. The 8 year old is a new twist as I have often heard that question as “explain it to me as if I were a four year old.” Quite a difference between an eight year old and a four year old. The 8 year old has the capability of hurt feelings, such as if they were made to feel stupid or foolish, as mentioned in the article. A four year old gives the pressure of brevity as the attention span is about 18 seconds to get to the point.
    I am reluctant to share what I think of the introspective questions. Those are all a matter of how well you play poker. The earlier response to the questions sidestepping them entirely could be effective, if you can pull it off with an apparent air of authority. It is unlikely that the interviewee will be better at poker than the interviewer, so any doubt or anxiety created by sidestepping the issue will likely be perceived. In other words if an applicant were to play that they were above the questions, they would have to be certain that they were more intelligent than the interviewer and able to be convincing.
    I don’t see any of these as trick questions, but my job is to answer all questions posed to me and not blow off someone or intentionally make them feel inferior.

  • DrMaturin

    Well there you are, shot down in flames in seconds. MBAs rule!

  • JohnAByrne

    In fact, we’re in the midst of a major project tracking the most successful MBA startups of the past five years. I can tell you that there are hundreds of them and the valuation of many of these companies is already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Our report on this will be coming out in late September-early October with the debut of a new quarterly digital magazine. Watch for it. Rather than a small post-it note, we could fill several books with those stories.

  • DrMaturin

    I’ve blundered into this discussion by accident while doing some research on US universities, but I would be fascinated to know which great businesses in any field, from behemoths and global brands to fabulous innovators and bywords for entrepreneurial behaviour, have been founded by MBAs, whether from Harvard or anywhere else.

    I don’t know the answer, but I suspect you could get the whole lot on to a very small post-it note in very large handwriting. Maybe that should be one of the unexpected questions they pose in an HBS interview.

    Happy to be proven wrong however, and have my iconoclastic prejudice confounded. Still learning every day even at my advanced age.

  • dano


  • Kathie Kinde

    Jennifer, that is so inspiring! Well done.

  • SC

    Hey, that’s super. If that works, it explains a lot about why I think business people are pompous, arrogant a$$holes.

  • Helena Eaton

    Why would you equate an 8-year old with a ‘grandmother’???

  • writerforlife

    Personally, I’d like to see some questions about the applied role of ethics in business….A lot of the high level people responsible for the global financial mess have MBAs from Harvard (and other ‘top tier’ institutions) so clearly something is missing in all this “education”.
    And how my parents would have described me at age 12 seems a bit lame…are any of us even close to who we were at 12? If so, I sure wouldn’t admit that to an interviewer!

    I think it be more useful to take a bit more time – our global economic future might be worth it – and ask some nittygritty, situational analysis questions like:

    “What would you do with several hundred million people if their countries end up partially (or fully) submerged after the ice caps melt? You’ve go about 25 years to think about – take your time….”
    Response:”I don’t know…move the factories to higher ground?”
    “Correct! You’re in!!!”

    (Tip: I think you could probably come up with the above answer WITHOUT a Harvard degree.)

  • Biplob Biswas

    That’s actually pretty ingenious, Frank.
    And if the interviewer is in his right senses, he will hear you out and you would have a pretty decent chance of making it through. At least I would like to believe that.!! 🙂

  • Frank Lee

    ..and I reply “Thank you for saving me from making an investment in mediocrity”.

  • Frank Lee

    So you’re saying that they aren’t interested in people who have a plan, have been executing it, and know what steps they want to take next? Are they looking for folks who will sit in front of them with hands on knees and perform little tricks to gain admission into the hallowed halls? Now think about how the majority of typical MBAs compare to successful people who have actually accomplished something in business – who played games and who made rules? In my humble opinion, if HBS is really skimming the cream they should be aiming a little higher than for people who play the game so they can grow up to be “yes men”.

  • rcrumjr

    Thanks Anony for clarifying for me…….

  • anony

    That sounds pretty contrived to me, similar to ‘my worst flaw is that I’m SUCH a hard worker and don’t know when to quit!!!11’

  • anony

    Nice post! You’re already thinking about things in a way most don’t. Good luck to you

  • anony

    Yes. You are misunderstanding. If it helps, read Guest’s post but then imagine they wrote [sic] after they’re. I agree, it would’ve been easier to understand if they wrote their but the general point remains the same. They were saying the original post had improper grammar

  • Jill

    Mine is easy – micromanaging. I just don’t do it. Won’t do it.

  • Jill

    I see HBS as being very similar to the US Supreme Court. It’s obviously a top of the line school, but through the years HBS has taught a lot of questionable content, or things that are just plain wrong. How will HBS prepare me to ensure I make good decisions moving forward, and don’t get caught up in the latest trend?

    I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but there are some places, like HBS, that profess to be beyond question to the point that they lack awareness of what really should be taking place. It goes to the same element as the leadership question in the article. The best leaders don’t tell people what to do, they coach them to get the most out of their own capabilities.

  • Bill

    And the interviewer responds, “Thank you for coming in.”

  • D. Evil

    Gary … what is god?

  • divya

    Really inspiring !Congrats Jennifer.

  • rcrumjr

    I disagree anony, Guest specifically said “Before you start your application, learn the proper usage of the contraction, they’re…..” Should they not have used the possessive noun “their”? “Their feet” ? No contraction needed….. They’re is the contraction for “they are” or am I missing the point or misunderstanding Guests post somehow….maybe I am……..


    There you go….what are future business leaders reading? Extra points for books that touch the “human” side, like morals and ethics so we don”t keep turning out Enron executives. Although we use machines….ALERT ALERT… we still are human and the company that is seen as humanistic will draw the best and the brightest.

  • Sundar BN

    But these are not outlandish questions tho’. Everyone that’s done any reading knows about such questions and therefore is quite well aware of the politically correct
    responses. And the “good” answers and the answers that apparently display ‘hope’,
    ‘confidence’, ‘optimism’ and even ‘self deprecation’…

    My suspicion is that, most answers will be “untruthful” in the sense that they’d’ve
    been learnt responses. Anyone that ends up at HBS for these interviews after all
    of that filtering of the applicants is quite likely to have come across many of the
    personality, psychology or whatever tests that abound in the ‘net.

    IMHO, these questions are passe. There’s not much that’s original about them.

    My suggestion would be for some one like Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang or Martin
    Sheen of the show where he’s a shrink or better still some facilitator of Transaction
    Analysis would perhaps have more things to say that’d make the applicants think at
    least for a wee while ?

    Whatever. What do I know ?!

  • anony

    That was the whole point of Guest’s comment. The original person wrote “Are they quick on they’re feet?” and Guest pointed out they need to learn grammar.

  • Name

    And then you’d immediately be dropped for sounding pretentious. 🙂

    Kidding. It’s an awesome post you made, but part of the application process is that you have to play their game, and, sweetheart, you don’t make the rules.

  • politicociba

    Another question: Do you believe in Cult power or the power of Intelligence?

  • Rav

    Congratulations Jennifer!!
    I am 51 now and your educational plan is inspiring me to go for MBA.

  • sam

    Great questions, it made me think through the answers on what I would answer and it’s very fascinating on how the interviewer can read ones mind as some one cannot be prepared for these ahead of time….i would ask atleast couple of these to my next hire…

  • John- love that last question. I think the more you find out how “human” a person is and not playing into what they “think” you are looking for the better leaders you find.

  • Jim

    These are great questions. Thank you for the food for thought

  • rcrumjr

    Actually, not only did you not use the correct contraction, but entirely the wrong word!!! Should have been Are they quick on “their” feet….

  • Lucy Mbanefo

    The questions are good. I think the questions are trying to determine the stuff the candidate is made of.
    1) whether he possesses what it takes to make it in HBS,
    2) whether he posseses what it will take HBS to make him one of their own or a product HBS will be proud to call their own.

  • Manoj Sharma

    What others do, I don’t do. So incomparable. This is an answer to * What’s the one thing you’ll never be as good as others?*

  • goblin

    If you would lose your belief in God by listening to something or someone , then maybe the problem lies elsewhere ….

  • Kathie Kinde

    Thanks for the support, Keisha!

  • Kathie Kinde

    Thanks, Kim! I wish you the best of luck!

  • Kathie Kinde

    That’s a great question, Renault. I’m very much about the ROI of this transaction and believe me, I’ve thought about it. Essentially, I have worked my way through the ranks to become a Regional Director. I see the undergrad as protection to be able to replace that job should the worst happen. I plan on doing the first 2 years at the community college to minimize costs. The MBA gets me to the next level, which is the “C” suite. If I finish the undergrad and find that it doesn’t help me make that leap, I won’t do it. As of this moment though, I think it will be necessary.

  • Esben Loenfeldt

    Thank you Frank.

  • Gary Huff

    I would not go to Harvard even if they paid my tuition, room and board. I do not want money so badly that I would risk my Southern values and belief in God by listening to the socialist/communist doctrines that permiate even the air you breathe at Harvard and several other eastern universities.

  • Dulce

    I believe the parent question doesn’t count (2 redundant questions make 1)

  • Anon

    7 + 2 + 2 is 11, not 10…

  • Mauro Rocha

    Very interesting and catchy questions. Good to shake your head and shape your thoughts

  • Lina Zacharopoulos

    I love the questions John. I have seen some variations of from of them in my life, and also have used some of them in volunteer recruitment practices . I particularly enjoyed the two pieces of advisement question, as I believe it also taps into the ability to consult and collaborate as well, a leader does need to consult and collaborate as well, and is not in solo operation. A variation on the decision-making question would be a question on thought processes in problem-solving…. Another, which I often use in non-related recruitment practices, although I didn’t develop this question, and give credit to a colleague for this one, are those often, unique “nicknames” we are given as children or throughout our lives, which also say a lot such as how we are perceived playfully by the people around us, but also the people we affiliate with or the type of environment we have been surrounded by, sometimes they can be negative as well, but this shapes people as well and their life strategies. Thank you for the food for thought…Happy Friday, and a wonderful weekend to all……

  • John

    Or we can take into consideration the pool of applicants and realize there is a reason for these off beat questions.

  • Ali Moroane

    Super comment Frank.

  • Kim

    Thank you for this inspiring post Kathie! I’m also looking forward to pursuing my MBA in my 40’s.

  • Guest

    Before you start your application, learn the proper usage of the contraction, they’re, for example, Are they quick on they’re feet?

  • Keisha

    Best of luck to you Kathie!

  • JohnAByrne

    Congratulations, Jennifer. Well done!

  • Jennifer

    I am 54 years old, I just got a Bachelors in Business Administration, I took 18 credit hours my last term in college and had a 3.72 GPA, hopefully Im will in a year have my MBA! What will I get out of it? The opportunity to learn, to network with future leaders and the ability to look you in the eye and say…I did it!

  • Roy

    I don’t even think those are though questions

  • dimo7

    round – sorry

  • dimo7

    Google interview question is best of all………….
    “why are manhole covers rounds”
    genius type creative and math type get it right away. The rest guess dumb azz answers.
    a great question really

  • Karthik

    Yes perhaps these are the kind of questions that can actually bring out your true color..thanks for the information

  • Robert Hoover

    Bullshit with a capital B

  • JohnAByrne

    Frank, I agree. Truth is, these are the trickiest questions an HBS applicant might get. No applicant would get them all and in most cases they would get one or two after a number of fairly routine questions like “Take me through your resume.”

  • JohnAByrne

    Now that would be a tough question. I’m not sure I could name the last ten books I’m read. There is one ‘book’ question that is commonly employed and it’s phrased in a rather friendly way: “Do you read for fun? What was the last book you read?”

  • SimD

    A few thoughts. First, self-awareness implies others see you as you see yourself (Yammarino et al., 1993). The questions such as what is one thing you should be doing or what your parents would describe you as are really measuring impression management skills and ability to create a positive self-presentation (Hogan & Shelton, 1998). These are not one in the same as self-awareness, which requires observer data speaking to how this person actually acts in real life compared to how they think they act. Second, over 100 years of research on employee interviewing suggest unstructured questions such as “what is the one thing you would like me to remember about you,” what do you want to be remembered by,” and “what’s the one thing you’ll never be as good as others” would be very poor predictors of how well someone will perform in a business or occupational setting (Campion, 1997). This is because they lack reliability, a clear distinction between good and poor answers, and fail to identify any past actions which reflect applicant’s competence as a business leader. The other questions – how do you make decisions, provide an example of a time you led someone, and explain a concept in simple terms – all are more relevant because they assess skills and behaviors, both of which are easier to rate and are better predictors of future performance. Three, why do we still use unstructured interviews and tell me about you questions? It’s because they feel more natural and humans have a stubborn reliance on their own intuition (Highhouse, 2008). We like to just talk to people and, ironically, are not self-aware of our own limited abilities to read deep into a person’s character based upon a few poorly chosen questions. If you actually want to hire better candidates, however, it is recommended they be as behaviorally based as possible (i.e., tell me about a time you did this or did that).

  • Frank Lee

    If the interviewer starts asking these questions, the right answer is …”Listen, I’ll just pass on these questions. We both know you are asking them because they are the latest version of ‘clever off-beat questions that will give you remarkable insight about the candidate you are interviewing’. Remember how last year you were asking about how many planes are in the air at once and how many beach balls would it take to fill this room? And of course, after you ask your questions and hear the answers you still have no insight about the person you just interviewed – not in the least because the interviewee also knows the latest interview technique and has prepared answers for you. Beyond that, you don’t really have any interpretation for the answers beyond the fuzzy guidance that came with these questions from whatever interviewing expert you got them from. So, of the remaining 25 minutes, I’ll take 15 minutes to tell you what I’ve done to get to this point in my life and career, what I expect to get from HBS, and what goals I am working toward. Then you will have 10 minutes to tell me whether and how HBS will empower me to achieve these goals.

  • Joe Schmoe

    I won’t. I’m not applying to harvard

  • James Dunlap

    I see why we are in trouble now. Harvard thinks these are tough questions? Try this question Harvard: Name the last 10 books you read and which one made the most impression on you and why.

  • Renault

    You should seriously rethink the MBA. What do you think you’ll actually get out of it?

    Why are you thinking about unnecessary grad school when you don’t even have an undergrad degree yet?

  • Waqas Javed



  • Andreas Freund

    7 out of 10 great questions, 2 redundant questions (what you will never be good at and the parent question) and 2 bad ones (leadership and what do you want to be remembered as) – that is a pretty good score! The leadership question does not get at the real question of what kind of leader could you be … give a real case study … the Russian flag ship is running the blockade of Cuba, what do you do? and once you give the answer you have you have half of the advisors agree and the others disagree, what now? Also helps to figure out how people make decisions. The “remembered as” question tests humility but a lot of great leaders were not exactly humble, so … how does that help you? Better one would be to ask a choice question … based on this interview, would you fire me as an interviewer and if yes, why? Much more relevant question (obviously, the interviewer needs to be a bit mean at times) … shows if someone can stand being near a fire and not shrink away. Just my 2 cents!

  • mea loebsac

    What is one thing I’d never have guessed about you, even after reading your application?

    That I have an enormous Loebsac.

  • KSL

    I don’t feel they are in anyway set up to “trip” up a candidate or catch them off guard. You’re applying to Harvard Business School for goodness sake. If you’re thinking about applying to this establishment, you should be more than perfectly open and capable to answer just about any question. These examples are queries to enable the administrator to get a better sense of who the candidate is. Are they quick on they’re feet? Can they think for themselves? Are they aware of themselves? Are they personable? Do we want them part of the Harvard team? I think they’re perfectly acceptable. I hope to someday be asked a series of these questions from the staff of Harvard MBA admissions! Followed by a “yes, you’re IN”.

  • Kathie Kinde

    I am an adult learner in my 40’s who is about to about to embark upon tackling my undergraduate degree. I am hopeful to have the opportunity to pursue an MBA upon its completion. I found these questions very helpful as I walk down that path, but also for personal reflection. I may work these into interview questions for future candidates on my team. Great article!

  • These are great questions. They have depth, prompt reflection, and are open-ended (which allows people to reveal themselves) yet specific (so the interviewee has a place to start).

  • Tam St.Armand

    I thought they were excellent questions and to be truthful they actually got me thinking about my own life and answers (and I’m a CEO). Good stuff. Keep it coming.

  • J. Steven Sprenger

    These are brillant questions that drill into the most important questions I would ask a potential candidate to join my team.

  • hbsguru

    Thanks John, helpful, as is the guide. But, ahem, your story, by focusing on outlier questions, may give applicants the wrong mindset about the HBS interview, the most common reason that people screw up the interview, AND THEY DO, is that cannot clearly answer easy questions, like walk me thru your resume, or explain to me what you do at your job, or what are the challenges facing your company.

    One type of experience I have, after having done over 600-800 Mock HBS interviews, that all those HBS students do not have (in 99% of cases) is talking to hundreds of people WHO HAVE SCREWED UP THE INTERVIEW AND GOTTEN DINGED AND HAD THAT SCREW UP CONFIRMED BY DEE LEOPOLD IN SOME QUICK FEEDBACK.

    Those people have taken me thru the entire interview and we have plotted how things went wrong, and what questions got them on the wrong foot. In most cases, trouble happens early. By the time the adcom gets to the zingers like you report (if they ever do), the fate of the candidate is often a done deal. Like Blind Dating, a good many HBS interviews really are ‘over’ in 6 minutes-10 minutes, if not sooner, although you both Zombie it out for the full 30.


    and my own interview in Poets and Quants

    How NOT To Blow Your HBS Interview (Post)

  • JohnAByrne

    We want you to contribute to the discussion. How would you answer these questions? Do you think they’re especially good? Or just a way to trip up a candidate?