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.
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.