Toughest Questions HBS Asks Applicants

by John A. Byrne on

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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  • John

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

  • John

    How do you know your god exists?

  • 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

    Why is the sky blue?

    Try and answer without looking it up.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jill

    My god says your God doesn’t exist.

  • 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!

  • Arya

    loved this too!

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