Lessons From My Booth, HBS & GSB Interviews

At 3:00 one morning about a month after I had submitted my MBA applications, my phone buzzed with an incoming email. Knowing that this was one of the three days that HBS was sending out interview offers, I was up in an instant.

“After careful consideration of your application materials, we would like to get to know you better. This is our invitation to interview. Take a moment and exhale. Then keep reading…”

My first interview invitation. The months of essay writing might pay off! Even at such an early hour, I immediately began planning. I had four weeks to get ready and I hadn’t had a job interview since my summer internship in 2009; where do I even begin?

As I began preparing, I found that interview experiences can vary significantly from one school to the next, or even within the same school. For example, Harvard’s interviewers tend to come prepared with a full knowledge of your application, whereas the interviewers at both Stanford and Booth only see your resume. In addition, the location and the background of the interviewers are different, Stanford’s interviews are conducted around the world by alumni, whereas for Harvard and Booth, the interviews may be completed on campus or via Skype.

In carrying out my general preparation, I took a fairly typical approach; I refreshed my memory on stories covering a range of accomplishments and failures, developed clear short and long term post-MBA goals, and researched ways by which I could bring my unique skills and background to the class.  Each school has its nuances, so I developed an understanding of these to give myself an edge with my preparation.

I thought it would be worth sharing my own business school interview experiences.

Booth: A Gentle Start to my Interviews

My Booth interview was first up, and as expected, I was a little nervous but excited to get the first one behind me.

The preparation: Given that the Booth interview was to be conducted by a second-year student, I surmised that they would likely stick to the script and be more relaxed than an admissions committee member. Online transcripts from previous applicants mostly supported this assumption (I recommend incorporating the available transcripts into your interview preparation). My preparation for Booth was limited to a bit of general interview preparation, and supplemented with research on the specific courses, clubs and resources that they offer. Historically a finance school, I read that Booth seeks to be seen more as a school for entrepreneurs and so I chose incorporate mention of their entrepreneurial offerings into my answers.

The interview: Before my on-campus interview, I had the opportunity to explore and interact with current students, and then incorporate these interactions into the interview. As I live in Australia, the opportunity to get settled made me glad that I chose to interview on campus. Furthermore, it provided me with an understanding of the local culture, which I used to explain why I would fit in well at Booth. The interview was conversational and was a gentle induction to the interview process. In 45 minutes, we covered most of what I’d prepared for and I was even asked whether there was a question that hadn’t been asked which I wanted to answer. I had plenty of time to ask questions at the end and I used the opportunity to find some common ground with my interviewer and learn about her own experiences as a Booth student.

The takeaways: The Booth interview was predictable and relaxed – as an expected result of the interview being conducted by a current student. Had I not visited campus, I would have struggled to speak convincingly about the culture and how I saw myself fitting in. Each of the business schools present a manicured version of themselves online and the only true way to get a feel for the culture is to get in there and experience it yourself.

If you are unable to get to campus before your interviews, look for opportunities to interact with current students online, or reach out to alumni in your home city. Not only will it demonstrate that you’ve done your due diligence on the university, but also it will provide an impression on whether this is a school at which you see yourself spending a transformative two years of your life.

Harvard: A Lesson in the Unexpected

Harvard’s reputation for tough interviews preceded even the invitation to interview. As I was researching the school while developing my application, mentions of their high pressure, rapid fire questioning style could be found in many articles. Naturally I was anxious about my interview. That anxiety motivated me to spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing for Harvard, much more so than for each of the other two schools.

The preparation: I reviewed online transcripts from other applicant’s HBS interviews and what struck me the most was the sheer number of questions that they seemed to be able cram into 30 minutes. One transcript had close to twenty questions. The second thing that caught my attention was Harvard’s tendency to ask a couple of philosophical questions. What is the most overrated management skill? How do you lead? As such, in addition to completing some general preparation, I spent a couple of days going through my application and asking myself “why” for everything: Why did I study that? Why did I get involved in that activity? I also spent some time practicing on some of the interview questions that were unique to HBS transcripts: What would I change if I were in charge at my company? Which leaders to I admire and why? This preparation was designed to get me thinking a bit more widely than my own candidacy.

The interview: I interviewed on campus in a late afternoon time slot and I split the rest of my time that day between a class visit (an operations and strategy class with Uber as the case study), and a tour of the campus. Meeting my interviewer at a waiting area in Dillon House, I was a little apprehensive. After we traversed the stairs to the interview room, she proceeded to ask me questions, and I readied myself for the onslaught. It never came. The interview was conversational and slow paced. It touched on a few parts of my application which my interviewer wanted to learn a bit more about, and we spoke at length about my longer-term goals (something that only got minimal coverage in the written application). I was asked to provide an opinion on the business model of the company at which I work, but all in all the whole affair was quite relaxed.

After my interview, I spoke to two others who had interviewed that day and each had a similar story to tell: that they went in expecting a very stressful interview, but their interview ended up being more conversational. Given that three people is an extremely small sample size, I’ll stop short of making any suggestion of what this might mean for future interviewees, but let it be known that HBS might surprise you.

The takeaways: Like many prospective MBA students, I dedicated a large amount of time to preparing for my HBS interview – and being prepared is key to maintaining your cool in a high-pressure situation (even if the interview wasn’t quite as high-pressure as expected). However, I didn’t expect questions like “walk me through your resume” – after all, this was the one interviewer who was supposed to have read whole application. Remember though, my interview occurred late in the day after my interviewer might have interviewed ten other candidates, so it’s not unreasonable that she might need a quick refresher.

If this question is asked in any interview, it will set the tone for the entire interview so I suggest you pick three things that you want to talk more about and explain the why behind them. I spoke about why I chose to study engineering, why I chose to move into oil and gas, and why I chose to start an LGBT+ network at my company. As expected, the next question spring boarded off my comments and the conversation just flowed from there.