The Gatekeeper to Harvard Business School

Is there a scoring sheet for the interview?

It’s really rough and the numbers aren’t determinative. They are meant to be guidelines. A superb, off-the-charts person in an interview may not get admitted because at the end of the day the interview isn’t meant to be the lightening round where how you perform in 30 minutes determines your fate. It’s not, you’re in or you’re out. You might say this person is a star in the interview but we have a lot of people with similar backgrounds who did well and we just can’t take them all. So the shaping of the class can become more of a driving factor than the evaluation.

There is a senior team of people here who decide who goes out to interview and then the write-ups come back to them for another round of review so they have a feedback loop, and then everything comes to me. We have meetings every so often to discuss some of them.

What role do recommendations play in the process?

Everybody worries a lot about the recommendations. We require three of them. Who should write them? People who know you well enough to answer the questions which are ‘describe this person, what is the most constructive piece of feedback you’ve given the candidate and how well did they respond.’

A lot of people think that they need to have someone famous or have an HBS alum be a recommender. Is that true?

No. We also have people who try to get current HBS students to write on their behalf. I have a pretty standard response to that. I say ‘I’m so glad our students want the very best people to be here, but it’s really important to me that people are not advantaged in our process by being fortunate enough to have HBS students as friends and colleagues.’ It is a level playing field, and we are trying to make the field as level as possible.

What’s the hardest part about shaping a class and getting the makeup and social dynamic to be just so?

We have lots of piles all over the place. There is no formula. It’s funny that we talk about the mosaic of diversity and so many people focus on some of the stuff that I would call (easily visible and measurable) diversity like gender, race, and nationality. The next level would be where you worked for a few years. That’s where I think people get stuck in the quick sand. When applicants think about what they are when they apply to business school, they say, ‘I am an engineer.’ ‘I am a consultant.’ But I can line up six people from the same private equity (PE) firm that are applying and I can find more elements to differentiate them than similarities to unite them.

They will come into the class—and they will say ‘Oh, I am from firm PE’ and wear a sweatshirt with the firm’s name on their chest. But I will know that one of them grew up in rural Arkansas in a single parent household and paid his own way through Michigan State. And the other might have had been an entrepreneur in college. Those levels of diversity–your background, the hardwiring of how you lead people—are what matter. I go on the road and say until I am blue in the face that ‘How you’re hardwired to lead in a school that is training leaders to make a difference in the world is the most exciting level of diversity in the classroom.’

You take someone who has always wanted to be student class president or someone who wants to work up to be the CEO of a Fortune 50 company and has incredible patience and skill for hierarchy. And you put them in a case discussion with an entrepreneur who has no interest in that sort of life. And then you put in another person who might be someone who can get a small team of fractious people who are jealous and fighting and get them to perfectly row in crew, and pull their oars at the same time, and then get someone who quite honestly might not be the person you would think is a leader but who has this track record of presenting in a way that can change a discussion. You mix those people together in a class and that’s the most exciting diversity you could ever get. When you see that in an application process, you say, ‘I want him in the class or I want her in the class.’

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