Confessions of an MBA Recruiter

It’s all in the resume formatting.

Harvard Business School forces its students into a standard resume format, so after paging through a few they start to blur fast. On the other hand, it is a simple and elegant style, which has now become the standard by which I judge all resumes. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business allows variety in their students’ resumes, so a sheaf of them contains myriad fonts, italics, bold, and size variety. It’s easy to let this metaphor inform all discussions of HBS and Stanford MBAs. The distinctions that it points to are subtle and stereotypical at the same time. They are also largely true.

Both HBS and Stanford have tremendously welcoming and helpful Career Services departments and at both schools I’ve met many smart, interesting, ambitious students. It’s worth noting that the MBAs I meet are a very small sliver, focused on large-fund investing; they are already a self-selected group, quite homogenous in their general background and approach. They are the MBAs from central casting, the finance-oriented, nakedly ambitious students who are certain they’ll be multi-millionaires by 35 and billionaires by 50. There are, in truth, more similarities between MBA recruits at Stanford and Harvard than there are differences.


But there are differences, albeit nuanced ones. Are they as superficial as the choice of a font on a resume, or do they represent a more fundamental distinction? I’m inclined to lean towards the latter, but I confess I’m not totally sure. The HBS students I’ve met have always been timely, eager, ambitious. Sometimes, but not always, they arrive in business attire, even for an informal conversation over coffee. They press the school’s generic “MBA student” business cards into my hand and sit down, well-versed in their ‘story’ and often incredibly clear and specific about what they want for a job after graduation.

The Stanford students are more likely to amble in wearing jeans and a messenger bag slung across their chest, and I don’t think I’ve ever been handed a card.  That they are more relaxed in general is a massive stereotype but also one that has been borne out in my experience.  Perhaps because of this relaxed nature, I always feel like I’m selling the Stanford students right from the beginning; I’m trying to woo them as much as they are trying to impress me. This is not true with the HBS students, who are often tripping over themselves to delineate four good reasons – and oh the research they have demonstrably done – why my brand-name firm is a perfect match for them.

I am the first screen in my firm’s process (albeit a tight one, given that I pass fewer than 50% of people through) and I leave the testing of quantitative ability or technical acumen to my peers in later interviews. I tend to ask questions about a person’s interests, broadly speaking, and am impressed with candidates who can describe a rich set of passions. My least favorite question is “what is your greatest weakness?” because I’ve never met a candidate who didn’t answer with a weakness-that-is-actually-a-strength such as “I push myself too hard” or “I am a perfectionist who doesn’t stop until it’s finished.”


I’m testing for that ineffable quality known as “fit” which is both the hardest-to-articulate dimension on which we evaluate potential hires and the most important. The eagerness of the HBSers impresses, as does the genuine confidence evinced by the Stanford students’ more laid-back attitude. I think often of the joke I’ve heard about Stanford students being like ducks: paddling madly underneath where you can’t see, while remaining serene to the naked eye. The HBS students let you see the paddling, which is in some ways heartening, in others off-putting.

If you can get past the posing that is sometimes a shield for fear, and if you can connect enough with a person to get them really talking about what their interests and desires are, interviews can be fascinating.  You can learn a lot about a person in half an hour, though I also agree with the adage that most of your impression is formed in the first three minutes. There is the firmness of the handshake, the authenticity of warmth in the eyes, the intangible sense of a person’s confidence and charisma.

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