How NOT To Blow Your HBS Interview

Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBSGuru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting

More than a thousand MBA applicants to Harvard Business School will receive email invitations tomorrow (Jan. 31) for their admissions interviews, the final step before a candidate can win admission to the prestige school.

Round two applicants who fail to get an email shouldn’t completely despair. The school also will send out additional invites on the following two Tuesdays, Feb. 7 and Feb. 14. On that final Feb. 14th date, candidates who fail to be invited to interview will be notified of their “release,” the school’s euphemistic way of rejecting an applicant. The interviews will be conducted between Feb. 15 and March 9, according to “Dee” Leopold, director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard.

During the first application round, Harvard sent out 855 invitations to applicants to interview. The bulk of them went out on the first day of notification when 750 candidates received notice from HBS. On the second day, only 80 additional applicants were invited to interview. On the final day, even fewer had good news: 25 candidates. “Round 2 won’t be identical, but I think it will be directionally similar,” said Leopold in a recent blog post on her director’s blog.

If you’re one of the more than 1,000 round-two applicants who win an interview opportunity, you’re bound to be jumping for joy. But in all probability, you’re also filled with anxiety over the final hurdle you have to overcome before getting into Harvard.

The big question now: How do you not screw up your interview?

For some smart, tell-it-like-it-is counsel, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting. The highly opinionated Kreisberg has been advising applicants to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other elite B-schools for some 15 years. During the 2009-2010 application season, Kreisberg conducted mock interviews with more than 100 applicants to Harvard alone, a service he offers for $300. (For details, see his website.)

Obviously, if you made it to this stage in round one, it’s a big deal. The interview is the only thing separating you from a seat in the class, right?

Yes, but it’s like being born. It’s a special passage where awful things can happen. Tremendous damage can occur in a very short period of time. You should worry about it, and you should prepare for it.

What have you picked up so far in your coaching of applicants who are prepping for these interviews?

The real news this year is that Stanford and Wharton are trending toward behavioral questions versus the more typical ones like ‘why Wharton, why now, why do you want an MBA.’ Of course, it would still help to prepare for those questions as well. But if you are being interviewed by Stanford or Wharton, you should Google behavioral interviews and you’ll get some bad advice about how to answer those questions but at least it will help you get some standard questions. They’re asking people things like, ‘Tell me about a time you worked on a great team, or a bad team, or worked with a great leader. Tell me when you disappointed yourself and what would you do differently if you had to do it again. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a person and how you resolved it. Tell me about a time you dealt with an ethical issue.’ For some reason, Stanford and Wharton seem to be tilting toward those questions this year.

Sandy, what’s the most common misperception about these interviews?

Some think this is like an audition for a symphony orchestra where the conductor is choosing one violinist out of ten and you have to be .001 better than nine other people. It’s not that. It’s more like an audition for a marching band. You just have to be able to bang a drum in terms of talent and not appear to be arrogant, inward, unsure of yourself, or confused.

At Harvard, that means if they interview ten people, they will reject one with marginal English right out of the box. If you can’t speak English, you’re done. You won’t be able to survive. Then, of the remaining nine English speakers, one to two people might have a meltdown of some kind. They have a bad hair day or a bad tongue day. So the way that smart people blow the Harvard interview is to have a bad half hour.