How does an applicant prep for one of these interviews?
You should know what the standard questions are. About 90% of the questions are, ‘Take me through every line of your resume.’ They say, ‘Why did you go there?’ They are obsessed with transitions. ‘What did you accomplish? How did you accomplish it? How would you do it differently?’
You also should be prepared to discuss how the economic downturn has affected you and your industry.
And then, there are frequent flyer questions like, ‘What did you think of the application? Have you attended an HBS class?’ That is an important question. Your answer should be truthful. If you haven’t, you should say so but add that you have seen a video of a class on the Harvard website. And then you should be able to do a song and dance on what you thought of a class. The big mistake is to say, ‘I went to UVA (University of Virginia) and I’ve had case study classes so it’s not going to be a problem for me. Harvard is looking for case method virgins. They want you not to have been to the big city. They want you to say, ‘Golly, holy smokes, the class was a mind blow. I was really impressed with the energy and with how the case study helped students bring to bear their different experiences and backgrounds in the class discussion.’ The wise guy UVA answer by inference says, ‘I have done this before and it won’t be a problem for me and I can give a better answer than the guy next to me when the time comes.’ That answer becomes the first drop of poison in the cup. If you keep answering that way, you are toast. Goodbye.
Another mistake people make is they think they have to deliver their whole package. They already have your package. Some people come out and say, ‘We never talked about my plans for health care reform.’ They don’t care. A large part of a Harvard interview, like 40%, can be your college experiences and internships and some jive about clubs you will join at HBS.
What’s your best advice on the famous closing question of many interviews, “Do you have any questions for me?”
The way you can kill yourself at the end is when you’re asked do you have a question for me? Basically, the interview is over, your grade has already been faxed in. They are just trying to get you out the door. But you can screw this up at the last minute. You can pick an argument. You can say, ‘Do you really think you can teach finance through the case method?’ That is an awful question to ask because you are calling their baby ugly. They believe you can learn anything through the case method. So you don’t want to get into a debate over it. A better answer is real light. If you’re from another part of the country, you might say, ‘I’ve never experienced a New England winter. Have you got any tips?’ One of the best questions would be, ‘How hard would it be for me to organize a forum around one of my passionate interests?’ They’d love that one. If the chemistry was right between you and the interviewer, you might even ask if they could recommend an Indian restaurant in Harvard Square.
What are the basic differences between interviews at Harvard vs. Stanford, or Wharton?
One big difference between Harvard and the other two is that the Stanford and Wharton interviews are run off your resume. At Harvard, they have your entire folder. That’s because admissions staff does most of the Harvard interviews. Stanford and Wharton don’t have the essays, for example.
Alumni do up to 90% of the interviews at Stanford and it’s well known that the interview is more of a marketing device to get alumni involved. You have to do something really dramatic to commit suicide in a Stanford interview.
Sandy, what’s the best kind of interviewer an applicant can have?
If you can help it, you’ll always be better off with an interviewer with a lot of experience because they are less likely to make oddball judgments. You want a normative interviewer, someone who knows the standards and who has been through it a million times. Alumni often have a chip on their shoulders. They may have issues with the school that can get projected in the interview. They may want to use you to deliver a message to the school, or they could have a prejudice against people who are in Teach For America or other non-profits. That happens a lot. And some alumni interviews can go on for more than an hour. They’re just so much more unpredictable.
You’re obviously doing a good number of mock interviews right now. What most bothers you about the whole process?
What upsets me is people who are good people but who have a bad hair day. The call I fear is from the person crying on Amtrak. They had their interview at HBS. They are on their way home on the train to New York, and they call in tears because they think they have blown their interview. If you think you’ve blown your interview at Harvard, you probably have blown it. Those are real sad calls, especially if you like the person, and they rehearse how they lost a step, then another and then tripped. If you could have prevented the first lost step, they would be in at Harvard. That happens, man, trust me. That happens. Years of work and hours of preparation and poof, it’s gone, because they could not explain why they went to Cornell for college in 30 concise seconds.
For more admissions advice from Sandy Kreisberg, also see “The World, According to Sandy.”