How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

There is new part to the interview process this year, the reflection essay, 400 words, which you need to write and submit within 24 hours of the interview? What do you think that will be like?

It’s like a pain but it does not mean much. It’s like doing all the prep and anxiety for a colonoscopy, and then having the colonoscopy, and then having the doctor tell you at the end, “OK, the colonoscopy is over, but instead of being relieved, and returning to your normal bowel habits, we’d like you to drink this pitcher of beer and not pee for 24 hours– yes, that is right, there is one more annoyance here before we are rid of you.”

And Dee Leopold is selling this annoyance as allowing the applicant to “have the last word.” I giggle. Also, I think they misjudged greatly the logistics of that 24-hour rule. A lot of applicants, especially outside the U.S., squeeze in the HBS interview by taking a day or two off from work and travelling to campus for it. So instead of hurrying back to work, they now have to find time to do that essay. Really annoying and silly, quite frankly.

Well, that’s what they will be required to do when they are in the real work world. You use the Wifi in the airport or you hop on a plane and get stuff done. In any case, how important do you think this essay will ultimately be in the decision to admit or deny?

They have already downgraded this exercise on Dee’s Director’s Blog as not really being an essay but more of an email. They don’t want it overwrought. They want it to be informal. Great, so now spend hours doing that. The prompt is sort of, “Is there anything else you’d like to say to help us get to know you?”

Beyond that, as a matter of substance, if you blew the interview, by talking too much, getting confused, or being obnoxious, writing an email saying what you meant to say, or apologizing, is not going to remove the stake from your heart. You are dead and will remain dead.

Dead men writing emails. Great. Most people, and I have read several of these essays from 2+2 kids this summer, just say something like,  “Thanks, it was great talking to you about 1, 2 and 3, which are important to me, I also do A and B which did not come up, but are also important to me, and I am still really gung-ho about coming to HBS.”

Yes, and they stay up for 24 hours composing that little ditty. My guess is, not one of these “reflections” is going to make a difference, and they will barely be read. It does answer a common question, however, should you send a post-interview thank-you note? Well, the answer to that was always no, but now it is easier. You can turn some part of this reflection into a nominal thank-you note.

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.

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.

And what does a bad half hour look like?

The most common way that smart people blow a Harvard interview is to get lost. Talking too much. Digressing. Getting lost in the weeds. That is the most common mistake. It outweighs every other mistake. You’re asked a simple question like, ‘Why did you go to Cornell for your undergraduate degree?’ And you begin with a history of Cornell and tell the admissions person all about your family. You’re eight minutes into it and you haven’t yet answered the question. It is one of those moments where you hear yourself speaking and you cannot believe you are saying this. You just generally come off as inarticulate and struggling.

In terms of intellectual preparation, you just have to make sure you don’t get lost. Go through your resume and for every job and transition in your life be prepared to crisply explain why you did it, and your stories and explain why you did it, what it was like, what you learned, and how you would do it differently. Be able to talk about every job in 40 seconds. Don’t feel the need for completeness. If they are interested, they will ask a follow-up question.