How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

So Harvard and other schools are looking for succinct and clear answers, not meandering detours for answers. Makes sense to me.

The answers need to be specific, crisp, and articulate. They want to see you draw a straight line from one end of the canvas to another. The way you mess up a question is to draw an squiggly line across the canvas. You need pop-up answers. Why I took this job? What my best accomplishment on this job was? What the culture of the firm, was and why I took my next job and how I would improve the job looking backwards. The correct answer to the Cornell question is, ‘I lived in New York and wanted to get away from home yet not leave the East Coast. I was interested in liberal arts and not certain at the time what my major goals were. My high school guidance counselor and friends who went there suggested I look at Cornell. On my campus visit, I was excited by the enthusiasm of the students, and I immediately felt that it was a place where I could feel at home. Looking through the course catalog, I got really excited.’

The quickest way to get rejected is to answer with a ‘duh’ because you’re surprised at how simple the question is. A lot of people are thrown by this question. Kids who went to Harvard College are asked why they chose Harvard and often have to watch themselves from saying, ‘duh!’

There’s got to be more to it than that. I imagine that Harvard and other schools are looking for certain answers.

Aside from getting lost, the second way smart people flunk an interview is by being a super jerk. Super jerks come in all types: there is the Bain/McKinsey super jerk, the Goldman super jerk, and the Teach for America and World Bank super jerk, and most recently, the Google super jerk. Almost any Bain Capital or TPG guy dinged by HBS has flunked the interview on the jerk meter.

Non-HBS types come in all varieties. About 20% of the Harvard admissions committee members dislike  investment bankers and private equity people. They are just looking for you to say something that is not politically correct. If you tell Harvard you are interested in opportunistic investments in distressed debts because you can make a killing, or even any nice version of that, you have just committed suicide. Instead, they want to hear you say you are interested in investing in companies that can really make a difference. ‘My greatest transaction was in supporting an orphan drug company that created a drug to help people with a rare type of diabetes.’ Or that you found a creative way to help finance a social enterprise in rural India to provide clean drinking water to people.’

It’s hard to believe they’ll fall for that, but I get the double bottom line emphasis, given all the accusations about greed. How should an applicant dress for the interview?

There are two mistakes you can make here. One of them is making a statement with what you wear. If you are a banker, don’t show up looking like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. You shouldn’t be on campus wearing a white collar on a blue shirt or a pair of gold cufflinks. Definitely no suspenders. You are not getting credit for suspenders when you are 24-years-old. The shoes should not scream ‘these are $1,000 shoes!’ The other mistake is more rare. Some techies often show up from work wearing chinos. You don’t need to wear a suit; you can wear a blazer, but dress in a way that shows you are taking this event seriously. For women, you should be a cross between Hilary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Don’t make a statement in terms of accessories. Go light on the bling.

Are there different rules for an interview at Stanford where it’s generally more laidback?

You may be able to wear jeans to a Stanford interview if it’s pre-arranged in the back and forth with the alum who will interview you. Because alumni generally do the interviews, they sometimes set it up at Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, ‘Is this Saturday dress or business casual?’ If the guy is nice, he’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll be wearing jeans.’ But you could have one in a Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, ‘I’ll be wearing Saturday casual and the guy might say sure. But I wouldn’t do it unannounced.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.