How NOT To Mess Up Your HBS Interview

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.

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 bad version of their type. Bad versions  come in all iso-dopes as I call them: there is the Bain/McKinsey iso-dope,  the Goldman iso-dope, and the Teach for America and World Bank iso-dope,  and most recently, the Google iso-dope.  Almost any Bain Capital or TPG guy dinged by HBS has flunked the interview on the jerk meter.

HOW COME?

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.

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.