How NOT To Mess Up Your HBS Interview

1. THEORY: The absolute  thing you want to avoid in an HBS interview is  unpredictability, since that can lead to a bad flare of some kind–to wit, some 6 minute patch of odd questions, or one odd question which you flub, and then that unbalances you, which can turn what should have been an otherwise OK interview into one which is NOT OK. If you interview on campus, you are almost certain of getting an adcom interviewer, and the chances of an oddball question, or oddball approach to the interview are much, much less. At Hub cities, HBS sometimes uses alums  (New York, for instance) or Case Writers from Research Centers (Palo Alto). There is some marginally higher  chance that an alum or case writer is going to go ‘oddball’ on you than an adcom.

For example, some alum interviews have begun by saying, “I’ve already read your app, tell me 3 defining moments in your life . . .” or some BIG, BOLD question like that.  That is less likely to happen on campus, and in my mind, in context, it is an unfair question, since MOST other applicants get blah,blah questions like

‘How do you like your current job?’ as the first question. (It is no defense, by the way,  by the adcom, to say that once you get to HBS, the  ‘case method’ can rattle you blah, blah, so the question is fair.  It is unfair to the degree that other interviewed kids don’t get tested in that fashion, and instead, cruise thru stuff like, ‘What was your favorite course in college?’)

My point here is that you want to avoid interviewers who have a propensity to ask potentially “destabalizing” and, ahem, ‘interesting” questions.

Remember, the whole point about the interview is NOT TO BLOW IT.  And a stressful question right out of th box can be destabalizing.

There used to be a question, ‘If you were starting a business in the x space, what information would you want to know?’ Is that a ‘fair’ question, hmmmm, not to me, because it can be too easily destablizing and most other candidates don’t get asked questions like that. Sure you might say, this is HBS, you should be able to answer that, but if so, ask questions like that to everyone. Similarly, I think it unfair to ask random kids ‘consulting’-type brain teaser questions like “how many ping pong balls can you fit in a Jumbo Jet?” or “if it is 12:15 pm, what is the angle between the little and big hand on a watch?”

So, to minimize the chances of any of that happening, interview on campus.

I sure hope I am not giving any antic  ideas about questions to HBS campus adcoms who may be reading this.

[Not you, Dee dear, we all love your favorite question, ‘Who is your favorite Downton Abbey daughter?’ ]

2. PRACTICE: As a rule, the adcoms who do interviews on the HBS campus do a lot of them, they take their job seriously but NOT TOO ZEALOUSLY, and they have, by and large, come to the same conclusions I have in THEORY section above, and ask ordinary questions, which are fair and not “exciting” or “stressful” or overly “imaginative.”

They may drill down on your areas of expertise out of interest, because that seems fair, but not to “test” how much you know (although that happens). The presiding theory of HBS interviews, as I discern it over the past 15 years, is that kids who cannot cope with the case method, either because their English language skills are sub-par or because they are verbal bed wetters, can be sniffed out (phew, quite a metaphor we got going here) during an ordinary interview and you don’t need stress questions to do it. Similarly, kids who are ‘ticking bombs’ (a famous interviewer red-flag category)– unpleasant, overly scripted, pre-mature articulators, or just “too dumb” to know that you are not supposed to say things like ‘well, everyone does it’ in response to some ethics question — can be revealed without asking what they would do if they had one super-hero power,and what would that power be.

I have no objection to asking someone what vegetable they would be, or what they would do in the first three months if they were handed dictatorial power over the U.S. government, or what they would say if they had a 30 minute audience w. President Obama (real question actually!) so long as everyone is being asked that, and to some degree, everyone “knew” it was coming.

All that said, most HUB interviews, are, in fact, conducted by the same adcom ladies who do them on campus.  But the non-accom interviewers are, by some small but real degree, more likely to ask non-traditional questions, which have the danger of being destabilizing.  Some folks have those ‘interesting’  interviews and love them, and you often hear about that, because  the interview works out, and they get in, and then have a lifetime of post-prandial “Let me tell you about my HBS interview” stories. Great.

But  I get to hear the stories from kids who do not get the interview and blow it.  First question, “Tell me something you want to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing???”– a classic real question which is certainly due for retirement.

Menlo Park is a special case: You will, in most likelihood, get one of two people, Hilary or Lauren, who have both done tons of high tech and West Coast PE interviews, and enjoy at times gabbing about somewhat granular industry this and that. That has thrown some peeps off, and there used to be theory that they were a bit tired of PE and banking types, but no more so, IMHO, than the gals back at campus. Some West Coast PE people go to Boston to avoid that possibility and then run into a Boston Marxist adcom mole, hahaha. My point being, it is hard to game this much.

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.