The Un-Interview: Harvard’s Dee Leopold With Sandy Kreisberg

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class

Sandy: What are some of the changes you have noticed in the admissions process, especially recently, and what direction do you see MBA admissions going?


Dee: Here’s an example from our internal process at HBS. We used to do all our interviews in Dillon House and candidates came in, sat in the reception area,  had a 30-minute interview and then we said good-bye. Eileen Chang, a senior member of our team, said that this was crazy.  Why not let candidates see a typical day at HBS at this stage of the process?  Visit class, meet with students, hear a faculty panel, get to know each other, have dinner on us in Spangler if they’d like.  I never thought it would work. I thought candidates would continue to rush in, rush out, and save their exploration of HBS until after admission. I was completely wrong.

Sandy: What other changes? Especially in the macro process. More stats, more interviews, more essays, or more robo-admissions?


Dee: I think the frontier will be in learning more about the art and science of interviewing. We also need to re-think the role of recommendations in this process.

Sandy: That is interesting, as to interviewing, I have heard the theory — and it is borne out by feedback I get from applicants who have been interviewed–that a major purpose of the interview is to weed out both the very small number of folks who cannot speak English, and a larger group, who are, by dint of their interview performance and answers, in the “overly scripted” and annoying category? 


Dee: First of all, confirming English fluency is a big deal. About the second category, this may be a by-product vs. the purpose.  And we might argue about what is “very small” and “larger.” Didn’t you go to law school? Why am I being the one more precise about language?

Sandy: Ha, ha. You are being the precise one because you are not attempting to be charming and suggestive and hopeful and varied as a strategy to extract some serviceable data for our hungry readers. But moving on, how does one shine in an interview? How much good can you do yourself in an interview, given the bedrock of data already written in stone by that point?  

Dee: Bracing myself for your cynicism but the best interviews often end up in unexpected places because the candidate is open to the idea of a conversation vs. a presentation. I’ve told this story before but I remember an interview with a strategy consultant that took a delightful turn. He was an engineer who had been working in California and flew in for the interview. I asked what he did to pass the time on a long flight. He said he listens to audio downloads of Supreme Court arguments and had gotten to the point where he could identify the Justices by their voices. I was surprised. I didn’t even know such a site existed –  and asked if he had ever been interested in law. He said no, but he liked good argumentation. I don’t think he expected this to be part of his HBS interview, but I was impressed and intrigued. I view this kind of wide-ranging curiosity as an exceptionally valuable trait.  

Sandy: But what about the dreaded “scripted” word. It is the most common word given to dinged post-interview applicants in feedback by HBS.  What does “scripted” mean in the context of an HBS interview and why do you find it so fatal?

Dee: “Scripted” you come prepared to “present” instead of having a “conversation.” Our classroom is a conversation . . . . students listen to each other and the dialogue is organic and real. It’s the nature of the case study approach to learning. Looking for this appetite for conversation in the interview feels important.

Sandy: So how would you make interviewing more predictive on the upside, what qualities would you look for, or how would you change the process?


Dee: I guess I’m intrigued by the way the Rhodes Scholarship selection works. It’s more of a panel exploring a range of topics. We’re looking for interesting people who are curious and eager to exchange in spirited dialogue.  Need I mention the case method pedagogy? It would be a huge challenge to get to scale in a reasonable time frame with limited human resources. It’s a wish rather than a plan.

Sandy: As to recommenders, why have most of the top five schools now reverted to the same two questions? And beyond that, what is the most frustrating thing you feel when reading recommendations, if you could call the writer up to get more information, what would you ask, in your mind?


Dee: I can’t presume to speak for other schools.  We ask recommenders the questions we want them to answer.  We really like the “please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant” question. If a recommender is invested enough in a candidate to have done that, I think they know them pretty well.

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