How Not To BLOW Your HBS Interview

Dee Leopold, managing director of HBS admissions and financial aid

Dee Leopold, managing director of HBS admissions and financial aid

Those are great questions and great conversations starters at a party. So anyway what should people do? 

They should have comfortable answers to basic questions like those mentioned in the reports above.

Those are not sexy questions but they come up with great frequency and they often come up early, when the interviewer is still judging you. The oddball questions often come up in the second half of the 30-minute interivew and by that time, in the interviewer’s mind, you are either OK or not. Although you can certainly shoot yourself in the foot in the last 15 minutes, you cannot save yourself.

Are there any new questions, new oddballs, based on your experience? 

In light of what I just said, why would you want to know that?

Because those more frequently asked questions are rather boring. Besides, I am a sadist and our readers want to know.

How about these:

What would you say to [President Obama, Hillary Clinton, President of your university or company] if you had 10 minutes?

Recommend a book to Vladimir Putin, and why?

What is your favorite iPhone application?

What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you in public?

What will you regret not doing at HBS?

Introduce yourself to God.

As a lapsed Catholic, that last one could get me in trouble. Anyway, if you made it to this stage, 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, confused or most importantly, someone they do not want in the band.

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.

How else can a person blow an HBS interview?

Well, on occasion, Dee Leopold will give feedback to applicants who are rejected and her most common explanation for a ding is something along the lines of “you sounded scripted . . .you sounded like you were attempting to get all your points across rather than just answering the question in front of you.”  She might be saying the same thing I said about going down topics A, B, C and D instead of just cleanly answering the simple question being posed.

There is also a relatively new part to the interview process which actually began two years ago. It’s the so-called reflection essay in 400 words or less which applicants need to write and submit within 24 hours of the interview. What has that been 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.

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.