How To Nail Your HBS Interview

Dillon House, the home of admissions at Harvard Business School

Dillon House, the home of admissions at Harvard Business School

Well, that’s what they will be required to do when they are in the real work world. You use the Wifi in the airport or you hop on a plane and get stuff done. In any case, how important do you think this essay will ultimately be in the decision to admit or deny?

They have already downgraded this exercise on Dee’s Director’s Blog last year as not really being an essay but more of an email. They don’t want it overwrought. They want it to be informal. Great, so now spend hours doing that. The prompt is sort of, “Is there anything else you’d like to say to help us get to know you?”

I have read many, many of those reflection essays, and I can barely think of one instance where it changed an outcome. If you messed up the interview, saying that in the essay and adding that it won’t happen again will not help. It’s dead men writing emails. If you have five reasons why you want to be an investment banker and you only mentioned two in the interview, well, listing the other three in the reflective email won’t help, either. As with so much about this process, the added air time can probably hurt you more than help you. Some reflective essays confirm interview takeaways, for example, ‘This kid is controlled, calculated and unpleasant.” That is actually a meme for dinging kids from Bain. Well, the bad Bain. I got lots of hommies there, too, but it applies to other kids as well.

Most people just say something like,  “Thanks, it was great talking to you about 1, 2 and 3, which are important to me, I also do A and B which did not come up, but are also important to me, and I am still really gung-ho about coming to HBS.”

Yes, and they stay up for 24 hours composing that little ditty. My guess is, not one of these “reflections” is going to make a difference, and they will barely be read. It does answer a common question, however, should you send a post-interview thank-you note? Well, the answer to that was always no, but now it is easier. You can turn some part of this reflection into a nominal thank-you note.

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 super jerk. Super jerks come in all types: there is the Bain/McKinsey super jerk, the Goldman Sachs 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.

About 20% or more of 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.’

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.