Ace the HBS Interview: An Insider’s Advice

How to ace the HBS Interview

You have just 30 minutes to impress Harvard Business School in your MBA interview. Here’s what the school is looking for, along with six top tips to make the most of your time.

Harvard Business School released invitations to interview on January 25 and 30 to approximately 1,600 candidates – out of a record-breaking 10,351 who submitted applications. And while securing the HBS interview is a laudable feat, it’s no guarantee to making the cut for one of the roughly 942 spaces in this fall’s incoming class.

First and foremost, the HBS interview is a search for authenticity – the admissions committee wants to know you’re the person they met on paper. The format is always 30 minutes with someone from the admissions office, either one-on-one or two-on-one with a seasoned interviewer who has read your entire file and prepared a set of questions specifically for you. While not always possible, they try to pair you with someone experienced in the background you’re either coming from or looking to move into. HBS knows your sector and has divided applications accordingly, ready to evaluate you against the others in your field.

The bad news is that you can have an absolutely flawless interview and still not get an offer. After more than a decade working in admissions at both HBS and INSEAD, I’ve witnessed the anguish of rejecting some truly exceptional candidates by virtue of the numbers – for example, 50 consultants vying for 10 spots and some 18 knock it out of the park. It’s rare, but it happens.

The good news is that HBS won’t bring in anyone who doesn’t have a really solid shot of being admitted. So if you’re among the lucky few it means they’ve seen the seeds of success in you. The interview is your chance to prove that you’re an indisputable asset to the incoming class.

There are several key differentiators that make the HBS interview unique. With these in mind, here are my top six tips for making the best possible impression in your limited time to shine.

1. Know your story and present a clear rationale for your decisions.

Admissions is primarily looking at what you’ve done professionally, using your resume as the starting point. It’s less to do with where you’ve worked than why you worked there, your understanding of your role, and your rationale for making different moves at various stages of your career. Your ability to articulate your thinking behind each of those decisions is critical, along with your motivations and ambitions beyond the MBA.

2. Convincingly connect your career vision to HBS.

Beyond the power of the HBS brand, the admissions committee wants to know that you understand what’s being offered through its general management program – what it will do for you, and then how that connects to your specific professional goals. You’ll need to be logical and convincing, not only about why an MBA, but why right now, and how an MBA is going to serve as a catalyst for your own success post MBA. Often times, applicants focus on leadership, which HBS is known for, but don’t forget at its core, HBS is a general management program, not a leadership school.

3. Convey a nuanced understanding of your market/sector/industry.

The interview is going to be unique to your specific experiences as well as potentially what you wrote in your essay. Do you have a thoughtful plan of action, and is it ambitious enough to be interesting? In terms of your future aspirations, can you demonstrate a broader understanding of the market and a few specific ways the industry might change? If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, have you thought it through tactically, and can you meaningfully articulate the opportunities and core challenges you expect to face? It’s not necessarily about right or wrong in terms of your planned pathway (I’m often asked “is it better to say I want to do x or y” and I always answer, “it’s better to tell them what you actually want to do; fabrication of your goals for the purpose of admissions is a terrible idea.” You want to be sure, whatever pathway you choose, you are able to convey how deeply you’ve considered these things. Doing well in a classroom where the case method dominates means you’ll have to stick up for your points of view – you can’t just offer different ideas without supporting evidence.   

4. Lead with authenticity.

Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not – the admissions committee genuinely wants to understand who you are and how you make decisions. The more you can convey what you were actually thinking, and how you made certain decisions and choices, the more believable and persuasive your impression will be. Be yourself – it’s your unique perspectives, rationale and thought process that distinguish you from others of a similar or identical profile. In mapping your story, you want the enthusiasm to be there, but let honesty and sincerity be the undertone that weaves through the entire conversation.

5. Be prepared but not overly rehearsed.

While it’s vital to be prepared, you want the flow to feel very conversational. I can recall countless interviews when it sounded like the person was hitting the “play” button on an internal recording or reciting a script from memory – which is a big turn-off. The best interviews were always the ones that felt like a natural conversation. It was always gratifying to get the real person in front of me, engage in a detailed discussion about the decisions they made and leave with a deeper understanding of how they tick.

6. Exude quiet confidence, not arrogance.

There can be a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and your ability to discern it conveys your acumen and maturity. HBS is looking for accomplished candidates with humility. Having humility is about letting your accomplishments speak for themselves to a large degree, and knowing when to credit “me” or “we.” Don’t exaggerate or try to inflate your importance or your skill set – given the company you hope to keep in the coming year, it’s vital to be forthright and honest.

It’s true that the HBS takes its interview process very seriously. That’s why it’s vital to think deeply about each stage of your career, and also about why and how you’ll be more successful with a general management degree. HBS admissions want to make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into, and that you’ll be someone who will contribute in a way that’s meaningful to the program and the community. And if the fit’s mutual, both of you stand to gain.

For more details and advice, view this 18-minute video strategy session on the topic with Fortuna Admissions Director and best-selling author Matt Symonds.


Karla CohenFortuna Admissions is an expert coach at admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.