John: So what is the take away from that?
Sandy: The biggest mistake people make in preparing for the HBS interview is worrying about trick questions. In fact, the Poets&Quants’ story The Most Unpredictable Questions HBS Asks is something of a disservice because those “oddball” questions get people preparing clever answers and searching for more oddball questions.
John: Hey, I love that story and those questions are real. So which oddball questions are you talking about?
Here are some of them:
What are the two best pieces of advice you have been given, and why?
What do you want to be remembered as?
What is your definition of a leader? How do you fit that definition?
How do you make big decisions?
How would your parents describe you when you were twelve?
What is one thing I’d never have guessed about you, even after reading your application?
What is the one thing you would like me to remember about you?
And now, John, by reprinting them we have put the elephant in the room and people reading this will do just that. Think about oddball questions and clever answers. That was cruel fun, but my advice to applicants facing interviews is NOT to do that.
John: Those are great questions and great conversations starters at a party. So anyway what should people do?
Sandy: 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.
John: There is also the now three-year-old part to the interview process, 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?
Sandy: 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, the admissions director who put this into play, sold 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.
John: 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?
Sandy: 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.
John: As always, thanks for all your advice, Sandy. I’ll remind everyone that you do mock interviews to help people prep for these admission interviews and you typically do more than 100 a year for HBS applicants alone. That is why you are, without question, the most experienced consultant out there on Harvard. So good luck to all the lucky round one applicants who will be getting an invite to interview next week.