Diaries Of A Darkhorse: Lessons From A Sandy Shellacking

HBS Guru Sandy Kreisberg and Poets&Quants Founder & Editor John A. Byrne

Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.

In the next week, the dust will settle after a flurry of application submissions. Now, first round applicants will wait to hear their fate. I’ve taken the new free time to catch up on some hobbies, such as baking and learning the banjo. Unfortunately, there’s only so much zucchini bread my friends and coworkers can eat – and only so much twangy banjo my housemates can tolerate before they gather to plot. When I think about what else I can be doing now to help my MBA admissions, the first thing that springs to mind is getting real interview preparation. The best place I thought to do that was to look back on “Fridays with Sandy”.

“Fridays with Sandy” is a program where Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, and John A. Byrne, Editor-in-Chief of Poets&Quants, evaluate potential applicants to elite MBA programs. The catch? Their interviews are live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube. I would be judged in front of a large audience that would likely include close friends and even more importantly my grandma (Can’t let her down!). The opportunity seemed absolutely worth it. Both Sandy and John are known for being experts in the field with real insight into the admissions process. Sandy is also known as someone who isn’t afraid to give some tough love. That’s something that we all need when we’re trying to be one of the lucky few to navigate the admissions gauntlet.


Going into the interview, I expected a bit of a bumpy ride, but I felt comfortable. I’d always been a relatively good interviewee, and I had spent countless hours thinking about why I wanted to pursue an MBA. Five minutes into the interview, however, what I thought was going to be a bumpy ride began looking more like the Hindenburg Disaster.

“You’re an easy guy to dislike.”

Yikes! Sandy interrupted my answer to “why an MBA” with that bracing feedback. It was within the first five minutes of the interview, and it stopped me cold. In the moments afterwards, I realized something very important. Sandy was right. I came in with confidence in my story, and I rattled off polished responses faster than an auctioneer selling hot cakes. It was less a conversation, and more a recitation of my reasoned arguments for why an MBA, why now, and what I was going to do with it. That’s not what a conversation is supposed to be. My polish served as a barrier that didn’t allow us to connect.

Sandy’s interview with Ben:


That was the first and most important lesson from the experience. Most of you reading this will have put in considerable time crafting your profile. You’ll believe in what you’ve written, and your broader reasons for pursuing an MBA. We all naturally want to convey that belief articulately in the interview. I’d encourage you to learn from my mistake and remember that no matter how much time you’ve put into preparing for the process, treat the interview like a discussion centered on letting the interview discover more about you at their own pace. Over-engineering the interview takes out the human component, something I didn’t appreciate until Sandy’s ever-so-gentle reminder.

After that initial wake-up call, I was all ears for the rest of what Sandy and John had to say. They talked about background and pedigree. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of what they had to say, but to my surprise they didn’t seem to consistently agree with each other either! Two MBA admissions experts were actively disagreeing about my profile as they reviewed it and spoke with me about it. That was the second valuable lesson I learned from the experience. A great deal of the interview and review process comes down to perception, not to mention other factors beyond our control.


Benjamin Fouch

Several times during the interview, identical information presented to two experts led to two different impressions. For example, Sandy dismissed my professional goal of pursuing a search fund for being “confusing.” In contrast, John found it to be a compelling story that tied together well. Sandy felt that my alma mater, Notre Dame, put me at a disadvantage. John felt the opposite. While Notre Dame certainly has a penchant for disappointing on the football field, I was hopeful that my experiences there would carry me through. Again, these are factors outside our control – and we have to embrace that!

Looking beyond my own experience, imagine the sparks that must be flying in admissions departments right now as admissions reps go to bat for their candidates of choice. It seems like being genuine and transparent is a much better strategy than trying to ensure everyone gets a positive impression. That’s how we can get admissions reps to fight for our case. All we need is one John Byrne to support our candidacy, and that could be the deciding factor. Like I said before, it’s a human process.

The debate was intense, the assessment was harrowing, but at the end of the interview, Sandy gave me odds for admission. They were better than I would have expected. That was the final lesson I took from the experience. We are often our harshest critics. As you all prepare for interviews, I hope you remember that you don’t have to be perfect or convey every aspect of your story in one interview. I learned first-hand that trying to be perfect is a fool’s errand. It’s a whole lot easier to meet your interviewer expecting a conversation rather than delivering a sales pitch.

Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.

DON’T MISS:  Diaries of a Darkhorse: The Subtle Art of Choosing a Recommender or Diaries Of A Darkhorse: Cutting The BS Out Of My HBS Essay


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