Congrats! You just received your invitation to interview with Harvard Business School! Your odds of being admitted to HBS’ MBA program just became a coin toss. Approximately 50% of you will succeed, but your personal fate is more than heads or tails. How you prepare, and what you say and do in the actual interview, WILL largely dictate whether you are admitted. Before joining Gatehouse Admissions as Special Advisor, I worked at Harvard Business School on the MBA Admissions Board for 13 years. I have read over 10,000 HBS applications, traveled globally to conduct more than 1,000 HBS interviews, and virtually interviewed many of them over Skype (the olden day equivalent to Zoom).
Here are four must-knows before you start preparing.
1. KNOW the goal of the HBS interview
Every single HBS interviewer is trying to answer the following two questions: 1) Will this person’s voice add something distinct to the Harvard Business School classroom? 2) Will this person positively impact the broader HBS community as a student and as an alum?
To accomplish this, the interviewers truly anchor on the three evaluation criteria listed on Harvard Business School’s website: Habit of Leadership, Analytical Aptitude and Appetite, and Engaged Community Citizenship.
2. KNOW your audience
The HBS Interview Board consists of a small group of highly trained professional interviewers, many of whom have been there for a long time. I started at Harvard Business School in 2003 and some current Board members pre-date me (HBS is a phenomenal place to work, so it is no surprise that its employees are highly loyal). This is great news – if you were going in for surgery, you would want a doctor with longevity and experience over a fresh intern (student) or retired one (alum). There are is consistency and purpose to the interview model that minimizes its randomness.
You should also know that HBS interviewers come loaded with information. They thoroughly prepare by reading your entire application and by conducting web searches on you and/or your organizational affiliations where appropriate. Because they are a seasoned team, Harvard Business School’s Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, Chad Losee, intentionally gives his interviewers freedom over the structure of the interview; he trusts they know what questions they need to ask to make a recommendation on any single candidate. This also means that your interviewer is in the driver seat, not you. You can influence it for sure, but you cannot steamroll the interview with your own agenda. That likely will not result in a favorable outcome.
Keep in mind that whenever possible, HBS includes two members of the Interview Board in the interview, not just one. The second member is called the observer. While the interviewer has reviewed your application in depth, the observer has only read your resume, and they will listen but will not ask any questions. Having another pair of eyes and ears in the room serves as a gut check and a second perspective, both of which limit personal bias. It is also worth noting that if you do not have an observer, it means absolutely nothing about your candidacy. Having two people in the interview is purely based on capacity and logistics, and sometimes it is just not possible.
3. KNOW the HBS interview flow
You have thirty minutes: five minutes for the introduction, roughly 20 to 25 minutes for the body of the interview, and two minutes for the conclusion.
The opening question by design tends to be broader than others. You can access many typical opening questions online, some of which sound like softballs to make you feel comfortable (e.g., how did you find the application process?), while others resemble on-the-spot elevator pitches (e.g., introduce yourself to me). It is one of your ONLY opportunities to direct the course of the interview, so take advantage of it!
The body of the interview will likely have a series of specific deep-dive content areas because the interviewer wants 1) to discuss something that was not covered in the online application, or 2) to go deeper on a topic you already wrote about. In either case, these deep dives do tend to have logical groupings. When I interviewed, I had a repertoire of about ten deep dive areas, from which I picked and customized for each interview. The topics ranged from analytical and quantitative rigor to clarifying career path and why you want to attend HBS to probing interpersonal skills and your ability to work with different people.
The conclusion may simply be a brief wrap up and thank you from the interviewer or you may get the chance to have the last word, as interviews often conclude with “Is there anything else you want to communicate to the Admissions Board?” If you have a burning topic you want to share, feel free to succinctly do so. That is why they are asking! Just be mindful of the time, and do not expect a lengthy follow on discussion. It is also worth noting, unlike other schools, HBS does not use this time to answer your questions, e.g. about the case method or FIELD. The 30 minutes is maximized for the interviewer to make a recommendation about your candidacy; you can learn more about the school elsewhere.
4. KNOW yourself
By the time you have made it to the interview, you have likely already passed the intelligence hurdle. Beyond your words, your interviewer is equally assessing your presence, communication, maturity, judgment, and interpersonal skills. Below are a few things to keep in mind.
- There really is only one chance to make a first impression, so start out strong. If you are not at least personable and friendly, even if a bit nervous, then your interview immediately becomes an uphill battle.
- Second to being warm and approachable is your energy. Whatever you uniquely impart on the universe, whether it is your infectious enthusiasm, calming presence, or incredibly honest and sincere viewpoint, make sure you bring it from the very beginning.
- Be authentic, not perfect.
That last point is important. Some of my favorite interviews are the ones where the applicant sort of messes up and then candidly admits it. I had one candidate who was off-the-charts brilliant, as confirmed by both recommenders. But he was initially so uncomfortable and awkward, I thought there was no chance – he made zero eye contact and I was worried he would not be able to personally connect to his classmates. Five to seven minutes in, I asked him about his latest client relationship, and he expressed how challenging it was initially, because of a weak first impression. He said he gets so preoccupied in his head with what the other person is thinking about him, he becomes almost paralyzed. I thought, “Aha – this guy does really get it!”
I had another applicant who was so long-winded in her first few answers that I began wondering how she would ever be able to effectively participate in the case method. I started interrupting her, to which she quickly pivoted and said, “I am getting the impression I am talking too long so I will try and make this answer more concise.” Voila – she changed the course of the entire interview.
Bottom line – HBS wants real people, with real developmental opportunities, and the self-awareness to recognize at least some of them. They want Harvard Business School’s MBA to transform you, and you cannot be transformed if you come in perfect.
Hopefully, by now, you understand more about the goal of the HBS interview, your audience, and the overall interview format. Most importantly, by virtue of going through the reflective application process, you inevitably know yourself better now than you did before you applied to Harvard Business School!
Now you are ready to prepare! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Gatehouse Admissions’ series on the Harvard Business School Interview. In Part 2, I will dive deeper into the topic of prep and what I call the “sweet spot” of preparedness – enough to be confident but still natural and unrehearsed. It will take work and practice, but you can do it. And if you are looking for a true HBS-like interview experience, consider an HBS mock interview with us. We use the same approach that I used while interviewing and evaluating 1000+ MBA candidates during my tenure at HBS.
Good luck – I am rooting for you!
Brooke Wheelan serves as Special Advisor at Gatehouse Admissions. A former Associate Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, Brooke served on the HBS MBA Admissions and Interview Board for 13 years. She reviewed more than 10,000 MBA applications and conducted more than 1,000 interviews. Prior to HBS, Brooke was a management consultant at Bain & Company. She holds an MBA from Kellogg.
To learn more about Brooke, Gatehouse Admissions, your candidacy or our HBS Mock Interview options, request a free consultation.