Thoughts on the HBS Interview

A few years ago, one of my clients called me distraught over his just-completed HBS interview. He had blown it, or so he thought. He told me that while responding to a question, he realized he had misunderstood the interviewer and was rambling on about something unrelated. He had a choice: pretend nothing was wrong and muscle through, hoping for the best, or admit his mistake and ask for a redo. Luckily, he chose the latter.

He stopped himself mid-answer and said, “I’m sorry. I think I misunderstood your question. Could you please repeat it?” She did, and he successfully answered and continued with the interview.

While my client was devastated, I was elated. I told him that his choice might have just gotten him into HBS. Why? Because while many people would have tried to fake it, he demonstrated live and under pressure the humility and confidence to admit a mistake and the desire to rectify it, signs of both admirable character and communication skills. He got in.

HBS is not looking for perfect answers delivered with robotic precision. They are looking for a revealing conversation during which applicants express themselves with intelligence, candor, humility, and self-awareness. The interviewers (always an HBS admissions staff member and an observer, never alumni or current students) have read your application and generated a fairly targeted set of questions, but that doesn’t mean standard MBA interview questions about your goals or why HBS, for instance, are off the table (though you should be able to nail those quickly to move on to the more interesting stuff).

I asked a few of my past clients who attended or are attending HBS for their advice to HBS interviewees, and here’s some of what they said.

-        Remember that the interview is a conversation - do not prepare a list of questions and answers but do know your story well and be prepared to tell it in various ways.

-        Be prepared but not too prepared; it's impossible to predict every question that they could ask you (odds are you will get a mix of questions you were expecting and ones that you weren't) - don't discount the importance of thinking on your feet during the interview.

-        All they wanted in the interview was to know me better. There were no trick questions and it was more conversational than a typical interview. So, be confident, show your true self, and enjoy it.

I can’t emphasize this point enough: canned answers won’t get you very far in the HBS interview. Interviewers can smell the lack of confidence a mile away and will question your fit for rapid-fire case study discussions.

I remember another client reporting in, “It was easy. They asked me about my hobbies and summer plans.” I knew she was doomed. During our trainings, she could not break free from rote answers no matter what I tried. She could not answer spontaneously. The interviewer lost interest after a few minutes and switched over to small talk to not humiliate her. Ding.

I also can’t emphasize enough the need for humility throughout the interview. Any hint of arrogance could sink you. Mentioning accomplishments is fine and often necessary for a strong interview, but there should be a bigger message than just the money involved or the bigshots you met. What did you learn and how will that move you closer to your goals? What could you have done better and how does HBS fit into your growth plans?

-        The HBS admissions staff is very different than the largely Red Bull-drinking, male work environment I inhabited for the years preceding school. One should always bring the highest levels of professionalism to any interview. But it's important to know one’s audience.

When I review an application before HBS interview training, I first look for inconsistencies, gaps, and areas of possible concern. Those jump out at me quickly, but if you’ve earned an interview invitation, there is probably nothing too glaring. If there is, however, you can bet you’ll be asked. Without getting into too much detail, one client did something great in the social benefit sense through his family’s sizeable resources and connections. Totally admirable. That kind of noblesse oblige is exactly what HBS (and all schools) wants to see. However, my client wasn’t as transparent about the connections as I suggested he be, and he got tripped up during the interview when questioned about it. He still got in, but those weeks before the announcement were hell.

Other points: Be ready to explain any transitions on your resume, i.e., the “why” behind your actions and decisions. This preparation is essential, since transitions represent good “pressure points” to probe. Also, if you emphasize the social impact of your goals, be ready to back that up with related experience and knowledge of the field, since HBS interviewers can spot insincerity.

If you want to know what you’ll be asked in your HBS interview, start with your application. Ask an HBS alum or someone you trust what they would ask you based on your resume, essay, and application. I’m known for ferreting out the actual questions that HBS interviewers ask, so if you’re interested in more formal interview training for HBS, please get in touch. I’ll review your application thoroughly before we meet via Skype or in person (NYC area) and send you the main points we’ll cover in advance. During the actual interview training, I’ll give you a good, productive grilling and lots of techniques and suggestions for your actual interview.

I’ll end with some of the other bits of advice I received from current HBS students and alumni.

-        Ask current students/alumni about their interview experiences (esp. ask about the surprising questions they got and think about how you would respond).

-        Reflect on your experiences between the time you submit the application and the interview. I was asked questions about things that happened after I submitted my application.

-        Remember your interviewer is also a human being; showing genuine interest in them, thanking them for their time, and following up with them (if appropriate) can go a long way.

-        I asked several times "Does my answer make sense?" or something similar when I wasn’t sure my explanations were penetrating, and it smoothed out our conversation.

-        Write down your interview transcript as soon as the interview is done so that you can use it as a guide for your reflections, which must be submitted within 24 hours.

-        When practicing your answers, visualize yourself speaking to a real person instead of just trying to memorize. Your interviewer will feel that your answers are more real, honest, and powerful.

-        Practice explaining difficult things (e.g., about your industry) to someone who knows nothing about it. I imagined explaining to a smart junior high school student, and used some key numbers and indicators (e.g., the market size of my industry) to illustrate a clear picture.

-        If you are a re-applicant, you should be able to explain how you are an improved candidate versus past attempts and why HBS remains important.