How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

by on October 22nd, 2012

On Oct 17, Harvard Business School has begun to tell first round applicants if they’ve passed the first admissions hurdle and will be invited for an interview. The first batch of notifications will go out at noon EST, with a second batch coming on Oct. 24.

“Only those two dates,” says HBS Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold in a blog post. “Nothing in between. No secret patterns as to which go out on the 17th vs. the 24th Detailed instructions will be in the invitation email.”

This will be the first time that interviewed applicants are required to write a “reflection” to be sent to Harvard within 24 hours of the interview session (see Behind Harvard’s Big Admission Changes).

In light of the change, Poets&Quants again turned to Sandy Kreisberg, the founder of HBSGuru.com, to update our story, “How NOT To Blow Your HBS Interview.” Perhaps more than anyone outside Harvard Business School’s admissions office, Kreisberg really has this down pat. He has done hundreds of mock interviews with HBS applicants over the past 20 years, and Kreisberg also has counseled several of Harvard’s 2+2 applicants who have worked with this new format and done the reflective essay.

Sandy, as you know, the HBS application is different this year. It is shorter and there is much less room for candidates to talk about their goals. Is that going to impact the HBS interview?

I’ve actually debriefed a good number of 2+2 candidates from the early summer round who used the new app (I had also given them mock interviews) and my takeaway is that the HBS interview will continue to be “same as it ever was.”  By that I mean, it will not probe things you wrote in your application, but instead ask straightforward questions like

  • Walk me through your resume?
  • Why did you attend your undergraduate school, and what was one regret about how you managed your undergrad education?
  • What advice would you give to 1. President of your college? 2. Your prior bosses? 3. Your current boss?
  • Pretend I didn’t read your app and tell me about yourself.
  • Who is someone you’ve worked with that wasn’t a direct manager that had a significant impact on you?
  • What is a question you expected me to ask?
  • What is a company inside your industry and outside your industry you admire, and why, also a CEO?
  • What is a common misperception people have when they first meet you?

Harvard’s new application reflects the most significant change in admissions to the business school since 2002 when it required interviews for all admitted candidates. Why wouldn’t the school do a change up on the interviews?

Well, I was about to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but the essays last year were not broke, and they did “fix” them-and made them worse by many views (see The Early Verdict On HBS’ New App). Maybe they are just comfortable with these types of questions, versus the “behavioral” questions now sometimes asked by Stanford and Wharton and MIT.

For instance, “Tell me about a time you convinced a group about your idea?,” which is not a typical HBS question–although don’t sue me if it comes up. The purpose of the HBS interview is to weed people out, people who 1) Cannot speak English, or at least people who cannot speak English for the 30 minutes of the interview, and 2) People who are unlucky and get lost in the weeds giving one or two answers where they start out talking about topic A, and then segue to topic B and C, and then give a qualification to topic C which requires going down alley E, which is a dead-end with a big sign at the end reading: ‘YOU HAVE JUST BLOWN YOUR HBS INTERVIEW. GOOD-BYE!’

How else can a person blow an HBS interview?

Well, on occasion, Dee Leopold will give feedback to applicants who are rejected and her most common explanation for a ding is something along the lines of “you sounded scripted . . .you sounded like you were attempting to get all your points across rather than just answering the question in front of you.”  She might be saying the same thing I said about going down topics A, B, C and D instead of just cleanly answering the simple question being posed.

There is new part to the interview process this year, the reflection essay, 400 words, which you need to write and submit within 24 hours of the interview? What do you think that will be like?

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 is selling 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.

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?

They have already downgraded this exercise on Dee’s Director’s Blog as not really being an essay but more of an email. They don’t want it overwrought. They want it to be informal. Great, so now spend hours doing that. The prompt is sort of, “Is there anything else you’d like to say to help us get to know you?”

Beyond that, as a matter of substance, if you blew the interview, by talking too much, getting confused, or being obnoxious, writing an email saying what you meant to say, or apologizing, is not going to remove the stake from your heart. You are dead and will remain dead.

Dead men writing emails. Great. Most people, and I have read several of these essays from 2+2 kids this summer, 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.

Obviously, if you made it to this stage in round one, it’s a big deal. The interview is the only thing separating you from a seat in the class, right?

Yes, but it’s like being born. It’s a special passage where awful things can happen. Tremendous damage can occur in a very short period of time. You should worry about it, and you should prepare for it.

Sandy, what’s the most common misperception about these interviews?

Some think this is like an audition for a symphony orchestra where the conductor is choosing one violinist out of ten and you have to be .001 better than nine other people. It’s not that. It’s more like an audition for a marching band. You just have to be able to bang a drum in terms of talent and not appear to be arrogant, inward, unsure of yourself, or confused.

At Harvard, that means if they interview ten people, they will reject one with marginal English right out of the box. If you can’t speak English, you’re done. You won’t be able to survive. Then, of the remaining nine English speakers, one to two people might have a meltdown of some kind. They have a bad hair day or a bad tongue day. So the way that smart people blow the Harvard interview is to have a bad half hour.

And what does a bad half hour look like?

The most common way that smart people blow a Harvard interview is to get lost. Talking too much. Digressing. Getting lost in the weeds. That is the most common mistake. It outweighs every other mistake. You’re asked a simple question like, ‘Why did you go to Cornell for your undergraduate degree?’ And you begin with a history of Cornell and tell the admissions person all about your family. You’re eight minutes into it and you haven’t yet answered the question. It is one of those moments where you hear yourself speaking and you cannot believe you are saying this. You just generally come off as inarticulate and struggling.

In terms of intellectual preparation, you just have to make sure you don’t get lost. Go through your resume and for every job and transition in your life be prepared to crisply explain why you did it, and your stories and explain why you did it, what it was like, what you learned, and how you would do it differently. Be able to talk about every job in 40 seconds. Don’t feel the need for completeness. If they are interested, they will ask a follow-up question.

So Harvard and other schools are looking for succinct and clear answers, not meandering detours for answers. Makes sense to me.

The answers need to be specific, crisp, and articulate. They want to see you draw a straight line from one end of the canvas to another. The way you mess up a question is to draw an squiggly line across the canvas. You need pop-up answers. Why I took this job? What my best accomplishment on this job was? What the culture of the firm, was and why I took my next job and how I would improve the job looking backwards. The correct answer to the Cornell question is, ‘I lived in New York and wanted to get away from home yet not leave the East Coast. I was interested in liberal arts and not certain at the time what my major goals were. My high school guidance counselor and friends who went there suggested I look at Cornell. On my campus visit, I was excited by the enthusiasm of the students, and I immediately felt that it was a place where I could feel at home. Looking through the course catalog, I got really excited.’

The quickest way to get rejected is to answer with a ‘duh’ because you’re surprised at how simple the question is. A lot of people are thrown by this question. Kids who went to Harvard College are asked why they chose Harvard and often have to watch themselves from saying, ‘duh!’

There’s got to be more to it than that. I imagine that Harvard and other schools are looking for certain answers.

Aside from getting lost, the second way smart people flunk an interview is by being a super jerk. Super jerks come in all types: there is the Bain/McKinsey super jerk, the Goldman super jerk, and the Teach for America and World Bank super jerk, and most recently, the Google super jerk. Almost any Bain Capital or TPG guy dinged by HBS has flunked the interview on the jerk meter.

Non-HBS types come in all varieties. About 20% of the Harvard admissions committee members dislike  investment bankers and private equity people. They are just looking for you to say something that is not politically correct. If you tell Harvard you are interested in opportunistic investments in distressed debts because you can make a killing, or even any nice version of that, you have just committed suicide. Instead, they want to hear you say you are interested in investing in companies that can really make a difference. ‘My greatest transaction was in supporting an orphan drug company that created a drug to help people with a rare type of diabetes.’ Or that you found a creative way to help finance a social enterprise in rural India to provide clean drinking water to people.’

It’s hard to believe they’ll fall for that, but I get the double bottom line emphasis, given all the accusations about greed. How should an applicant dress for the interview?

There are two mistakes you can make here. One of them is making a statement with what you wear. If you are a banker, don’t show up looking like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. You shouldn’t be on campus wearing a white collar on a blue shirt or a pair of gold cufflinks. Definitely no suspenders. You are not getting credit for suspenders when you are 24-years-old. The shoes should not scream ‘these are $1,000 shoes!’ The other mistake is more rare. Some techies often show up from work wearing chinos. You don’t need to wear a suit; you can wear a blazer, but dress in a way that shows you are taking this event seriously. For women, you should be a cross between Hilary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Don’t make a statement in terms of accessories. Go light on the bling.

Are there different rules for an interview at Stanford where it’s generally more laidback?

You may be able to wear jeans to a Stanford interview if it’s pre-arranged in the back and forth with the alum who will interview you. Because alumni generally do the interviews, they sometimes set it up at Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, ‘Is this Saturday dress or business casual?’ If the guy is nice, he’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll be wearing jeans.’ But you could have one in a Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, ‘I’ll be wearing Saturday casual and the guy might say sure. But I wouldn’t do it unannounced.

How does an applicant prep for one of these interviews?

You should know what the standard questions are. About 90% of the questions are, ‘Take me through every line of your resume.’ They say, ‘Why did you go there?’ They are obsessed with transitions. ‘What did you accomplish? How did you accomplish it? How would you do it differently?’

You also should be prepared to discuss how the economic downturn has affected you and your industry.

And then, there are frequent flyer questions like, ‘What did you think of the application? Have you attended an HBS class?’ That is an important question. Your answer should be truthful. If you haven’t, you should say so but add that you have seen a video of a class on the Harvard website. And then you should be able to do a song and dance on what you thought of a class. The big mistake is to say, ‘I went to UVA (University of Virginia) and I’ve had case study classes so it’s not going to be a problem for me. Harvard is looking for case method virgins. They want you not to have been to the big city. They want you to say, ‘Golly, holy smokes, the class was a mind blow. I was really impressed with the energy and with how the case study helped students bring to bear their different experiences and backgrounds in the class discussion.’ The wise guy UVA answer by inference says, ‘I have done this before and it won’t be a problem for me and I can give a better answer than the guy next to me when the time comes.’ That answer becomes the first drop of poison in the cup. If you keep answering that way, you are toast. Goodbye.

Another mistake people make is they think they have to deliver their whole package. They already have your package. Some people come out and say, ‘We never talked about my plans for health care reform.’ They don’t care. A large part of a Harvard interview, like 40%, can be your college experiences and internships and some jive about clubs you will join at HBS.

What’s your best advice on the famous closing question of many interviews, “Do you have any questions for me?”

The way you can kill yourself at the end is when you’re asked do you have a question for me? Basically, the interview is over, your grade has already been faxed in. They are just trying to get you out the door. But you can screw this up at the last minute. You can pick an argument. You can say, ‘Do you really think you can teach finance through the case method?’ That is an awful question to ask because you are calling their baby ugly. They believe you can learn anything through the case method. So you don’t want to get into a debate over it. A better answer is real light. If you’re from another part of the country, you might say, ‘I’ve never experienced a New England winter. Have you got any tips?’ One of the best questions would be, ‘How hard would it be for me to organize a forum around one of my passionate interests?’ They’d love that one. If the chemistry was right between you and the interviewer, you might even ask if they could recommend an Indian restaurant in Harvard Square.

What are the basic differences between interviews at Harvard vs. Stanford, or Wharton?

One big difference between Harvard and the other two is that the Stanford and Wharton interviews are run off your resume. At Harvard, they have your entire folder. That’s because admissions staff does most of the Harvard interviews. Stanford and Wharton don’t have the essays, for example.

Alumni do up to 90% of the interviews at Stanford and it’s well known that the interview is more of a marketing device to get alumni involved. You have to do something really dramatic to commit suicide in a Stanford interview.

Sandy, what’s the best kind of interviewer an applicant can have?

If you can help it, you’ll always be better off with an interviewer with a lot of experience because they are less likely to make oddball judgments. You want a normative interviewer, someone who knows the standards and who has been through it a million times. Alumni often have a chip on their shoulders. They may have issues with the school that can get projected in the interview. They may want to use you to deliver a message to the school, or they could have a prejudice against people who are in Teach For America or other non-profits. That happens a lot.  And some alumni interviews can go on for more than an hour. They’re just so much more unpredictable.

You’re obviously doing a good number of mock interviews right now. What most bothers you about the whole process?

What upsets me is people who are good people but who have a bad hair day. The call I fear is from the person crying on Amtrak. They had their interview at HBS. They are on their way home on the train to New York, and they call in tears because they think they have blown their interview. If you think you’ve blown your interview at Harvard, you probably have blown it. Those are real sad calls, especially if you like the person, and they rehearse how they lost a step, then another and then tripped. If you could have prevented the first lost step, they would be in at Harvard. That happens, man, trust me. That happens. Years of work and hours of preparation and poof, it’s gone, because they could not explain why they went to Cornell for college in 30 concise seconds.

For more admissions advice from Sandy Kreisberg, also see The World, According to Sandy.

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