Less than 20% of the total number of HBS applicants get to the interview round, where the final acceptances lie in the 50-60% range, the rest being released, Harvard diplomatic speak for the more popular dinged. With a turn out stat of nearly 90%, HBS is the most sought after business school and a unique brand on its own, challenged only by the likes of Stanford (read Harvard vs Stanford: Comparison and Differences).
One thing you can be sure of is that each and every interview candidate is deserving in their own merit. They are in that interview room, or Skype call, because they have an outstanding merit record – fabulous GPA, excellent recommendations, outstanding application and essay, breathtaking GMAT score and the ability to walk on water!
It is a humongous feat for the Admissions Committee to filter the best from among these gems. In that 30-minute interview, the interviewer, and the observer, carefully pose questions designed to assess the candidate’s motivation, intention, abilities, emotional and practical intelligence. A way to get to know them in a short span of time. And you may have only 30 seconds to answer each question.
It is impossible to play clairvoyant and probe the inner most thoughts of the Harvard Business School admission committee, not even if we were to single out the interviewer. However, experiences of past applicants play an important role in understanding their usual approach (read the MBA Crystal Ball Business School Interview Forum).
In this article, we will talk about how to tackle some of the common, or uncommon, categories of questions. We will also talk about what are the common mistakes that international applicants make during HBS interviews.
MBA Crystal Ball invited Sanford (Sandy) Kreisberg, The HBSGuru, to share some commonly asked HBS interview questions and sample answers to tackle them. Sandy is one of the world’s leading experts on the HBS interview process and has done mock HBS interviews with thousands of international students over the past 20 years.
Let’s explore the kind of interview you should be prepared for.
Not just at HBS, but pretty much everywhere, one of the main motives of having a face to face (or Skype to face) interview is to match the applicant to the application. Some of the most common questions require you to know your resume, and application, inside out.
Walk us through your resume is code for Does, or did, this guy have a plan?
There is also the variant asking you to introduce yourself to the observer. Sandy says, “Remember there are often two people from HBS attending most HBS interviews, the interviewer and the observer. This is an icebreaker question but you need to be able to introduce yourself without getting lost, while at the same time, getting through your entire story. Sometimes the question is a little different, I’ve read your application but the observer has not, she only has your resume. Could you walk her through your resume?
There’s that one again. They just want to know who you are. Sandy suggests a clear and quick response without worrying too much about the details.
And of course, there are many questions in the same family that require you to be prepared to explain a change of job, the choice of your undergrad college, what are your plans with an MBA or even the choice to break away to an MBA.
Most of the questions like the ones above are based on facts from your life. The challenge is to stick to the information they are seeking and not sound like a gas bag. Scripted is something that the former Managing Director of MBA Admissions and financial aid at HBS, Dee Leopold warns applicants about. When you try to say too much and get too introspective, you lose touch with the objective of getting done in 30 seconds, and getting done well in 30 seconds.
I want to acquire the skill of ABC for doing XYZ. MBA provides me the ability to fulfill that requirement.
Why not is not the right response. Harvard Business School is a brand on its own. You should be able to reason how this powerhouse of excellence will be able to help you achieve your vision of your future career. So, the HBS values and structure should play a major role. Avoid picking up keywords from the HBS brochure and spilling them evenly, in your responses. Be honest as to what it is you are looking to gain from being there.
Being critical about their system of Case Method lessons, instead of lectures, or even being too comfortable about their unique and brand setting education system will not be a good idea. Prepare to be excited of what you are going to gain from being a part of that community.
And of course, what will you be contributing to Harvard.
Here’s one from Sandy’s list of possible questions, pertinent to what you should know about Harvard before stepping into that room.
Have you ever attended a class at HBS?
Remember, lies have a way of biting back. If you didn’t attend one then don’t blurt a fib. As Sandy puts it, just tell them you saw a video of a Case Method learning, at Harvard, and go on to express your excitement about why it is great and informative. Respond with substance to add credibility to your answer.
And if you did attend, your life gets even simpler. You attended a class when you visited. It was interactive and exciting. And that students were able to add their diverse experiences to discuss a case, supporting each other and finding solutions to various issues.
Substantial evidence to show that you know what you are getting into!
The zinger questions. It is hard to know which curve ball is going to get thrown your way and honestly there is no point in it taking up too much of your preparation focus.
As Sandy puts it, in his interview with Poets and Quants, if you stick to these for too long, you may lose sight of the basic questions that ultimately are the deal breakers in the major part of the interview.
To let you have a taste of what they are, here’s one.
How do you make big decisions?
It is aimed to let you show the progression of your thinking style, aloud. How you weigh the pros and cons, what structure you follow and how you sometimes weigh in your gut feeling in reaching the final decision.
The tricky questions are not designed to make you nervous or experience verbal diarrhoea. They are there to check how fast can you think. Besides avoiding scripted responses, you should also try to stick to a few guidelines.
What is different about international vs domestic (American origin) candidates is the possible lack of communication skills that many non-English speaking candidates may have. According to Sandy, the HBS interview is designed to see if the applicant is able to thrive in the case method setting. This requires candidates to speak with clarity and confidence. “Don’t be complex or academic in your answers”, he says. “It is very important to be conversational and clear”.
He also mentioned the importance of knowing some facts about your country. So if the committee asks you to chalk out a few things that your HBS classmates should know about your country, you should be able to clearly lay out some bits – country size, economic system, business, climate, location or even the form of government. “Be informative and listener friendly”, he says. “You are not there as a spokesman for your government, but as a neutral, informed, smart observer.”
And finally, dress formal and don’t do any cling, bling or any expensive thing!
And once you are done, carefully construct your 400 words of post interview reflection. Let them know that you were glad they got to know you and that if you had time you would have liked them to know the other two qualities you are proud of. Remember to not make it sound like a make up test. It’s not.
Relax and just be confident! If you have made it this far, you are already destined for success, but getting into Harvard will certainly make it your middle name.
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