Wednesday, January 13, 2016 at 10am

MBA Interview Tips: Harvard Business School

HBS interview

Harvard Business School (HBS) invites about 2,000 of its nearly 10,000 applicants to an MBA interview each year. So congrats if you made it this far. About 50% of these 2000 will receive an offer to join the MBA program. Of which, about 90% will accept the MBA admissions invite. What does that really mean? Well, at HBS, the MBA interview is more of a weed-out rather than a get-you-in component. If you have been invited, you are qualified to attend HBS. You have the minimum combination of GMAT, GPA, résumé, and personal statements to get in. However, the school is testing for a few things: 

  • Can you clearly articulate yourself in English well enough to survive the case-method?
  • Are you a jerk?
  • Can you standup under pressure?

Let’s tackle each of these questions one at a time so that you can avoid a few pitfalls the MBA admissions committee has set for you and maybe (hopefully) even relax a little – just follow these interview tips!

Will your English hold up in the MBA interview and HBS case-method?

Put yourself into the classroom, you are there with some of your generation’s brightest minds, more than two thirdsof whom learned English as their native language. The topic bounces back and forth across the room as nearly half of your 90+ classmates weigh into an 80-minute case discussion. Before arriving to the class you read the case (one of at least two), which might add up to a few dozen pages in total the night before. This is why just speaking and reading English isn’t good enough at HBS. You have to be able to understand what the 90+ other people in the room (many with unique accents themselves) are saying. The discussion moves fast and requires you to digest the previous comment and formulate your response in less than a second, before the professor calls on someone else. You will be judged on the frequency and quality of these comments by both your peers and professors. This description is not meant to intimidate you, but rather to illustrate that the HBS learning model is challenging for many and nearly impossible for someone who struggles in English.

Like everything in admissions (GMAT, GPA, etc.) English ability is judged relative to your peer demographic. This means that if you are applying from a country with high-levels of English-fluency (like European countries, India, etc.) you will be expected to be on top of your game. Conversely, countries that typically have lower levels of comfort and utilization of English (like Japan) you might be able to get away with a few mishaps, like asking the interviewer to repeat the question or providing an answer that doesn’t imply that you understood the real intent of the question. HBS also uses their unique post-interview reflection to judge your command of written English. Since the essay is due only 24 hours after the interview and should be about the interview itself, it becomes apparent which applicants would not be able to keep up with HBS’s pace. HBS does not expect grammar perfection on the PIR, but if you are unable to create a comprehensible story, this could be a sign to the MBA admissions committee that you will struggle in the program.

Don’t let the MBA admissions committee think you are a jerk

If you believed you ‘nailed’ every question they threw at you and are obviously thinking, “There is no way those other brainless dimwits could get in before me,” then the chances are you might be hearing bad news in a few weeks. HBS is looking for people that are self-aware, and know their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Sure the people that get into HBS are impressive, but they still are people and people make mistakes and are flawed. So if you are asked about your weaknesses, don’t say “I work too hard.” If you are asked about your mistakes and failures, don’t conclude by stating how the others on your team “couldn’t understand what you were trying to do” or “lacked your ambition”. Instead focus on what you learned from your failures and what your plan is to continue to develop. There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence, don’t cross it.

The MBA interview is bomb-able

Speaking of confidence, remember I said that the interview is more of a weed-out process? Well, that means you cannot bomb it and if you do, you probably are not getting in. You are going to be asked a lot of questions in your 30-minute interview as it is meant to simulate the fast pace of the HBS classroom. Many of these questions will be pretty standard, like, “Walk me through your résumé.” But they will get you, I promise you. They are very good at asking you the one question you were not expecting. Like asking an MD/MPH what they would do if they couldn’t work in healthcare; a real question to one of my clients in round one (luckily, I had prepped him for this one). It is not that important what your answer is, but rather that you can formulate a sensible response in a few seconds. I tell my clients that ask if they skip a question, that skipping should only be used as a last resort at HBS. If you literally cannot think of anything other than “uhhhh, I dunno,” then ask if you can come back to that question at the end, but this is a risk and should be avoided if possible. Think again to the HBS classroom, where cold-calls are the norm and “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. The MBA admissions committee is trying to see if you can stand up under this type of pressure.

In conclusion, there is great news. If you manage to demonstrate competence in English, don’t boast, and don’t completely fall flat, you now have a much greater than 50% chance of getting in. When you consider that you started with only 11% chance you should feel pretty great about those odds. So be yourself and relax (unless you are a total jerk…in which case pretend that you are someone else).

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David Hamilton is the founder of HBS Accept and a member of the HBS MBA class of ’17. Check out his blog for valuable information about applying to MBA programs around the world. David has also helped students gain admissions to top business schools as a consultant.

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