What It’s Like to Interview at HBS
My invitation to interview at HBS came on the first day that the admissions committee began emailing candidates. It was a relief, to be sure, but it also was undoubtedly a bit nerve racking. Three days later, I received a follow up email, this one with a link to an online portal where I would actually schedule my interview. I chose an afternoon spot on a Monday on campus in Boston. It allowed me to fly up from Washington D.C. during the weekend, ensuring I would be settled in and wouldn’t face any logistical snags come interview day.
The morning of the interview I kept completely free. I wanted to make sure I was well rested and unrushed. At noon I attended a luncheon hosted by the HBS admissions committee for applicants interviewing that day. We had sandwiches and made small talk in the back room of the Grille, a staple of the HBS dining circuit. There were a few of us there, and we each took turns asking relatively low-risk questions of the admissions staffer that had joined us.
After an hour or so, lunch wrapped up, leaving me about 90 minutes before I was scheduled to be at Dillon House, the admissions building at HBS. I walked across the Charles River and had a cup of coffee, rehearsing my answers to the most basic interview questions (strengths, weaknesses, why an MBA, why HBS). By that time I was wishing I had scheduled my interview for a little earlier. Time seemed to be passing pretty slowly.
I started heading over to Dillon House about 2pm, arriving 10 minutes before my scheduled interview. When you walk in the door, there is a short hallway with a big glass window on your left, so I could see the receptionist through the glass pane well before I could actually say hi to her. I greeted her warmly, and she told me to take a seat while I waited for my interview to begin. I did, playing with one of those mini Zen gardens you find in offices sometimes to keep my mind from wandering.
Sure enough, at 2:30pm on the dot, an admissions officer walked out to greet me. She walked with me about 30 feet to a small office in the back of Dillon House, and along the way we made small talk about my trip in to Boston that weekend.
The room was no more than a few feet long by a few feet wide. She sat at an L-shaped desk, but in such a way that the desk was behind her, and so table or desk separated her and me. I sat in a small chair a few feet a way, tucking my portfolio between the arm of the chair and my leg.
When we sat down, she gave a quick overview of how the interview would go: “I’d like to ask you a few questions and talk a little bit about your experience, and then we may have time at the end for a question.” I nodded, smiled, and said, “Sounds good.”
“I’m going to be taking a lot of notes during the interview,” she said, reaching for the folder on the desk behind her. “So don’t be concerned if it seems like I’m not listening. I am; I’m just taking notes, too.”
I acknowledged, “No problem.”
“Great. Let’s start with your experience as a Resident Assistant. How was that different than some of your other leadership experiences?”
It still today strikes me as a strange question to lead with because it was such a small part of who I was. It was by no means one of my best selling points. But, after thinking for a moment, I think I answered the question artfully, differentiating it as one of the few roles where I had formal authority as a leader (most of my other leadership experiences were not accompanied by formal responsibility as a manager).
She sat, taking notes, stoned face. Then it was right into the next question: “What are three of your strengths?”
Easy enough. I’d prepared for it, as all applicants should, and ticked them off fairly effortlessly, with an anecdote or two for each one.
“And what about three of your weaknesses.”
“Tell me about the quantitative aspects of the jobs you have had? Are you comfortable working in heavily quantitative environments?”
My background in politics and government all-but assured that this question was coming, and I had indeed anticipated it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a long list of strong examples to point to. But, my transcripts from college demonstrated my ability to succeed in math, and my 770 GMAT score helped too.
“You don’t have to use names, but tell me about a manager that you do admire, and then tell me about one you don’t get along with.”
Easy enough to talk about a boss you love, but a boss you don’t? That’s trickier. There is a fine line to balance between providing constructive feedback about someone and just whining. I’m not sure I articulated a brilliant answer to this question; I probably dodged it more than anything else, which I don’t think scored me many points.
“What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your job, and how did you overcome it?”
These types of questions tend to be easy at the start, but a common interview trick I’ve encountered is following them up with several additional questions. “Tell me more,” she would say, and I would try to describe the situation in more and more detail. Had I not picked the answer to this question wisely up front, I could have been in trouble. But I had prepared a number of anecdotes to use specifically for questions like these.
“Ok. Tell me about a company you admire.”
I immediately launched into an answer about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and organization that I do very much admire, and that I had mentioned specifically in my essay as a place I could one day see myself working.
“Yes, but tell me about a company you admire. A public company,” she said.
Quite honestly, I was stumped. Knowledge of public companies (perhaps somewhat ironically, since I was applying to business school) was not my strong suit. It was a weakness I was insecure about, and this was the kind of question that really could bring that insecurity to the forefront. However, I decided early on in my application process that my weaknesses would not define my application. So often applicants spend the majority of their applications rebutting all of the potential reasons they might getdinged. The problem is, that leaves very little room for advocating why you should get admitted. This is important, and a principle that applicants forget far too often. So, I answered honestly. I said there weren’t really any public companies that came to mind that I admired. However, one of the reasons I wanted to get into business was to bring some of the social responsibility I’d fought for in the public sector to the private sector. A bit of a corny dodge, perhaps, but I think an effective one.
“Thanks. Now, recommend something to me. Anything.”
The question just felt like a land mine. I can still hear myself asking in my head, “What answer does she want to hear? Why is she asking this?” It’s a dangerous question to ponder in the middle of an interview. Once you start trying to provide the answer you think they want to hear, you’ve lost. So, I just went with the first thing that came to my head, and I think I got a little lucky with it: “I just saw a documentary with a friend, called One Peace at a Time.” I went on to explain the documentary a bit, which highlighted microfinance programs around the world, and tied it back to the social enterprise-focused career vision that I described in my essay.
She jumped into her final question, “What’s something I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked?”
I had seen this question on a few blogs while I was preparing for the interview, and so I knocked off some answer that more or less amounted to, “Why HBS?” It was easy enough to answer, and I don’t think did much to help or hurt my chances.
By that time, she said the 30 minutes was up, and I didn’t have time to ask any questions. She stood up and walked me back to the front of Dillon House, where I thanked the receptionist and headed back to my hotel.
In hindsight, I actually think my interview went quite well. I was honest, which perhaps is the most important quality to exhibit in an interview, and I avoided any major pitfalls. But with that said, I remember thinking at the time that I hadn’t done particularly well, that I had done enough to get by, but nothing to wow them. It’s amazing how you re-analyze every detail of every question when you finish, no doubt blowing it way out of proportion in your mind.
Six or so weeks later I would receive my offer from HBS, and not too long after that my interviewer called me on the phone to congratulate me. She mentioned that she watched the documentary I recommended with her husband and had really enjoyed it, which surprised me at the time.
Many of the questions I was asked I was able to prepare for, but certainly not all of them. And I think that’s what HBS promises and delivers for most of its applicants. However, as I’ve blogged about before, I think there are important strategies that will help applicants adapt to any type of interview prompt. Combine those strategies with practice (and lots of it). If you can, practice with people you don’t know that well, as it will be far more realistic.
So, what can be learned from my own interview experience?
- My perspective on my performance now is much different than it was 24 hours after my initial interview. When I applied, I did not have to write HBS’s post-interview reflection like applicants do now, but be wary of how your perspective on your performance can be seriously skewed walking out of the interview. Be confident about the answers you gave – they’re probably a lot better than you think. If anything, being over-apologetic in HBS’s post-interview reflection could hurt you.
- Be prepared to talk about the smallest of details on your resume. I never would have expected my experience as a Resident Assistant to comprise one-tenth of my interview, but it did.
- Don’t be surprised if you don’t have a chance to talk about your big selling points during the interview. My career vision, my then-current job, why I wanted and MBA, and why I wanted to go to HBS never came up. Instead I seemed to be answering questions that skated around these topics. It’s important to take opportunities to weave in answers when you can, and don’t be concerned leaving the interview if you feel like there are big portions of who you are that weren’t discussed. After all, the interview is meant to supplement the rest of your application. If they aren’t asking you questions about what you spent the majority of your application on, it probably means you did a good job of answering those questions in the application itself – and that’s a good sign.
- Expect your interviewer to remain stoic. Mine never provided any indication, verbal or otherwise, that I was doing a good job. She just kept taking notes and asking questions.
- Prepare a lot of anecdotes in addition to the obvious questions, as we have blogged about previously. These anecdotes will be lifesavers come interview day.
Preparation is therefore essential, and we highly recommend that you have a look at the list of resources we have put together to prepare for the HBS interview. Also, feel free to reach out through our free consultation link, and we’d be happy to chat with you as HBS alumni about the interview process.
In the words of one of our admits from last year: “I wanted to follow up with good news: I got into HBS! The interview itself was, as everyone says, totally impossible to predict (…), but the practice of being nervous and answering impossible-to-predict questions with you guys was invaluable and let me push past my (high) stress level.”