How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview
by John A. Byrne
November 4, 2010
Poets & Quants
For some smart, tell-it-like-it-is counsel, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting. The highly opinionated Kreisberg has been advising applicants to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other elite B-schools for some 15 years. During the 2009-2010 application season, Kreisberg conducted mock interviews with more than 100 applicants to Harvard alone, a service he offers for $300. (For details, click here.)http://www.hbsguru.com/prices.html#4
All the round one applicants to Harvard Business School yesterday (November 3) heard whether they've been rejected, waitlisted, or invited for an interview with an admissions official. If you're one of the estimated 800 applicants who won an interview opportunity, you're bound to be jumping for joy. But in all probability, you're also filled with anxiety over the final hurdle you have to overcome before getting into Harvard.
This crucial step of the process confronts applicants to most of the other highly ranked schools, from Stanford and Wharton to Columbia and Kellogg. At Harvard, virtually all the interviews are by admissions staff. At Stanford, where nearly 400 first round applicants will get invites for interviews, alumni do the vast majority of interviews. At Wharton, second-year MBA students, admissions staff, and alums are called into action. Wharton, which interviews between 30% and 50% of all its applicants, can invite as many as 900 MBA candidates for interviews in its first round.
HOW THREE TOP SCHOOLS WINNOW DOWN THEIR APPLICANTS
If you get invited to an interview by Harvard, you stand a 64% chance of getting accepted to the school–much better odds than if you were invited to an interview by either Stanford (48%) or Wharton (43%). Application numbers are for the classes that entered this fall. Numbers for interviews and acceptances are rough estimates based on interviews with admission directors at each school.
The big question now: How do you not screw up your interview?
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.
What have you picked up so far in your coaching of applicants who are prepping for these interviews?
The real news this year is that Stanford and Wharton are trending toward behavioral questions versus the more typical ones like 'why Wharton, why now, why do you want an MBA.' Of course, it would still help to prepare for those questions as well. But if you are being interviewed by Stanford or Wharton, you should Google behavioral interviews and you'll get some bad advice about how to answer those questions but at least it will help you get some standard questions. They're asking people things like, 'Tell me about a time you worked on a great team, or a bad team, or worked with a great leader. Tell me when you disappointed yourself and what would you do differently if you had to do it again. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a person and how you resolved it. Tell me about a time you dealt with an ethical issue.' For some reason, Stanford and Wharton seem to be tilting toward those questions this year.
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.
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.
Wharton interviews are a mixed bag. Second-year students on the school's student admission committee do a lot. If you can, my advice is to try to get an admissions board member first, then a student, and finally an alum, simply because alumni interviews can be odd. If they don't do many interviews, alumni of a school can have un-normal standards. If you only do two interviews, your standards tend to be higher than if you do 50 interviews. And some alums are just nuts and in rare cases predatory.
Sandy, you've got to be exaggerating.
Well, predatory is rare but not zero. 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.
AskSandy--the HBS guru http://hbsguru.com
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GREAT HBS MOCK INTERVIEW service.