By Chioma Isiadinso
As with so many other parts of the admissions process, the interview for Harvard Business School is unique – and uniquely challenging. If you've been dreaming about getting an MBA from HBS, it’s imperative that you understand the interview process, so you can prepare correctly and ultimately ace your Harvard MBA interview.
Understanding the style of the Harvard MBA interview
The majority of interviews are conducted by two members of the admissions committee: one who acts as the interviewer and one who acts as an observer. They are all limited to 30 minutes.
The style of a typical HBS interview tends to be very rapid-fire, even aggressive in some cases. This is intentional, because of the constrained time frame, and because the admissions committee wants to get a real sense of who you are and how well you perform under pressure.
Defending your background
At the start of the conversation, your interviewer will likely go through your application and resume, pushing you to explain and defend the choices you've made along the way.
You may be asked why you chose your undergraduate degree, how you went about getting your first job and why you chose certain internships.
This is not a good time to be scrambling to remember what you said in your essays, or to be blindsided by information in your recommendation letters. Before your HBS interview, you will want to review everything you submitted as a part of your MBA application.
Typical Harvard MBA interview questions
You should expect the typical admissions interview questions about your long-term goals, why you feel an MBA is the right choice for you, and why, specifically, you have applied to Harvard.
It’s not enough to be able to discuss these issues on a superficial level. As with the discussion about your background, you’ll need to be prepared to respond to rigorous questioning about your decisions, and to explain the reasoning behind the choices you've made.
Challenging Harvard MBA interview questions
Some of the more challenging questions that HBS interviewers ask are those designed to throw you off balance and show how well you think on your feet. For example:
How would your middle school peers describe you?
What do you think makes someone a good leader and what kind of leader are you?
What is a firm you admire and what do you think makes them stand out from their competition?
HBS is famous for their use of the case method of instruction, which relies on students establishing a position and being able to effectively support and defend that position on the spot. And the interviewer may ask about current events which are only loosely related to your current life or career.
For example, a Latin American student may be asked what business opportunities might emerge from the US opening relations with Cuba.
Again, the purpose of these questions is not to determine whether you have an encyclopedic knowledge of current events, but to find out how you will apply your own knowledge and experience to topics that you encounter on the fly.
The two most important steps to ace your Harvard MBA interview: Preparation and Practice
When students do poorly in their Harvard interview, it is rarely because they “aren't Harvard material”, or because they aren't smart, experienced or persuasive enough to do well at the school. Instead, they underestimate the rigor of the HBS interview.
The HBS interview is a different animal to other MBA admissions interviews. If you want to ace your HBS interview, you have to put time into preparing and practicing your responses.
Preparing your interview responses means thinking carefully about what you will say. You may not be able to guess exactly what questions your interviewer will ask, but you can ensure that you're able to select the right stories and examples that best illustrate the decisions you've made on your journey to business school. Don’t recycle the same examples you used in your application. They have already seen them. Come up with a fresh set of examples that reinforce your personal brand.
Practicing your interview responses doesn't mean memorizing them; no one wants to interview a robot. What it means is knowing your application and background well enough that you are able to answer questions honestly and without hesitation. You need to get to the point quickly. Taking 10 minutes to answer a question about your career vision is one sure way to derail your HBS interview.
Due to the limited time available, questions in a HBS interview often come in a rapid-fire manner that can feel almost like an attack if you're not prepared for them. You need to become comfortable responding to questions in two minutes or less. If the interviewer wants to know more they will ask follow-up questions that will allow you to elaborate on the topic.
Ultimately, Harvard is not a school where you can throw up your hands and say “I don't know”. The HBS interview is designed to see how well you will fare in that environment. You aren't expected to be perfect – but you are expected to hold your own.
She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.
Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.