How to Ace the HBS Interview: An Insider’s Advice

February 13, 2018 | by Karla Cohen

You have just 30 minutes to impress the Harvard Business School Admissions Committee in your MBA interview. Here’s what HBS is looking for, along with six top tips to make the best possible impression., Fortuna Admissions, HBS Interview

Last January, Harvard Business School released interview invitations to roughly 1,600 R2 candidates – out of a record-breaking 10,351 who submitted applications. And while landing the HBS interview is a laudable feat, it’s no guarantee to securing one of the roughly 942 spaces in the incoming class.

The HBS interview is a search for authenticity – the admissions committee is looking to verify that you’re the person they met on paper.

The format is always 30 minutes with one or two individuals from the admissions office. Expect a seasoned interviewer who has read your entire file and prepared a set of questions with you specifically in mind. While not always possible, HBS aims to pair you with someone experienced in the background you’re either looking to move into or coming from. HBS knows your sector and will have divided applications accordingly, ready to evaluate you against the others contenders in your field.

The good news is that you don’t get an HBS interview offer without a really solid shot of being admitted.

Meaning, they’ve seen the seeds of success in you if you’re among the lucky few. The interview is your shot at proving you’ll be an indisputable asset to the incoming class.

The bad news, however, is that you can have an completely flawless interview and not receive an offer. After more than a decade working in admissions at both HBS and INSEAD, I’ve seen firsthand the anguish of rejecting some exceptional candidates because of the numbers – for example, 50 bankers vying for 9 spots and some 19 knock it out of the park. It’s rare, but it happens.

The HBS interview is unique for several distinctive reasons, including the kind of information the Admissions Committee is looking to hear from you.

Given your limited time to shine, here are my top six tips for making the best possible impression:

1. Know your story and offer a clear rationale for your decisions.

Using your resume as the starting point, Admissions is primarily looking at what you’ve done professionally. But this has less to do with where you’ve worked than why you worked there, your understanding of your role, and your rationale for making certain moves at different stages of your career. Your ability to articulate your thinking behind each of those decisions is essential, along with your ambitions and motivations beyond the MBA.

2. Persuasively connect your professional ambitions to HBS.

Beyond the power of the HBS brand, the admissions committee wants to know that you understand what its general management program has to offer – what it will do for you, and then how that ties to your specific career vision and goals. You’ll need to be convincing and logical, not only about why an MBA, but why now, and how an HBS degree will serve as a catalyst for your own post-MBA success. Many times candidates focus on leadership, and while that’s part of what HBS is known for, don’t forget that at its core HBS is a general management program, not a leadership school.

3. Display a nuanced understanding of your industry/sector/market.

The interview will be specific to your unique experiences as well as potentially what you shared in your essay. Is yours a thoughtful plan of action, and is it ambitious enough to be compelling? In terms of your career vision, can you cite a few specific ways the industry might change and demonstrate a broader understanding of the market? If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, can you meaningfully articulate the core challenges and opportunities you expect to face, and have you thought it through tactically? It’s not necessarily about right or wrong in terms of your planned pathway – your honesty and sincerity are key, so steer clear of any fabrication of your goals for the purpose of admissions. Whatever pathway you choose, be able to convey how deeply you’ve considered these things. Excelling in a classroom where the case method dominates means you can’t just offer different ideas without supporting evidence – you’ll have to stand up for your points of view.   

4. Convey your authenticity.

The admissions committee genuinely wants to understand who you are and how you think, so don’t try to be someone that you’re not.  The better prepared you are to articulate how you made certain decisions and choices, and what you were actually thinking, the more persuasive and believable you will be. Be yourself – it’s your unique rational, thought process and perspectives that distinguish you from others of an identical or similar profile. In sharing your story, you want the enthusiasm to be there, but let your ability to be genuine be the element that weaves through the entire conversation.

5. Avoid sounding overly rehearsed.

While it’s essential to be prepared, you want the flow to be natural and conversational. Alas, I can conjure numerous interviews when it felt like the person was hitting the “play” button and reciting a script from memory – which is a big turn-off. The best interviews were always the ones that felt like an engaging, detailed conversation. It’s always gratifying for the interviewer to walk away with a stronger sense of who you are as a real person and what makes you tick.

6. Exude confidence without the arrogance.

There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and your ability to discern it will show your maturity and acumen. HBS is seeking accomplished candidates with humility. Having humility is about knowing when to credit “me” or “we,” and when to let your accomplishments speak for themselves to a large degree. Don’t distort or exaggerate your importance or abilities – given the company you hope to keep in the coming year, it’s vital to be honest and forthright.

It’s true that the HBS takes the interview process quite seriously. Which is why it’s vital to think deeply about each stage of your professional growth, and about why and how you’ll be more successful with a general management degree. HBS admissions want to ensure you fully appreciate what you’re getting yourself into, and that you’ll will contribute in a way that’s meaningful to the program and the community. If the fit’s mutual, both of you stand to benefit.

For more advice and HBS interview details, view my 18-minute video strategy session with Fortuna Admissions Director and best-selling author Matt Symonds.

You can also sign up for our HBS Interview Prep, among the new services offered by Fortuna Admissions this year.

Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karla Cohen was Associate Director of Doctoral Programs at Harvard Business School and served on the MBA interview board for the HBS MBA program. A version of this article was originally published on Poets&Quants on January 29, 2018., Fortuna Admissions, HBS Interview

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