10 Tips for Your Harvard Business School Interview

Recently, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the application and interviews at Harvard Business School (HBS).  Of course, only the admissions office can give you the “official” position on how to approach the process, but I have some suggestions of my own for visiting campus and preparing for an [on-campus] interview.  Between my friends asking me directly, and suggestions I put together for a panel for Harvard undergrads, I came up with a list:

10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Harvard Business School (HBS) Interview and Visit:

10.  Read through The Harbus, HBS’ Independent Student Weekly.  Copies of The Harbus are available on-campus and online.  Reading through the paper gives you a sense of the on-campus and business issues important to current students.  It will also give you a sense of the “flavor” of the on-campus culture.  This is particularly helpful if you don’t have any close friends or colleagues who are current students or [very] recent graduates.

9.  Attend a conference.  Many high-profile HBS events, like addresses from CEOs and civic leaders, are open only to current students.  But student-run conferences are generally open to the entire community.  At the recent Entrepreneurship Conference, probably 1/4 of the ~600 attendees were non-HBS people.   If you are in the Boston area frequently or if part of your visit coincides with a student-run conference, review this comprehensive list of upcoming conferences, and consider attending.  Registration is usually under $50, and conferences tend to be one-day events held on a weekend.  Attending a conference presents a great chance to talk with other students, to hear from faculty (they often moderate panels) and to get a sense of what happens outside of the classroom.  And if the topic is in any way related to your professional interests, they are great networking opportunities.  Learn about upcoming conferences by going thorugh And the real reason to stop in to a conference while you’re on campus?  You’re guaranteed to learn a lot.

8.  Learn about student clubs.  A recent study by Scott Snook, Ph.D. found that HBS students spend approximately 25% of their time on career-related extra-curricular activities, such as conferences.  (The remaining time is split with 50% of time in and preparing for the classroom and 25% of time on a job search.)  Understanding where you might spend time, if you choose to attend in the Fall, will give you a better sense of how you might fit into campus.  Part of the interview process may include questions about your interests or carer goals.  The clubs are a major way HBS students pursue those interests.  Checking out the website of a club may give you a better sense of what you might do with your time as a student.

7.  Listen in on twitter.  Twitter is like being in a room full of millions of people all chatting with each other.  It’s a cacophony.  But if you can listen in on a specific topic (or conversation) you can often learn a lot. Many HBS faculty are on twitter, and  lots of students and recent grads have listed their names.  Of course, the people on twitter don’t represent a completely broad spectrum of campus life, but listening in will give you a sense of what is on the minds of students.  Look for updates on recent grads receiving funding for their startups, comments about high-profile speakers on campus, or discussion about events happening in the Boston area.  Especially if you’re not able to physically visit campus, or if you want to learn more before-hand, listening in on twitter is almost as good as sitting in the Spangler Center and chatting.  The best way to do just “listen in” is by performing this always-updated search.

This picture of The Spangler Center lounge came from a public web page. Click for access to the original image.

6.  Chat with current students.  Listening in on twitter is a poor substitute for really chatting with current students.  The best way to do so is to visit The Spangler Center and just hang out.  Don’t expect everyone to be in a chatty mode — students often use Spangler to study quietly and prepare cases.  But plenty are willing to strike up a conversation, especially with a prospective student.  Just be respectful of people’s time, and ensure your conversation isn’t distracting to students studying nearby.  Spangler includes a food court, Harvard COOP store, and other amenities, so it’s not a bad place to spend some time while you’re on campus.

5.  Get to know Cambridge and Boston.  I’m always surprised that this advice isn’t more common-place.  For the majority of students, coming to HBS means moving to Boston from another region or even another continent.  Two years at HBS means two years in Cambridge and Boston.  Learn a bit about the areas, both for yourself and for your interview.  The person who interviews you is almost guaranteed to live in or near Boston.  And he or she probably likes living in the area.  It’s probably not the worst idea to find some reasons you’d be excited to live here too.  Plus, it helps make the case that you want to come to HBS to really be part of the fabric of the community, and not just to “punch your ticket” and move on.

4.  Have an idea of what you’d like to cover at the interview. Based on my personal experience and conversations with my peers, HBS interviews are extremely structured.  My interviewer was pleasant but very direct in explaining that I shouldn’t be put off by the lack of small talk.  We had  very limited time together and she had a list of specific questions which she wanted to cover.  Her questions tended to fall into three categories: clarifying some points I raised in my application; things that had changed in the month and a half since I had applied, and discussing what my role might be in contributing to the section experience and discussion.  We had lots to cover, and the conversation moved quickly.  But just because the interviewer has a prepared list of questions doesn’t mean that you should enter the room without a plan in mind.  For example, there may be something not on your application or some key component of it that you really want to highlight.  Or maybe you attended a student conference (see #9) and want to make sure the admissions office knows.  Make a mental list of 2 or 3 points that you would really like to make sure get covered.  Then search for opportunities to include them in the conversation.  Of course, this tip works best for applicants who are already pretty comfortable in interviews.  Ultimately, if you think trying to cover your own agenda will make you overly nervous or detract from your ability to answer the questions, focus instead on genuinely engaging with the interviewer.

3.  Re-read your application before the interview. As described above, HBS interviews tend to be extremely specific, and the interviewer often wants to follow-up on something you mentioned in the application.  If you’re like some students, you last thought about your application a few months ago, before sending it in by the deadline.  And maybe you applied to multiple schools, and you can’t quite remember which essay questions was which.  Now that you’re interviewing, you need to be prepared to talk, in detail, about everything in your application.  Those 400 words you wrote about a mistake you once made?  Be prepared to go into depth, not just in detail but also analysis.  Of course, in any interview you should be prepared to answer questions about yourself, but in this case, make sure you remember well everything that you wrote in your application.

2.  Arrive early on your interview day. When I interviewed, I had a late-afternoon time slot.  But the admissions office is open all day.  And since it’s HBS, everything is well-organized and prepared.  I was able to stop in around 9:30am and pick up my “welcome” packet.  This contained a campus map, a voucher to cover a meal at Spangler (see #6), a pass to use Shad Hall, the beautiful HBS gym, and the name of my interviewer.  The information in the packet was useful, but most importantly, it was nice to have already “checked in” for the day and to figure out where the admissions office was.  If you’re already worried about stress during your interview, getting your packet early and knowing where the office is may alleviate some concern.

1.  Visit a class.  Most days, each section has at least a couple of visitors: friends and family of current students, prospective applicants, case “protagonists” (the actual leaders written about in that day’s case) and professionals affiliated with the professor or the school.  Visiting classes is fun, and it’s the most important suggestion for a prospective applicant.  If you have the ability to get to campus, try your best to do so when you can sit in on a class.  One of the greatest aspects of the HBS education is the section classroom experience.  No blog post or school-guide or conversation will capture what it’s like to watch 90 people from different backgrounds engage in true collaborative learning through a carefully-curated discussion.  For many students, the HBS teaching format is the reason they chose HBS.  When you visit, it’s imperative to arrive to class early and to ensure your cell phone is off.  Not just on mute, but actually off.  Students don’t come in late or get up in the middle of class to use the bathroom.  There aren’t any laptops out, and the focus is on class participation.  Also, since I’m often asked, my suggestion is to wear business casual, unless you’re already in business formal for your interview.  Students may be dressed more casually, but professors are often wearing business formal.  The admissions office helps set up class visits for applicants who don’t have a friend or former colleague who can bring them to class.  Take advantage of the opportunity and visit a class, before you interview.

What do you think of these suggestions?  Feel free to leave a comment or follow-up on twitter.

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4 Responses to 10 Tips for Your Harvard Business School Interview

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  4. Interesting Post , Many thanks. Staying in 60 miles North of Aberdeen it’s refreshing to stumble upon a fine resourcelike yours, especially with goodadditions like the one above. Many thanks and keep up the good work.

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