HBS Interview Secrets | How to Prep for Harvard’s Unique MBA Interview

The HBS interview is completely different to other MBA interviews. In fact, you can pretty much throw ALL the advice we’ve given you about MBA interviews out the window when it comes to Harvard. This is because the Harvard interviewers need to know if you can hang in HBS’s unique class environment. 

What that means exactly, how that effects the HBS interview and how you should prepare for that interview is what Angela Guido’s here to walk you through today on MBA Monday!

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Everything else we talk about regarding preparing for MBA interviews, you can pretty much just throw out the window for Harvard. The preparation process is very specific and very unique to Harvard. Hello, everyone! Welcome back to MBA Monday. I’m Angela Guido, the founder of Career Protocol, a Career Coach, an MBA Coach, and an interview guide who's here to help you rock your Harvard HBS interview. I've got an action-packed session for you today. We're going to start by talking about Harvard culture and understanding what makes this school unique, and therefore shapes their interview style in a way that is completely different from any other MBA program. Second, I'm going to talk you through tricks, secrets you're probably not aware of, of how the Harvard interview works. And if you don't know these tricks for preparation, you're going to be unprepared. Third, I'm going to tell you how to prepare. I'm going to give you some key tips to get yourself ready for that interview, including some secret and unintuitive questions that you might not be thinking about. Before we get rolling, please click that little subscribe button so you don't miss a single, single MBA Monday.


What Makes The Harvard MBA A Unique Experience?


All right! When you're preparing for any interview, the very most important thing you can do first is understand who you're talking to. Understand the company, or in this case, the school that you've applied to that is going to be scrutinizing your candidacy for fit with their company, or in this case, program. So, we have to start with some deep insights into what makes the Harvard MBA a unique experience, the challenges that its students are subject to, and therefore to understand how the admissions committee is approaching the interview itself so that they can screen out the very best candidates and take only the people who are going to do well at Harvard and be happy there. Very importantly, that is not everyone. So if you think about how the Harvard MBA works, I'll give you a summary of your first year at Harvard. You're going to be sitting in the same chair, in the same room with the same 89 other people in your section every day, with no change. The only thing that changes is that the professors will come in and out for the various classroom discussions that you're going to have that constitute your forced first year curriculum over which you have no control and no choice. On top of that, the vast majority of your grades and the classroom model of learning at Harvard is the case method. Now, you've probably heard of the case method, but really think about what this means. You're not going to be taught very much. The professor is not going to stand up at the front of the room and explain to you how economics and finance works. Instead, they're going to give you a stack of information, expect you to process that on your own time, and then come to class ready to contribute in a vital and lively classroom discussion. That means you're going to need to have something to say. You need to have enough understanding of how business works that you can participate in such a fast-paced discussion, you need to be self-driven and be able to do a lot of work on your own time under ambiguous circumstances, and you need to be ready to fight to get your opinion heard in that room of 90 people, all of whom are ambitious and accomplished. So the bottom line is, the Harvard classroom experience is student-driven. The majority of your learning will happen by observing what your classmates who've had different experiences from you have to say about a given business problem. So what does that mean for you? That means that you also need to bring a valuable perspective that can teach your fellow classmates based on your own experiences. So if you think about the fact that that is what your life is going to be like from day one at Harvard, it makes sense that the interview is designed to screen your ability to do that, and pretty much only that. The entire Harvard interview is focused on gauging your readiness to be a member of that particular community and learning experience. So, what does that mean for the content of the Harvard interview? I told you I was going to tell you some tricks and some things that you really needed to understand about the Harvard interview that differentiate it from all the other MBA interviews you might go through in your application journey. So, if you're preparing for an MBA interview at Kellogg, or the University of Chicago, or even Stanford, or Dartmouth, or Darden, or any of the other great programs that I hope you have also applied to, you're going to expect a fairly standard MBA interview. It begins with a walk me through your resume. It includes questions about your goals and why you want to go to that program. There will likely be one or more behavioral questions; tell me about a time you led a team, tell me about a time you overcame a challenge. And then at the end, there will be the chance for you to ask questions of the interviewer; what do you like about this program? What do you wish you had known before you started your own MBA at this school?


1. Forget Everything We Taught You


  • This is about you and your ability to perform
  • Can you live up to your resume?

Guess what? The Harvard MBA interview will have none of those questions. There’s no walk me through. There are no behavioral questions. There's no time at the end to ask the interviewer questions about their experience or about the Harvard MBA. The entire interview is focused like a laser on you and your own experiences. They are trying to gauge your ability to express yourself concisely, clearly, and compellingly while talking about yourself, your experiences, and what you know. This means that the person interviewing you will have read your entire application. They will have gone through it with a fine-tooth comb. They will have probably even done some additional research. If you reference articles that you've written or organizations that you've led, they will have Googled that. They will be asking detailed specific questions about your domain of authority so that they can ascertain how ready you are to represent that domain in the classroom. So, everything else we talk about regarding preparing for MBA interviews, you can pretty much just throw out the window for Harvard. The preparation process is very specific and very unique to Harvard. Are you ready to prepare for your Harvard interview? Let's get to it. 


2. Go Back To Your Resume


  • What would you ask yourself?

So the first thing you want to do is you want to take the PDF printout of your entire application and you want to go through it from top to bottom wearing an admissions committee hat. So, imagine that that application is not you, it's someone else. You're reading a third person's application and you are a member of the Harvard adcom. Keep in mind everything I just said. You're screening this candidate for their readiness to participate in this lively and exciting classroom discussion. What additional questions do you have for this candidate that you're reading about as you go from top to bottom of the application? Read every short answer. Reread your essay, reread your resume. If you have your recommendations, take a look at those as well. You want to dig deep into the content of your application and come up with follow-up questions. As you're thinking about the follow-up questions that the admissions committee might have, keep in mind Harvard's three core values that they seek in applicants. Those are:

  • A habit of leadership
  • Engaged community citizenship
  • Analytical aptitude and appetite

That means that wherever you’re talking about learning something or building something or doing some kind of analysis, they may have follow-up questions to ascertain your analytical aptitude and appetite. Likewise, they’re going to be very interested in your motivations. In the reasons that you did the things you did, the reason that you made the choices that you made, that you took the steps that you took, that you got involved in the things that you got involved in. Because having a habit of leadership means self-knowledge. It means that the steps that you take, you do so consciously, aligned with your own values and what's really important to you. One of the things we are extremely proud of at Career Protocol is the vast majority of our clients who get interviewed not only end up getting in, but they frequently report that they have very little work to do to prepare for their Harvard interview because if you think about the further questions that the admissions committee might have about your application itself, those are questions that probe at your self-knowledge. At the why you did the things that you did. At the reason that things were important and interesting to you. About the impact that you had and why that was significant. About the places where you may be weaker or stronger vis-à-vis your ambitions.


3. Self-knowledge Is Key


  • + Your ability to communicate your experiences
  • Be ready for rapid-fire questions

These are all aspects of self-awareness that our clients are working on throughout the entire application process. So by the time they get ready for the interview, they’ve already done the hard work of examining their life, examining their motivations, clarifying them, and learning how to communicate them directly and concisely, which is the task that is being asked of you in the Harvard interview. Most of our clients report receiving somewhere between 20 and 30 or even more questions in the half-hourlong interview that they have with Harvard. These are point-blank questions that are getting directly at aspects of your application that the interviewer is curious about. So your job is just to reply directly and concisely. You don't have to overthink the answers and if you've done the work of self-awareness throughout the application process, you shouldn't even have to think too hard in advance of the interview of how you're going to answer the question because there are no deliberate curveballs. They're really just trying to get to know you and trying to vet the person they saw in the application to make sure that that person is ready to stand up in a Harvard classroom.


4. What Expertise Will You Need To Prove?


  • Think about industry and function
  • Where are you knowledge gaps?
  • How do you learn?

So I told you, I'd tell you a few secret questions that you do need to be thinking about pre interview and I'm going to outline what those are now, but you might have been able to predict them based on what I said earlier about how the Harvard classroom works. You are going to be one of just a few or maybe the only expert in your field in your 90-person section that whole first year. So, if you're coming from the automotive industry, you're going to have to represent the automotive industry in case discussions that touch on any aspects that have to do with regulations, production strategy, finance in the automotive industry. You will be the person representing that knowledge base for all of your classmates. And at most there will be two or three or four other people who share that expertise. So that's a heavy burden to bear. If your classmates are going to get any inside information about your domain, it's going to have to come from you. So, the school — the adcom — is looking to understand if you’re ready to represent your knowledge base, your authority, and your expertise at the level of a Harvard classroom. First thing you want to do is think about given your resume, given the companies you've worked at, given your track record to date, what are the areas of expertise that you could reasonably be expected to have. Think in terms of industry and function, and then take some time to think about what do I know and what don't I know with respect to my domain? You will get questions about things that they expect you to know. For example, if you work in finance, investment banking, or private equity, they might ask you to explain how a DCF model works to me in lay terms. Or they might ask you, how do you value a startup corporation versus one that is in its 10th year and has 10,000 employees? What are the different dynamics of valuing companies at that different level? If you're in the field of finance, you should have a point of view, you should have an opinion about those things. They may ask you things that are around the edges of your expertise, things that you don't necessarily really know about. And the appropriate answer in that context is to say, I don’t know, but here’s a guess. Let me give you my best guess. The last thing you want to do is pretend that you know something that you don’t actually know, because you will be found out. Your interviewer will very likely have some exposure to the sector that you have worked in and will know enough to be able to pressure test your knowledge base to understand when you might be bluffing versus when you’re being very self-aware and clear about what you know. Another kind of question that comes up a lot are questions about how you consume information, what you read, how do you form intelligent opinions and knowledge and expertise about your space? So, what are you reading or what are your news outlets, or how do you stay on top of your industry? Questions like that.


Be Prepared To Talk About Yourself & What You Know


So the majority of the questions in the Harvard interview are going to really focus specifically on you and what you've already said in the application, or what's already been said about you by your recommenders. The second set of questions you need to be thinking about are questions that test you in your domain knowledge and expertise. That last set of questions tends to strike terror in the heart of applicants. But keep in mind, you only know what you know and you don't know what you don't know. So just be ready to talk about yourself and what you know. And if you've done the application process right, you should already be ready to do that. In fact, for the very strongest candidates, very little preparation is required for the Harvard interview because you are already a subject matter expert on yourself and the industry and function that you represent. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take the time to go through the steps I just described, but if you've already gotten that interview to Harvard, chances are you're already pretty ready. By the way, if you want more insights into how to ace your Harvard interview, your MBA interview, or any job interview you have on the horizon, click this link to sign up for our interview masterclass. It's much more detailed information on how to get yourself ready for any interview. In this masterclass, we talk about the psychology of the interviewer and how you can take advantage of that to build a great connection from the beginning of the conversation. I go through the six major question types that will appear in any interview and frameworks to prepare for each of them. And finally, we’ll cover interview mindsets that will allow you to maintain your confidence before, during, and after any interview. Check it out! I am wishing you the very best of luck. I'll see you next week on MBA Monday.

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Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder of Career Protocol

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