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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

October 09, 2014

HBS Admissions Interviews for the MBA Class of 2017

In this post I provide advice for HBS Admissions Interviews for the MBA Class of 2017.


In my experience, applicants who succeed at HBS MBA interviews go to their interview with a sense of confidence based on having done careful preparation. My clients who have failed the interview stage have often done so because of related reasons: lack of confidence and/or preparation.  Of course, there are times when the post-interview reason for getting dinged is never clear. The reality of having too many well qualified applicants means that many who would certainly make the post-interview cut don’t, simply due to lack of available seats. While these issues could be the same for any interview, the reality is that HBS admissions interviews are more intensive than that of most other schools. Failure to take this interview sufficiently seriously is a recipe for disaster.

My interview-only and comprehensive service clients have been admitted to the regular HBS for the Classes of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005. My clients' results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application consulting on HBS, I regularly help some candidates with HBS interview preparation only. I have worked with a large number of applicants from Canada, Europe, India, Japan, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS.

Before reading this post, I suggest reviewing some or all of the following previous posts:
-MBA Application Interview Strategy
-General Characteristics of Admissions Officers, Students, and Alumni Interviewers
-Recovering from a bad answer during an MBA admissions interview
-10 Ways to Blow an MBA Admissions Interview
Keyword: A selling point or even a weakness Stories Questions It Might Answer
  1. Development of 6-sigma strategic framework for XXX, inc.
  2. Discovery of accounting errors during first year of work.
  3. Senior thesis on the S&L Crisis
  1. Name three words that describe you (This would be one)
  2. What are your strengths?  Why? (This would be one.)
  3. How do you solve complex problems?
  4. How could you contribute to your classmates?
  5. What skill are you most proud of?
In addition to outlining key words and stories as discuss in my general post on interview strategy, you actually more directly connect this to the specific four criteria (See my essay analysis post) that HBS values in order to see how well you are covering each of the criteria in your interview preparation. The chart below will help you map out your own HBS interview strategy.
Keywords: A selling point or even a weakness Stories Diversity A Habit of Leadership Analytical Aptitude and Appetite Engaged Community Citizenship Questions It Might Answer
Development of 6-sigma strategic framework for XXX, inc. Analytical -Name three words that describe you (This would be one)
-What are your strengths?  Why? (This would be one.)
-How do you solve complex problems?
-How could you contribute to your classmates?
-What skill are you most proud of?
Cooperative Overcame team conflict when developing 6-sigma strategic framework for XXX, inc. -Demonstrates
consensus based leadership
-Can lead others
–Name three words that describe you (This would be one)
-Tell me about a project that you've worked recently where you exhibited leadership.
-What kind of leader are you?
Review your entire application (not just resume and essays, but everything including the transcript) very carefully and consider what your interviewer might ask you to explain more thoroughly. Remember: Anything is fair game. Assume that the weakest parts of your application will be topics in the interview. Assume the worst-case scenario and be very prepared to address their concerns. Given the annual failure rate at HBS, if you have any academic weaknesses (low GPA, a relatively weak TOEFL, insufficient proof of a quantitative background), be ready to address those issues. Be prepared to tell new stories and alternative versions of the stories you told in your essays.
Most questions will not be odd, but they may be unexpected. On the other hand, the reports that I get from my clients and a number of  public reports indicate that the majority of questions are actually common ones.  Be able to articulate clearly what you want to learn at HBS and what you can contribute. While it is important to be able to discuss leadership, don’t assume the interview will be entirely focused on it. The interviewer will come in knowing what they want to ask you.
His general conclusions about HBS interviews:

  • Expect to be asked for more details about most every topic discussed
  • Expect topics to change as the interviewer will pursue detailed answers to topics that interest him/her
  • Expect questions to feed off your responses rather than to be scripted
  • Don't be surprised if the interviewer does not allow you to ask questions: they treat this interview as a chance to learn as much about you as possible in a limited time
  • Bottom line: Harvard interviews are quite rigorous compared to other MBA admissions interviews
  • How do you want to impact HBS?
  • Who is a leader that you admire and why?
  • Name a business leader you admire (non-government).
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with someone you did not get along with.
  • Give me an example of a project you've had a difficult time with.
  • Tell me about a time when you raised an unpopular idea?
  • What do you feel you need to improve most at your current job?
  • What would your supervisor say is a weakness?
  • How would your colleagues describe you?
  • Your recommender mentioned that you excellent at what you do: Why do you think that is?
  • Give me an example of a project you've had a difficult time with.
  • What would a peer that knows you well say you should keep doing, start doing, or stop doing?
  • Is there anything that would surprise me?
  • What do you do when you have a really bad day?
  • What TV shows do you watch?
  • What sources do you use for news?
  • Given what you know now, if you could go back to university and pick your subjects, which ones would you?
  • What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?
  • What drives/motivates you?
  • If you could have lunch with anyone in the world who would it be?
  • Who would you want to sit next to in your first year at HBS?
  • What would be your dream job?
  • How would the people who know you best describe you?
  • What are people surprised to learn about you?
  • How do you fit with different cultures?
  • What's a question that you thought I was going to ask you but didn't?
  • Is there anything else that you haven’t mentioned in your application that you would like to share at this time?

-Further Comments on MBA Admissions Interviews 
-When to start MBA interview practice? How to prepare?
The above posts are my general remarks on MBA admissions interview strategy and apply here.

TAKE PREPARATION FOR HBS VERY SERIOUSLY! Any experienced admissions consultant will tell you that the HBS interview is one that really does require preparation even for those who previously aced alumni interviews.  My colleagues and I have often become depressed about cases where we had great applicants who did not take the HBS really seriously.  By the same token, our clients who really prep for this really do have a much higher rate of admission.  I have had clients who might do 5-20 hours of self-preparation for every hour of time spent with a consultant.  One of my clients admitted to HBS did 2 hours of prep with myself and another counselor and an additional 100 hours on his own. He already had been admitted to Kellogg and Booth, but knew HBS would be different.

I believe in the value of active interview preparation. That is to say, instead of focusing only what questions you might get asked, focus on what you want to say about yourself. A basic any school approach to this would be to connect key words and stories that you hope to use. Given that you can’t know exactly what you will be asked, you can at least have prepared for discussing key things that you want to get across to the interviewer.  The following is an “any school” chart:

Active Interview Preparation Chart
(You can cut and paste this into MS Word or Google docs)

HBS Active Interview Preparation Chart
(You can cut and paste this into Google Docs or Microsoft Word and alter it to include more rows.)

To use the above chart: Try to develop 10 or so keywords and stories that relate to HBS’s four criteria for admission. Don’t forget to include weaknesses when you do so.  Your objective is be ready to tell your best stories as effectively as possible. Use the above chart to help determine which key words and stories will convey the most about you.  Remember that you want to use stories that are different from the ones you used in your essays. You might be asked about something in your application, which you should be prepared to discuss, but also assume you will need to provide new stories as well.

You need to know your application very completely as you will be asked by adcom about its content.

If you think that either your English ability and/or interview skills are somewhat weak, be prepared to do extensive practice both with other people and alone. The self-study component can be particularly effective if you are trying to cover a huge range of questions and also master telling your best stories.

A point I continually make to own clients who have been invited for the HBS interview is that proper preparation for this interview really requires that you look for all the weak points in your application: Rip yourself apart in order to try and determine what you need to be especially ready to address. Getting a fresh perspective by reviewing your own application is certainly helpful. In addition, you should consider having one or more other people who can help you prepare for this and who will review your entire file. If you use any paid services, make sure that the mock interviewer (admissions consultant, admissions counselor, interview coach) will be reading your application first and developing a list of questions based on that review and with an understanding of what HBS asks, otherwise they are not really helping you prepare for an HBS interview. When I do mock interviews for interview-only clients, I always ask to read their applic ations if they are not doing a blind interview. For schools like HBS and MIT, which are never blind, reading the whole application (especially the essays) is critical for simulating the real thing.

The questions you get will be specific to you.

In addition to my own knowledge, I have reviewed reports of Harvard Business School interviews found at accepted.com and clearadmit.com.  My colleague, Steve Green, has collected and organized some of the commonly asked questions from those sites.
Here are the questions Steve has collected and organized.
  • Explain your career path. / Take me through your resume.
  • Describe your career progression, and talk about the most important things you learned about yourself along the way.
  • Why did you choose to join this company?
  • How did you pick your current job?
  • What are the best and worst things about your current job?
  • How did you end up at your company?
    • What do you think about their training program?
    • What’s the company’s position compared to its competitors?
    • What was different about your previous job compared to this one?
    • What was the most surprising aspect about this company when you first joined?
    • What worries you about the company?
  • Explain your career path.
  • Why did you want to work in _____________?
  • How has your leadership evolved with your promotion(s)?
  • Who do you admire in your current industry?
    • Where is the industry heading?
  • Who do you admire in your post-MBA industry?
    • Where is the industry heading?
  • Tell me about your typical day?
  • How do you find the time to do all you do?
  • What's most important to you outside of work?
  • Why did you choose to major in X at your undergrad university?
  • Why did you enjoy (SOMETHING FROM UNDERGRAD)?
  • What is your career vision?
    • What are the steps you plan on taking to get there?
    • What are the challenges you will face?
    • How will an HBS MBA help you?
  • Why do you want an MBA?
  • When did you decide to get an MBA?
  • Why HBS?
  • In class, what type of profiles are you looking to meet? From who would you like to learn something?
  • What can you contribute to HBS case method discussion?
  • What experience outside the classroom are you looking for at HBS?
  • What will you do if you don’t get into business school?
  • If
    we called you and said there is only 1 seat left in the class and 10
    candidates remaining, what would you say differentiates you from them?

  • Tell me about a project that you've worked recently where you exhibited leadership.
  • What kind of leader are you?


  • How did you find the application process? Did any of it surprise you?
  • Is there something about you that has not been addressed in your application?
  • What is a recent non-fiction book you've read? (FOLLOW UP)
  • What is the most recent fiction book you've read?
    • What do you think the author was trying to say about society?
  • What is the most interesting article you've read lately?
    • Did you agree with it?
  • What is a common misperception people have about you?
  • Can you tell me about a time when people's perceptions about you turned out to be wrong?
  • What words would people use to describe you?
  • What would your 5 closest friends say about you? Why?


Assume there will be at least one question for which you might not be ready for, but don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Answer the question and do not become flustered. Be ready to answer questions about a hypothetical case study, conflict with colleagues, and the latest book you read as these have all been reported frequently.  For example,  If you are asked what is your favorite flavor of ice cream is (I have had clients asked questions almost like this) and you hate ice cream say that.  If you like ice cream just briefly state why for whatever flavor you like and assume that the interviewer is just seeing how you react to a question you were not ready for.

Adcom interviewers are usually friendly, but to the point. They don’t do stress interviewing at HBS exactly, but they will question you intensely. They will be taking notes. Anything you say can be subject to inquiry, so speak concisely, answer questions precisely, and try to avoid voluntarily bringing up any topics that you really don’t want to talk about. Assume the you will be asking follow-up questions, expect to be able to analyze/explain in a great deal of depth. Your interviewer will know exactly what he/she wants to ask you because the purpose of the interview is (1) to see if you look as good in reality as you did in paper and (2) to address any concerns that they have about your suitability for HBS.

Don’t Psych yourself out! It is particularly important that you don’t worry too much about your perception of the interviewer’s attitude as this can be a particularly good way to become nervous.  I have had too many reports of clients doing this with HBS.  Your interviewer maybe less friendly or more friendly, maybe more aggressive or less agressive, but whatever their attitude focus on your answers.  Feel free to panic and cry after you have exited the interview, but avoid doing so during it.

Have Mock Interviews that reflect both the range of questions and various kinds of interviewers you might encounter.   If I do multiple mock sessions with the same client, I will use different interviewer personalities.  Here is how I helped a client who was admitted to HBS for the Class of 2016 (The client’s full testimonial can be found here):

“Adam digs deep into your application to understand your vulnerabilities and asks challenging questions to prepare you for the worst.  He also exposes you to a number of interviewing styles that you may encounter at HBS – from the amiable interviewer who lets you take the discussion in a direction of your choosing (which can be very dangerous), to the probing style that challenges your statements and changes directions on a dime.”

The friendly interviewer will let you hang yourself, the aggressive interviewer will challenge you, the indifferent interviewer will give you very little feedback so you have to take charge, and  the rude interviewer will interrupt you and appear condescending. At HBS,  you are not likely to encounter a rude interviewer (That type is most common amongst alumni interviewers), but friendly, aggressive, and indifferent are very common types.   Whether you are being made to feel good about the interview or not by the interviewer,  your  mission is still to convince this interviewer that you are right for their school.  While you may have some idea of the personality of your interviewer before you interview, chances are you will not. It is therefore particularly important to prepare for a variety of different types of interviewers.

Reported interview length for all interviews is 30 minutes.  HBS is totally consistent about this.  So part of effective preparation on your part, means really considering time management and not wasting time in the interview by providing answers that are too long.

For more about my interview services, see here.
See here for how to answer the HBS Post Interview Reflection.
-Adam Markus

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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