If you’ve submitted an application to Harvard and received an invitation for an interview, you’re halfway to claiming your seat in a prestigious MBA program. However, it’s too soon to celebrate; the Harvard Business School (HBS) interview is the last obstacle you must overcome, as approximately 50 percent of candidates that reach the interview stage gain acceptance to Harvard.
The HBS interview is a uniquely challenging interview used to assess how well candidates will fit in the MBA program and decide on your acceptance. The HBS interview is genuinely one of a kind and often quite different from other standard business school interviews. In this guide, you will learn about the HBS interview’s characteristics, what HBS is looking for, and tips on how to increase your chances of nailing the interview.
The HBS interview can seem like a daunting task but armed with enough preparation and knowledge, you will be on your path to getting an MBA from Harvard.
About the Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School was constructed in 1924 and is an internationally renowned business school located in Boston, Massachusetts. HBS prides itself in its mission statement to educate leaders who will positively impact the world through a respectful environment dedicated to “truth, excellence, and lifelong learning.” Students, faculty, alumni, and staff are expected to accept and abide by the community values put in place by HBS.
These values are that all should respect others’ rights, differences, and dignity, display honesty and integrity in dealing with community members, and be accountable for their personal behavior. These pillars of character lay a foundation for HBS to be a fair and respectful institution.
Harvard Business School is a school known for its substantial brand recognition through the Harvard Business Review, a general magazine published by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation (HBSPC). HBSPC is also responsible for publishing numerous books and other publications.
If you were to flip through the books on your bookshelf, you might be surprised to see some of them were published by HBSPC. Along with the school’s famous branding, HBS is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious business schools you can attend, as it is consistently ranked among the top five business schools from year to year.
HBS is also set apart from other Business Schools because it tackles learning in its MBA program. The HBS Case Method has students work in groups to solve problems while considering the different opinions, considerations, and perspectives of students that provide many angles on how to problem-solve. Students will read and analyze a case, discuss it, engage in class, and reflect on it.
The case method prepares students for leadership positions where they will “face time-sensitive decisions with limited information.” This learning style allows students to learn more about businesses, communication, analysis, listening, and critical thinking skills that they will need to succeed in the business world beyond graduation.
Harvard Business School offers four different programs to students: the MBA, executive education, online, and doctoral programs. The MBA program is a two-year full time program that focuses on real-world practice and experiences. Executive education programs are for individuals or organizations looking to help executives expand their global perspective and further develop their leadership skills.
Students have the option to enroll in online programs to gain online certificate courses to understand essential business concepts. Doctoral programs encompass eight full-time programs that lead to a Ph.D. or DBA for academic research interests. Despite the array of options, HBS is best known for the full time MBA program.
HBS Interview Overview
If your application is well-received and the admissions committee wants to evaluate your candidacy further, you will be invited to participate in an HBS interview. The HBS interview is timed to last no longer than 30 minutes and conducted by an admissions committee member who reviewed your application. These interviews can occur in various locations, such as on-campus, via Skype, or in domestic or international hub cities.
The HBS interview’s style consists of rapid-fire questioning that can even be aggressive. This sounds nerve-wracking, but the reasoning for this is that the admissions committee has a concise amount of time to get a real sense of who you are, and they also want to know how well you can perform under pressure. In your 30 minute-long interview, you have about five minutes for your introduction, 20 to 25 minutes for the body of your interview, and about two minutes for your conclusion.
The introduction of your interview will ask you comprehensive questions to make you feel more comfortable or questions that sound like elevator pitches.
In the body of your interview, you are asked to “deep-dive” in content areas that either were not already covered on your application or the interviewer wants to know more about a topic you wrote about already. You may have to clarify your career path, explain in detail why you want to attend HBS, or demonstrate your interpersonal abilities and how your acceptance will benefit HBS and your peers. Y
ou may also have to defend your background by explaining the choices you’ve made in your life. You may be asked questions about your undergraduate degree, your jobs, or about internships you’ve completed.
The end of your interview can be your opportunity to wrap up everything you’ve talked about and a chance to thank your interviewer. However, this is a great time to briefly address any topic you weren’t asked about in the interview. Remember to keep it brief and concise, as you likely don’t have much time left at this point.
What HBS Looks For in Candidates
Harvard Business School understands that its candidates come from diverse areas of study and background. Whatever the experiences of students, HBS looks for candidates who fit these three characteristics:
Habit of Leadership
Harvard Business School is preparing students to tackle real-world business issues and positively impact the world. The admissions committee needs to see leadership potential in its candidates. Leadership expression can present in many forms, from academic or business achievements, community involvement or obligations, personal accomplishments, or college extracurriculars.
Students will learn the skills they need to be great and fair leaders at all scales, whether managing a team or running an independent business. In your interview, you should aim to highlight specific instances in which you successfully took the reins on a project or managed a group of people toward a goal. This will demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have a great foundation and will significantly benefit from the leadership training offered in the Harvard Business School MBA.
Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
It’s no surprise that Harvard Business School has a demanding and fast-paced learning environment. The admissions committee is looking for candidates who love a great debate and lively discussion. The HBS Case Method mentioned above, and field-based learning methods are why the admissions committee values candidates with these qualities.
Candidates must be able to “assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts.” The admissions committee will also review your past academic experience, your GMAT or GRE scores, the nature of your work experience, and, if applicable, the TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS. If you want to retake your standardized admission test before applying to HBS to aim for a higher score, multiple services offer GMAT prep or GRE prep. To give yourself the best chance of succeeding in the HBS interview, you should review your application from front to back to ensure its high quality.
Engaged Community Citizenship
Harvard Business School’s MBA program involves a great deal of collaboration from the entire community. HBS students are held to the highest ethical standard and must positively impact the HBS community. Students must be “eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.” HBS values students from diverse backgrounds and industries, as reflected in HBS’ class profile.
In your HBS interview, you should reflect on times you have made a positive impact in the world around you and the positive influence on the classroom. Reflect on the times you have supported a colleague or other experiences you think would demonstrate yourself as a prepared, ideal candidate.
What Makes the HBS Interview Unique
The HBS interview is slightly different from other interviews conducted at other business schools. While some schools may take a relaxed approach to their interview process that sounds more like a conversation than an interrogation, the HBS interview is far more fast-paced and can feel aggressive if you’re not prepared.
Unlike other schools, you will not have an opportunity to ask questions about the program, the case method, the FIELD method, or any other component of the MBA program. The 30 minutes allotted for your interview are only to evaluate your candidacy; you are expected to learn more about the school on your own time.
Another unique component of the HBS interview is what follows it. Within 24 hours of your interview, candidates must complete a post-interview reflection. This reflection is uploaded through HBS’ online application system. It is often where applicants express gratitude for the opportunity and “unbridled enthusiasm if not awe at what they discovered during their visit to campus.” The reflections can have an extensive range for word count, typically ranging from around 200 to 1300 words.
Some students choose to write about their interactions with other MBA students on campus, reflect on the diversity of students, or clarify their intentions to impact the HBS community positively. There are numerous examples of sample reflections online written by men and women from a variety of fields.
How To Prepare for the HBS Interview
Preparing for the HBS interview can be a daunting task, mainly because you don’t know with certainty which questions you will be asked. That being said, there are actions you can take before your interview to ensure that you’re prepared enough to withstand your interviewer’s rapid-fire questions.
1. Reread Your Application
This is the first step you need to take to ensure you're well-prepared for the HBS interview. You should reread your entire application in detail and take care not to skim over anything. Brooke Wheelan, a former associate director of admissions at HBS, said, “I cannot tell you how many times I interviewed applicants who could not talk beyond the surface of what they put down on paper.” She suggests that applicants look back on their application to follow up on other details and context, whether that be the thesis paper you wrote in college five years ago or a reason you want to work for a specific company that goes deeper than the superficial level.
2. Know the Goal of the Interview
Every interviewer wants to know how you will add something distinct to the classroom and how a candidate will positively impact the community at HBS as both a student and an alum. By tailoring some of your preparation to the three things HBS is looking for in candidates listed above, you can be better prepared to demonstrate your value to the admissions committee.
Demonstrate your leadership qualities in your answers, talk about your passion for discussion and debate, and highlight how you plan to engage the HBS community and learn from those around you.
3. Get an Idea of Sample Question
There is indeed no way to know with certainty what questions you will be asked in the HBS interview, but looking at sample questions can help understand the general potential subject nature of the interview. For example, questions at the beginning of your interview will likely be broad, but you can also use the introduction questions to sway the path of the rest of the discussion so take full advantage. Some general questions you may be asked include:
- “Why did you make a particular career choice?”
- “Why do you want to go to Harvard Business School?”
- “Why did you choose what you did for your undergraduate degree?”
- “Why did you choose a certain job or internships?”
These questions are comprehensive, but this is an excellent opportunity to summarize why you’re an ideal candidate by providing concrete actions that you have taken in your personal and professional life. You will also be asked more challenging questions than those above, however. Here are some examples of more complex questions that you may or may not be asked during your HBS interview:
- “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?”
The more challenging questions will have you establish a position and defend and support your idea on the spot. These questions are intentionally tricky and show the admissions committee how well you can think on your feet. Remember, these questions are meant to throw you off balance, so you need to be prepared to answer anything.
Top Tips on How To Successfully Ace the HBS Interview
Even with your preparation, there are some tips to help you increase your chances of nailing the HBS interview.
1. Have Fresh Material Ready
Even though you have no way to ascertain what you’ll be asked, you can prepare responses in advance that “best illustrate the decisions you've made on your journey to business school.” However, do not recycle any examples you provided in your essay or any other part of your application. The interviewer has already read your application from front to back. Come up with fresh and new examples to share to demonstrate your interpersonal skills and the breadth of your experiences.
2. Practice Your Responses In Advance, But Don’t Memorize Them
You, of course, want to have fresh material prepared as mentioned above, but take care not to memorize your answers by heart. You should have a general idea of what you want to say in response to particular question areas, but coming across too well-rehearsed can make you sound robotic. You need to know enough about your application to answer any question without hesitancy but within an appropriate time limit. You don’t want to completely derail your interview, dancing around one answer for 15 minutes. Be as concise as you can!
3. Practice, practice, practice! (With a mock interview.)
Reading material about the HBS interview is a great way to understand the format and expectations of you. Still, practical experience can go a long way to increase your chances of success. You can participate in mock interviews that will use potential questions that the HBS interviewer may ask you. These services are valuable to be prepared for any curveballs and receive feedback on your answers from professionals. Maybe you’re spending too long on responses to a particular query area, or perhaps you’re much too general or superficial with your answers.
This feedback is a great way to understand the areas of your interview that you excel at and what you may need to work on a little more. Former HBS interviewer Brooke Wheelan said, “The ultimate sweet spot is to have enough confidence to effectively communicate your story to your interviewer while still sounding natural and unrehearsed. My mantra is to know it, and then forget it.”
1. Will how and where I participate in the HBS interview have any effect on my candidacy?
No. Neither the time of your interview or its delivery has any effect on your candidacy.
2. How many people will be interviewing me?
One member of the admissions committee who has read your application will interview you. There may be an observer also from the admissions committee in the room as well.
3. What’s the purpose of the observer?
The observer acts to minimize personal bias by having another person present to listen to your responses. They will only listen and not ask you any questions, and they will have only read your resume, not your whole application. If there is not an observer present, that means nothing about your candidacy. Sometimes the admissions committee can't have two people in the interview.
4. Is the post-interview reflection optional?
No, all candidates must submit a reflection online within 24 hours of the interview. Try to think of the reflection as a detailed follow-up email that also expresses your gratitude and enthusiasm.
5. When should I expect an invitation for my interview?
Invitations to attend an interview are given on a rolling basis. The timing of your invitation has nothing to do with your candidacy.
6. Is the HBS interview the make-or-break component of my application?
Whether or not the HBS interview leads directly to your acceptance to HBS or not is subjective. The HBS interview is another component of your application. It is undoubtedly an indicator of positive interest from the admissions committee, but it does not guarantee your acceptance. The HBS interview serves as “one element among many that are considered as we complete a final review of your candidacy.”
If you’ve been invited to participate in an HBS interview, you are one step closer to securing your seat in Harvard Business School’s MBA program. You know now that the HBS interview is slightly different than other business school interviews due to its rapid-fire questioning format, and you have a better idea of what questions you will be asked.
Remember to answer the questions with concrete examples that demonstrate your leadership abilities, academic aptitude, and ethical standards. Ensure that you have studied your application well and understand that the goal of the interview is to assess how well you will fit into the MBA program. Be sure to bring fresh material to talk about to the interview and make sure you are well-prepared but sound natural and unrehearsed. Mock interviews are the best practical experience that you can bring to the HBS interview.
With the information and excellent tips outlined in this guide, you can be confident that you have the tools and the skills to excel in the challenging HBS interview.