Harvard’s unofficial guide to the MBA interview

October 27, 2011, 6:59 PM UTC

Harvard Business School

(Poets&Quants) — When Jehan deFonseka did his Harvard Business School admissions interview two years ago, there was one question that surprised him.

“What’s the last book you’ve read?” an admissions staffer asked him during his session at Dillon House, where Harvard’s admissions office is located.

Luckily for deFonseka, now a 26-year-old, second-year student at Harvard, he had a ready answer, and a good one. He had just completed reading a substantive book and one that reflected his career interests and direction — Sustainability Without the Hot Air.

Now editor-in-chief of The Harbus, HBS’ weekly newspaper, he’s put that question and others to good use in the newly updated Fall 2011 Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide, which was published yesterday as Harvard has begun to invite hundreds of round-one applicants to yet another cycle of stressful interviews.

The new guide contains about 50 questions, and as many as 20 of them are new this year, culled from actual HBS interviews with current students and recent grads. Each question includes an analysis of what exactly Harvard is looking for and how an applicant might best answer the query. The commentary comes from a group of seven current students who, perhaps obviously, overcame the interview hurdle in previous rounds. Another 50 to 70 MBA candidates responded to a Harbus survey, providing questions they were asked in their session.

“These are well-practiced interviews,” says deFonseka. “They can tell when someone is faking it. At HBS, applicants are not interviewing with students. You are interviewing with pretty seasoned professionals.”

DeFonseka says his team cut back on a lot of the dress and behavior advice the guide dispensed last year. Among other things, the Harbus staff advised female applicants that cleavage was a no-no along with shirts that revealed any part of one’s thigh. He concedes his predecessors went a little “overboard” last year in devoting far too much space to such issues.

“It was completely overdone and unnecessary,” says deFonseka. “It was great for a little chuckle, but there is a time and a place for that kind of thing.”

This time, the Harbus crunched the advice on dress and appearance into a half page of bullet points from the five full pages it gave such subjects last year.

Instead, there’s much more focus on the questions an admissions officer is likely to ask an applicant. DeFonseka says the new $35 guide contains 50% more pages of real interview questions and analysis.

Among the new questions and the advice:

What company in an industry outside of your own do you find successful?

Says deFonseka, “The reason that is an amazing question is that it gets to how you define success. It’s very much a personal answer. Do you define success as making a huge amount of profit or do you define success as having social impact? There is no correct answer but it does reveal your own values and beliefs as an individual. The interviewer is trying to see how familiar you are with companies outside your industry. They’re trying to see if you have the intellectual curiosity HBS is looking for. It’s a signal to see if you are a good fit for Harvard.”

Why do you need an MBA to achieve your goals?

This is often a standard question in B-school admission interviews. “An MBA can be a powerful tool for your future, but you should think deeply about the specific skills and tools you are trying to develop when you answer this question,” advises deFonseka. “As Professor Youngme Moon told entering students, ‘There is a difference between building a resume and building a life.’ That phrase captures how you should be thinking about answering the question. If you want the MBA to be a bullet point on your resume, you should not be spending two years of your life and $160,000 to get one. You need to think about what long-term goal in your life you want to accomplish and how an MBA will allow you to achieve that goal.”

Some other questions:

Walk me through your resume.

Analysis: “Make your resume tell a story rather than merely relate a series of unconnected events. Focus on upward progression. If there’s a gap in your resume — perhaps from a period of unemployment — don’t shy away from that but also don’t dwell on it. Just mention it and move on. Now more than ever, the admissions team will understand — even expect — brief periods of unemployment. Also be sure to cap your time. Keep your ‘walk’ to five minutes, and don’t spend all your time in one area versus another. For example, don’t dwell on your college experience to the detriment of your actual, relevant work experience.”

Forget that I read your applications and tell me about yourself.

Advice: “You should have a prepared story that you rehearse over and over throughout the coming weeks. You know you’re going to get some kind of intro question that’s specific to you and specific to your story, so practice it like an elevator pitch. If you’ve got one minute, what are you going to tell people about yourself?”

How did you decide to attend your undergraduate college?

Advice: “Business school is a situation in which you’re constantly making big decisions, and you need to be able to convey what your assumptions were and what your thought process was in three bullet points. Likewise, that’s how you should attack any question asking why you made a big decision. Say this is what I was looking for in my undergraduate college, and this is what my college of choice offered. Be rational, be honest, and be professional.”

How would your friends (or boss, or network, etc.) describe you, in three words?

Advice: “First off, you can certainly be more eloquent than others would be if tasked with describing you. This is your chance to show how you want to be portrayed. Use this question as an opportunity to showcase your strengths, especially those you feel may not have come across in your application. Though relatively exhaustive, the HBS application is by no means a complete representation of anyone. That’s why you’re interviewing in the first place!”

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