What to Know about the Harvard Business School Interview

The HBS interview stands apart, both because it is a high-stress component of a top MBA application and because it is somewhat unique in how it is conducted. Receiving an HBS interview invite is a rare and prestigious occurrence, so the pressure is always going to be on. Furthermore, it is a fast-paced interview with 30-40 questions in the span of exactly a half hour!

At its core, the Harvard interview is quite similar to the case study method that the HBS MBA curriculum is famous for. This is intentional, of course—the interview is meant to gauge whether or not you would be a good fit for the HBS classroom.

The HBS Interview as Case Study

We have said that HBS uses a similar approach in its interviews as it does in its classrooms. This means that they won’t ask the same, standard questions that many top MBA admissions committees use. The point is, partially, to keep applicants on their toes and try to figure out how you handle giving impromptu responses in a high-pressure environment.

And it is worth noting that the subject of the case study in the interview is, in fact, you. Harvard always conducts its interviews with one or two members of the AdCom, as opposed to some other top business schools that will use alumni and others to help with the process. As a result, they will have always read your application in full and many of their questions are tailored to your HBS application specifically. 

High Pressure Before the Interview Starts

As if this very challenging, rapid-fire interview format weren’t stressful enough, HBS interviews often begin earlier than you might think they do. Because interviews are held in hub cities around the country, they will often be at a corporate office or a hotel, and you will need to be on your game from the moment you walk through the door. 

HBS admissions officers will often check on little things before you even enter the room where the interview is taking place:

They may even try to throw you off by jumping straight from small talk about the weather in the hallway to a hard hitting question the moment you sit down at the interview table, like “when did you leave your last job?” These kinds of wild shifts are meant to weed out applicants that are too comfortable giving pat answers that they have practiced for hours.

HBS Interview Questions

It is notoriously difficult to get a handle on “standard” HBS interview questions. Looking at any list of sample questions will show you that they are both wide-ranging and markedly different than questions being asked in other top MBA program interviews:

Application-Based Questions

In spite of this broad and somewhat random spread, there are three general categories of questions that you can prepare for. The first category covers questions about you, as gleaned from your application. As we mentioned above, the interviewers are thoroughly familiar with your application and you will often be asked to elaborate on a particular aspect of your background, especially where choices have been made:

These sorts of questions are asked to better understand your motivations. Along the same lines, the HBS admissions team will often go into a deep dive on a project you listed on your resume, with many follow-up questions designed to cut through canned responses, getting to the heart of your decisions and values.

Standard Questions With a Harvard Twist

The second category of HBS interview questions tends to include standard MBA interview questions but with a twist that tries to catch the applicant off-guard. A good example comes in the question: “what would your 5 closest friends say about you and why?” That’s not all that different from “describe yourself,” but it forces you to give a fresh answer and, as a result, step outside your comfort zone. Similarly, instead of asking “what’s your biggest weakness?” they might ask “what’s an area that, no matter how hard you work, you can’t seem to improve?”

Industry Questions

The third category of questions relates to the industries you are working in or plan to go into. They want to see that their applicants are knowledgeable about their past and current roles and have carefully considered where they hope to end up. If you say, “I’d like to work in the tech sector” they might follow up with “what are your top five dream companies and why?” 
The line of questioning in this category might also cover the implications of major mergers or legislation on an industry. For a while, most healthcare sector professionals were asked about the implications of the Affordable Care Act. They want specifics backed up by the kind of understanding that a working professional in the field should have. 

Grab-Bag Questions

Of course, because HBS likes nothing more than to catch its applicants off-guard, the last category includes random, screwball questions. David White, co-founder of Menlo Coaching, recalls an applicant a few years ago who was grilled about how Home Depot ships porcelain toilets all over the country without breaking them. The applicant was a private equity investor who had no history of investing in either Home Depot or toilet manufacturers. There might be some truly bizarre questions like this in your interview.

How To Prepare

Over-preparing for specific questions is absolutely the wrong tactic to take. Because HBS interviewers want to make sure that their applicants can handle the Harvard case study method, they abhor comfortable, well-practiced answers. You are better off, then, practicing for an interview that requires rapid tonal shifts and strange tangents. Even their pre-interview scare tactics aren’t particularly hard to deal with if one knows they might be coming.

In terms of answering questions, the best approach in the lead-up is to get comfortable with the many different ways that a question might be asked. Learn to get to your point quickly and practice assessing what an interviewer really wants to know when they ask a question in a strange or novel manner. You should absolutely be familiar with everything in your application. Don’t take for granted the idea that a minor job or activity won’t become the AdCom’s pet obsession for the half hour. Take the oddball questions in stride and, while you can’t actually anticipate what you will be asked, try to anticipate how to keep your cool when you are asked something unexpected. You might not know how Home Depot ships its toilets, but you should take the question seriously if it comes up.

In the end, the purpose of preparing for the Harvard MBA interview is to become skilled in giving impromptu responses from a place of self-knowledge and thoughtfulness. If you can keep pace with your interviewer, you are likely ahead of the game.

Leave no stone unturned: Prepare with us for your HBS interview!