Harvard's puritanical guide to the MBA interview

February 23, 2011: 9:21 AM ET
Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School (Photo: Joseph Barillari, Image via Wikipedia)

Straight from the mouths of Harvard MBA candidates, the unofficial interview guide covers everything from how much deodorant to apply on the day of your interview to how much kneecap you should reveal.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- Harvard Business School applicants are getting some quirky counsel on how to avoid the kind of faux pas that would destroy their chances of ever gaining admittance to the West Point of Capitalism. The advice, straight from Harvard MBA candidates, covers everything from how much deodorant to apply on the day of your admissions interview to how much kneecap should be revealed when you cross your legs.

The guidance is getting dished in the new 2011 Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide published earlier this month by the B-school's student newspaper, The Harbus. As its authors put it, "our guide bestows first-hand insight, advice and analysis from current HBS students…the analysis we provide comes not from 'recent applicants' but from those who got in, enrolled, and are now immersed in HBS culture."

Think of this as a modern, MBA version of Emily Post's Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. It's a 40-page PDF filled with often obvious, though pragmatic, guidance to avoid an HBS-crushing blunder. One example: "Ladies, practice sitting so that no one can see up your skirt." It's the kind of direction a young woman would have heard when she was 13 years old.

Catherine Leary Tomezsko, general manager of The Harbus, concedes that some of these recommendations may well be "glaringly obvious," but the idea is not to take anything for granted.

"We want to make sure that everybody who buys the guide has a chance [to get into Harvard]," she says.

The newspaper first began publishing the $35 guide only last year and has had "enormously positive feedback" from users, adds Tomezsko. The Harbus plans to launch a separate website, hbsinterview.com, to sell the guide in early March. Along with the advice on etiquette, there's a list of 50 questions that Harvard has recently asked applicants and analysis on how to prepare and answer them (Click here for a sample).

In any given year, HBS interviews some 1,800 applicants and is now in the midst of second-round interviews. In part, the advice reflects the all-consuming obsession most applicants resort to while applying to one of the world's leading business schools.

Sandy Kreisberg, an MBA admissions consultant known as the HBS Guru, thinks that many of the suggestions, particularly the ones related to physical appearance, are extreme.

"Dress and perfume have not sabotaged any interview that I am aware of, although I am sure there are exceptions," he says.  "I think the real advice about dress is, 'Don't make a statement.' Just wear something that is comfortable and respects the situation, and does not draw attention to itself. The most common way that HBS interviews turn damaging is that you talk too much and get lost." (See "Sandy's List of Dos & Don'ts for HBS Interviews" for more counsel.)

Never mind. At the very least, many of these guidelines are good for a laugh, no matter how painfully apparent they may be.

Shower and don't wear perfume or cologne "under any circumstances."

Perhaps the most surprisingly obvious of all the suggestions in the guide concerns hygiene. "Take a shower the morning of your interview," the guide advises. "Second, use deodorant liberally; you may be nervous, and a second (or third) application can never hurt. Pack it in your bag and consider reapplying once you arrive. (Seriously.) Third, do not, under any circumstances, wear perfume or cologne. You never know who might be allergic and you run the risk of leaving a pungent trail in your wake."

Cleavage? "Just don't do it."

"Ladies," recommend the Harbus editors, "skirts should hit at the top of your knee. If thigh is showing, go back to square one and try again. Anything longer than the bottom of your knee looks matronly. Also, if you have a gap between buttons of your shirt, you have two options: buy a safety pin or wear a camisole. It is unadvisable to flash your interviewer. (This includes any variation on cleavage; just don't do it.")."

And for the male applicants?

"Gentleman: don't swim in your suit. Baggy = sloppy. You don't have to like the slim cuts of Thom Browne, but if it looks like you dropped 30 pounds and forgot to buy a new suit, this is a problem. In the same vein, the length of your jacket should hit at the hip -- there is no reason why you should ever sit on it."

Ladies: Take that suit to the tailor

Regarding the question of "fit," the Harbus editors write: "Here's where a great suit can go terribly wrong. As Tim Gunn from 'Project Runway' likes to say, 'a suit is meant to enhance your figure, not hide it.' Unless you won the genetic lottery, chances are an off-the-rack suit will not fit you perfectly. This is where a tailor comes in. You may need to shorten the sleeves or lengthen the pant hem, or adjust the darts."

Gents: Leave the cartoon and golf ball ties at home

The editors caution against wearing loud colors, explaining, "loudness only detracts from your finished look. Prints should be small -- no cartoons, golf balls, or impressionist paintings that consume your tie. And gentlemen, it's best to choose an accent color for your tie (no matchy-matchy, but nothing off-the-wall, either). When in doubt, buy a shirt and tie at the same store with input from a salesperson. (We recommend Brooks Brothers.)"

A note on hair

And then there is their advice on hair. "The number one rule for hair is CLEAN. If you have biological concerns (ie. dandruff or a pet that sheds), be sure to pay extra attention to unsightly accumulations on your suit. Keep a lint roller in your bag if you are super-concerned. Girls, just check the split-end situation and shave your legs if you are wearing a skirt. We really wish we didn't have to say this, but we will: check eyebrows, nose and ears for flyaways. That is, if your nose or ear hair is visible or you sport a unibrow, then you must apply the proper hair removal techniques.

"We personally think high ponytails are a bit unprofessional. Best to secure bangs or wispies with bobby pins or barrettes, or pull it all back into a topknot. Above all, do not fidget with your hair, and do not show up looking like you just stepped out of the shower."

Guess all of that outside the box thinking and mold breaking will have to come from the inside.

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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