Harvard Business School students dish on admissions interviews

October 24, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Want to go to Harvard Business School? Be prepared to answer some odd questions, such as what kind of chocolate you prefer.

By John A. Byrne

Harvard(Poets&Quants) -- If you're a male applicant to the Harvard Business School and about to be interviewed by admissions, you should wear a well-fitting black, grey or navy blue suit with a non-distracting shirt and tie. Deodorant is a must but cologne is a no-no.

If you're a woman, the length of your skirt should be at least at the knee. Your suit color and style should be simple and classic, with closed-toed pumps with a heel height of between one and three inches. The flashy baubles are best left at home along with any strong fragrance.

You should make sure you've eaten a "substantial breakfast" and arrive at Dillon House, where the admissions staff is located on campus, at least 20 minutes early.

That's the advice from the just-published "Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide," put together annually by the staff of The Harbus, the school's MBA student newspaper. The 43-page guide is based on "first-hand insight, advice and analysis" from current HBS students as well as "real interview questions from real interviews of real students," according to Editors Bart Clareman and Kate Lewis as well as Publisher Alex Pak.

"We worked hard to get the first-hand advice not only from past interviewees but from students who successfully navigated in the process and enrolled at HBS," says co-editor Clareman. "Applicants know that HBS puts a lot of importance on the interview, and we believe this source is the most accurate and the most helpful for prospective students who want to know what to expect on the big day."

MORE: A B-school class with 50,000 students? It's on.

The editors organize the questions they received from a survey of the first-year class upon their arrival on campus into six main categories: experience, leadership, career, current events, curriculum, and situational. The experience, leadership, and career buckets prompt interviewees to tell "their story" by reflecting on past challenges and achievements. The questions on current global events or the HBS curriculum allow admissions to assess an applicant's perspective. The situational bucket helps candidates prepare for the occasional "off-the-wall" ask that requires on-the-spot resourcefulness.

This year's edition of the Harbus guide includes 20 pages of interview questions, 79 questions in all, each with a couple of paragraphs of advice analysis. There's a step-by-step walkthrough to help applicants prep for the interview, along with suggested weekday and weekend add-ons for your trip to Harvard, and advice on how to compose a follow-up thank you note (crafting a handwritten note, the students say, "can help you stand out in the eyes of the interviewer.")

Given some of the oddball questions you might get, the guide is definitely worth the $50—which goes to support the non-profit student newspaper. It can be downloaded as a PDF file here. At the very least, it will give you the basics, however obvious, and prepare you for the off-the-wall question that may very well come your way. And while the questions are from actual Harvard admission interviews, they're pretty much what you could expect at any top business school. So even if you're bound for Stanford, Wharton, Chicago or Kellogg, you'll find plenty of value in Harvard's interview guide.

Examples of some of those curve ball questions:

What would you say is the brand of your undergraduate university?

What is your favorite kind of chocolate?

How has the recession affected you?

How would your parents describe you when you were twelve?

Explain the 'C' on your transcript in this economics class.

What company do you follow that isn't Google or Apple? What issues do you think keep its CEO up at night?

What would be your dream job and why?

What's the one thing you'll never be as good at as others?

In each case, the editors serve up good, practical advice for how to handle these curve balls. The counsel is valuable, even for the confident and self-assured, though the guide's editors are not exactly putting words in your mouth to spout out.

Consider that last question on the one thing you'll never be as good at as others, for example. Here's the advice dispensed by the guide:

"HBS students have an often unfair reputation of being egotistical. If you respond 'nothing' to this, it indicates a lack of self-awareness. If your response is 'modesty,' you'd better hope your interviewer has a good sense of humor. There are so many honest, personalized answers to this question that it should not be difficult to come up with an example. Be honest; don't try to hedge it or spin it. Just own it."

MORE: Why Harvard MBAs overwhelmingly favor Obama

While the questions and the analysis that follows each one is the meat and potatoes of the guide, there's enough other helpful advice to allow you to vicariously go through the experience before actually showing up for it. Consider these tidbits:

"Without a doubt, the quickest and easiest way to botch an interview is to show up late," according to the guide, which suggests arriving 20 minutes before your interview time. And as soon as you are scheduled for the session, the students advise applicants to adapt a new morning routine.

"Browse all the headlines of all the major business news sites (WSJ.com, the New York Times' business section, Economist.com), read any stories that seem particularly pertinent, and be sure to hit up any sites that cover your industry in particular (you don't want to be broadsided during your interview!)."

In the weeks leading up to your interview, the guide suggests that you read through your application "constantly until you know it backwards and forwards. Then read it more so that you know it inside and out. The interviewer can and will refer to specifics from your application, and the quickest and easiest way to blow your shot at HBS (besides being late to your interview!) is to appear unfamiliar with—or worse yet, to actually contradict—your application."

MORE: How much have Harvard MBAs made this year?

On the week of your interview, Harvard students advise you to "get your suit dry-cleaned, your shoes polished and your hair cut, make any last-minute travel arrangements, and tie up any loose ends at work."

All somewhat obvious, but smart counsel on how to approach the whole, anxiety-ridden process.

In a brief essay, co-editor Kate Lewis makes clear her view that Harvard's recent changes in its application have created unnecessary criticism. "Some critics of the circumscribed essay portion assert that non-traditional candidates will suffer from lack of space to explain their backgrounds to admissions officials who might be less familiar with their industry or firm than they would be with a candidate from Goldman Sachs (GS) or McKinsey," she writes. "I say, cut the crap. As a newspaperwoman, I am a fan of concise writing. Eight hundred words, almost twice the length of the Gettysburg Address, leaves more than enough space for an applicant to reflect thoughtfully on relevant experiences."

Join the Conversation
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.

Email John
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.