Devi Vallabhaneni, an HBS graduate and former HBS MBA interviewer, is mbaMission’s HBS Interviewer in Residence, conducting HBS Intensive Interview Simulations.
Being invited to interview with Harvard Business School (HBS) is unquestionably exciting and a positive step in your admissions journey, but it can also trigger a lot of concerns and questions. Here, I draw on my six years as an HBS interviewer to address some of the most common worries applicants have about the school’s interview, in hopes of easing any apprehension you may be feeling about your upcoming meeting.
“I don’t know what to expect.”
The HBS interview is unlike any other business school interview or even a job interview. It is designed to meet the interviewee where they are, meaning that it conforms to the applicant’s style rather than following a preconceived format set by the school. It is dynamic, extremely personal, and tailored to the specific individual. The interviewer will read your entire application before your interview and will base their questions on that information. As a result, no two interviews are the same because no two applicants are the same. Do not let what you read online or have heard about someone else’s interview worry you. Those stories most likely do not apply to you.
“I have limited presentation or public-speaking experience.”
The HBS interview is not a speech or a typical work presentation but more like a conversation between two business professionals. You do not need to prepare anything formal in advance, and having extensive presentation experience is certainly not required to have a successful interview. What is imperative is knowing yourself and your story extremely well. The interviewer will be focused on you as an individual, your potential contributions as an MBA student, and your career goals. Your personal communication style is less important.
“I work in a very technical and complex field.”
HBS has interviewed candidates from all backgrounds, including science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Your interviewer’s goal is not to understand the technical details of your job but rather how you work and communicate, who you are as a person, how you think about your career, and what your values are. Think of your HBS interview as similar to a discussion you might have about your job with your company’s CEO, which would be a higher-level conversation, beyond the nuts and bolts.
“I have a nontraditional background.”
This does not put you at a disadvantage. Whether you work at a start-up of just three people or with your parents and siblings in a family business, your HBS interview will unfold the same way it would for someone who works at IBM, Goldman Sachs, Google, or McKinsey & Company. You should feel confident in communicating your unique professional challenges and accomplishments. Your preparation for your HBS interview should be no different from that of someone who works at a larger or more conventional company.
“I’m an international applicant.”
HBS is a global community and understands that some candidates might feel less comfortable with their ability to speak English. If you feel your English could use some polishing, that is a personal decision, and you should do what will make you most comfortable for your interview. You will not be penalized for verbal errors or accents because of the high-stress nature of the interview. Practice and prepare the same way you would for an important business meeting in English.
“I work in consulting [or banking] and don’t know how to stand out.”
Your HBS interview is not about standing out per se. It is about viewing your background in the context of what you could contribute to the HBS community. This could include a particular high-impact project, a leadership position outside of work, or a post-MBA career goal that builds on your past professional experience. If you look at yourself as strictly “a consultant applicant” or “a banking applicant,” you will likely be limiting yourself in your self-perception. Instead, take your entire life story and career path into consideration when determining how to communicate who you are.
The bottom line is that everyone feels as though they have some kind of disadvantage in the interview process. This is the human condition. Preparation, self-reflection, and, most importantly, the ability to communicate clearly and succinctly are all key in mastering your HBS interview.
The admissions interview is an art, not a science—one with no hard and fast rules. I wish such rules did exist so that applicants would not worry so much. Imagine the application process as a relay race: your interviewer will pick up where your application left off and will strive to continue learning about you as a candidate. The interview is the next step after your written application and builds on what you have already shared with the HBS Admissions Board.
Practicing speaking about yourself and your accomplishments is important. Find a friend or family member to ask you questions so that you become more comfortable responding to personal queries and get better at delivering your most compelling information easily. Just as you did not write your final, polished application in a single sitting and draft, you will likely need to complete multiple “verbal drafts” before you feel ready for your HBS interview, and this—like the other issues I have covered here—is nothing to worry about.
I can assure you that your HBS interview is intended to help the school get to know you as a person, not just an applicant. You are more than the contents of your file, your work experience, and your primary accomplishments. HBS strives to admit each person as the individual they are, so let your genuine personality shine through in the most authentic way possible.
To learn more about mbaMission’s interview prep options for Harvard Business School applicants, click here. If you believe you can benefit from one of our interview planning services—or simply would like some more information on the process—feel free to contact us anytime!