On Wednesday, October 4, at noon ET, Harvard Business School (HBS) will send its Round 1 applicants an update through their Application Status page. HBS will release one batch of interview invites, along with notifications of “Early Release,” for applicants who will not be moving forward in the application process .
Now is therefore the time to get ready for the HBS admissions interview, which is crucial step in your application process. mbaMission’s Devi Vallabhaneni, a Harvard Business School graduate and former HBS MBA interviewer, has more than 20 years of experience in MBA admissions and readiness. She has conducted thousands of real and mock HBS interviews with candidates across all industries, geographies, and backgrounds and with a wide range of personal stories. As mbaMission’s Managing Director and HBS Interviewer in Residence, she works directly with applicants on their business school applications and conducts HBS Intensive Interview Simulations. In the next two sections, Devi shares some of her insights on the HBS interview, then offers some of her best tips for performing your best.
Click the links below to jump to the sections that interest you.
About The Harvard MBA Interview
“The [invitation to] interview is a positive indicator of interest, but is not a guarantee of admission; it serves as one element among many that are considered as we complete a final review of your candidacy,” the Harvard Business School website states.
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 in your interview.
Who Will Your HBS Interviewer Be and How Will They Prepare?
Your Harvard MBA interview will be conducted by someone on the HBS Admissions Board. These individuals are fully trained professional interviewers and respect how important this moment is for you.
Prior to your interview, they will read your entire application front to back, including your letters of recommendation. They might research your company or activities, especially if they have not heard of them before. They spend a lot of time understanding who you are and where you want to go.
When I was on the HBS Admissions Board, I would spend a few hours preparing for an HBS interview. It is something I took incredibly seriously, and I wanted to make sure I had a number of questions prepared ahead of time but also understood enough about the candidate to change up my line of questioning, depending on how the conversation went. Before every HBS interview I conducted, I felt really nervous—probably just as nervous as the candidates I was interviewing—not because I did not know what to expect, but because I knew just how critical this moment was for the applicant and how much time and effort they put into preparing.
What to Expect from Your HBS MBA Interview
After all the hours of preparation from both you and your HBS interviewer, the actual interview is just 30 minutes. The HBS interview really is a conversation—a high-level, cogent, yet personal dialogue between two people. The best way to think of the interview is as a chat with a C-level executive at your company or with a business school dean. They both know a lot about business and can understand you quickly. Your HBS interviewer is the same.
What the Harvard MBA Interview Is Not
So much misinformation is disseminated and exchanged about the Harvard Business School interview, so I would like to mitigate some of that by sharing the way I see it. Let me clarify for you what the HBS interview is not.
- A Monologue: I have seen applicants start answering a question and then ramble on for minutes, covering topics that had not even been asked about. Unfortunately, these candidates often lose connection with the interviewer, who is not able to just jump into the conversation and might feel forced to cut the applicant off midstream, which does not feel good for either party.
- A Performance: This happened to me recently. My interviewee rehearsed all of his hand gestures and facial expressions to accompany his words and treated our mock interview as a dress rehearsal instead of a true representation of what to expect in the actual interview. In a performance, the temptation is to become someone else—like an actor in a play—which goes against the entire philosophy of the Harvard Business School interview.
- An Oral Exam: MBA applicants often feel the need to defend the path not chosen, such as a certain college major or job. Focus on the path you chose by sharing the why—your reasons for doing so. If you felt any regret or disappointment along the way, talk about how it shaped you, how it informed future decisions, and how you incorporated your learnings. We have all second-guessed ourselves at some point, but this is not the right venue for dwelling on them.
- A Sales Presentation: How do I sell myself? How do I stand out? How do I impress the MBA admissions committee? These common questions lend themselves to a sales mentality. The Harvard Business School interview is not about “selling yourself”; it is about “expressing yourself.” The admissions board has seen every type of background, personality, life experience, and so on. By communicating the most compelling and salient parts of your story, you automatically differentiate yourself.
- A Therapy Session: I have seen interviewees misinterpret “authenticity” and “vulnerability” and share too much information about themselves. Remember the context: this is an interview for Harvard Business School; it is not a support group meeting!
- A Speech: By thinking of the interview as a speech, some applicants inevitably memorize their talking points, which gives them a false sense of security. Really listening and being present in the moment is difficult when you are busy trying to recall your prepared answers. So these candidates end up answering questions that were not even asked.
Tips for Preparing for Your HBS MBA Interview
Here, Devi shares some of her best HBS interview tips.
Know Your Story Cold
Your story should be within you, right? Well, maybe you wrote about your love of Chinese cookery in the personal section of your resume, but since then, you have not given another thought to the last cooking class you took—which, by the way, was a good story two years ago! Although I was never specifically trying to find weak spots in interviewees’ stories, I would sometimes start by asking about interests and hobbies they had listed that sounded interesting, so I just might have asked you about your Chinese cooking. Before your interview, familiarize yourself with your entire application, even the parts you think are trivial.
Master the What and How
How you accomplished something is just as important as—if not more important than—what you actually accomplished. The how shows the real level of effort you had to expend to reach your end result. To me, providing the how also lets you share a deeper version of your story with your interviewer.
I once interviewed an HBS applicant who had worked on a seemingly common financial transaction. Because of the regulatory and political complexity of the transaction, she had to create more than 30 different potential scenarios to anticipate and quantify the client’s next steps. In this case, the how gave me better insight into the applicant’s depth of analysis, creativity, and experience. Without that information, this project, on its face, might not have stood out to me as something meaningful. Be sure to detail the how of your achievements for your HBS interviewer so that they can better understand the rigor and impact of your experience.
Give Full Answers
I once asked an applicant to tell me about a growth experience he had had while studying abroad. He responded by reporting that he had learned to make his bed. I have to admit that on the surface, this is not much of an answer. However, after a few follow-up questions, I realized that he was humbly trying to explain that he had been coddled up to that point and that he had had an awakening about independence. I wish he had proactively connected these ideas, because we ultimately spent much more time than necessary on this topic, which precluded us from fully exploring other parts of his background. Giving full answers means demonstrating the broader context of your responses and anticipating the interviewer’s potential perceptions so that you use your 30 minutes as wisely and efficiently as possible.
Strive for Practiced, Not Scripted
You worked hard on your Harvard Business School application, which is what led to this interview opportunity. But your application probably took weeks or months to complete and required multiple revisions and edits, whereas your interview is a one-shot 30 minutes. This is why practicing your answers verbally is a great idea, but practice should not mean memorization or rehearsal.
I once interviewed a woman I later ran into on campus when she was a first-year student. While we were catching up, she told me how nervous she had been for our interview and how she had practiced by writing out bullet points and verbalizing them in front of a mirror. I still remember her interview to this day. She was natural, conversational, and in the moment. The way she had prepared enabled her to convey what was salient while still being fully present and engaged. In contrast, another candidate I interviewed responded to my every question with “I have three reasons…” or “I have three examples…,” and in most cases, his replies did not match my questions! He had memorized premade answers and simply recited them when given the chance to speak.
When preparing for your HBS interview, the most important thing to avoid is memorizing the answers you prepared. Be present and answer the question you are being asked—not the one you practiced. Listening is just as crucial as responding, if not more so. Think of the interview as a dialogue or conversation, which are two-way communications, rather than a speech, which is a one-way communication. Make sure to prepare useful points and stories and practice verbalizing them beforehand, but once you are actually in the interview, pay attention to the questions your interviewer is asking and call on those points and stories as appropriate.
Anticipate Your HBS Interviewer’s Homework
I once interviewed an HBS applicant who was working at a start-up in a foreign country. Since I had never heard of it, I read up on it, including its funding structure, mission, and founding team. I even found a news report that explained that one of the funding rounds had not gone smoothly. During the interview, we got on the topic of raising money, and the candidate was shocked when I asked about one of the investors. When he asked how I knew about that investor, I explained that I had researched his start-up—not to create “gotcha” questions but to better understand his work environment. Expect your Harvard Business School interviewer to go beyond just reading through the information you included in your application. The philosophy has always been (1) to meet candidates where they are and (2) that the more we know about an interviewee beforehand, the deeper and more helpful the interview will be.
Enjoy the Moment!
I used to begin my HBS interviews by briefly introducing myself and then enthusiastically asking, “Ready to have some fun?” The candidates would look at me like I was crazy, clearly incapable of thinking the interview could possibly be fun, but by the end of our conversation, they understood what I had meant. Your interview is an opportunity to talk about yourself, your background, your goals, and your experiences—and to let your personality and style shine through. Try to loosen up and enjoy it! The 30 minutes go by really fast. By the time the interview starts, you cannot do anything more to prepare, so try to push through any nervousness you might be feeling and make the most of the experience! The Harvard Business School interview is an extremely human process for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Embrace the opportunity to engage with the school on this next level, and show your readiness for its unique MBA experience.
HBS MBA Interview Prep Methods
No one perfect way of preparing for your Harvard Business School interview exists for all candidates. Feedback from mbaMission clients indicates that each person generally prepares multidimensionally.
- Writing: I have heard of applicants writing out talking points to remind themselves of important aspects of their stories. However, make sure that you indeed write talking points and not full answers that you will be tempted to memorize.
- Speaking in front of a mirror: Doing this allows you to hear and see yourself answering a question. It might feel awkward at first, but this method could be an important part of your “interview practice repertoire.” However, the potential downside is that sometimes, individuals who practice too much in front of a mirror end up editing themselves too much, so their answers sound less natural and authentic.
- Dialoguing back and forth with a friend or colleague: This method can help you develop the ability to answer both anticipated and unanticipated questions naturally and spontaneously. The feedback you receive from dialoguing can then be incorporated into your next mock interview.
- Getting help from a professional: Finding an HBS MBA interview expert and conducting mock interviews with them can really help you get a feel for what the actual HBS interview will be like. I interviewed hundreds of HBS candidates during my time on the HBS Admissions Board, and I would love the opportunity to help you prepare for your HBS interview.
mbaMission HBS Interview Prep Services
HBS Intensive Interview Simulations
Devi offers candidates the opportunity to prepare for their Harvard Business School interviews via live intensive interview simulations. Devi has a passion to help applicants feel confident and ready for their HBS interviews, and her extensive experience allows her to do so.
What is included in our HBS Intensive Interview Simulation?
- Through this simulation, you will have the opportunity to experience an HBS mock interview that mirrors the exact way the school conducts these sessions, demystifying the process and positioning you to enter your actual HBS interview with increased competence and confidence.
- Before your first session, Devi will spend several hours reviewing your written HBS application, following the same process she used when conducting candidate interviews for HBS.
- After each interview session, Devi will provide you with targeted feedback, talking you through her impressions and offering strategic tips and advice for improving your HBS interview skills. She will then give you “homework” intended to help you practice articulating and verbalizing various aspects of your background.
- You will have sufficient time between your interview sessions to internalize Devi’s feedback and adjust accordingly before practicing with her again.
- Following your actual interview with HBS, if you are not already working with an mbaMission consultant, you can have Devi provide targeted support on your Post-Interview Reflection.
For more information and to secure your spot, please visit our HBS Intensive Interview Simulation page.
HBS Mock Interviews and Post-Interview Reflection Support
Another resource to help you prepare is our HBS Mock Interview and Post-Interview Reflection Support service. In this individual interview preparation session, you will speak with an experienced mbaMission Senior Consultant or Managing Director who has been specially trained in HBS’s interview approach. Your Consultant will have read your entire HBS application in advance and prepared customized questions based on your candidacy and profile. In the session, you will have a chance to experience what an actual HBS interview feels like. Through Q&A, feedback, and thorough response planning, we will help you improve the content of your answers, your time management skills, and your overall presentation.
HBS asks all interviewed applicants to write a post-interview essay and submit it within 24 hours of their interview. This essay has no word limit, and HBS suggests that candidates think of it as an email they would write to a friend or colleague, rather than as a formal essay.
As part of our targeted HBS interview package, an mbaMission advisor will help you strategize your approach to this special essay. Your Consultant will also review a draft of the essay and provide feedback intended to assist you in making it stronger and more effective. Please note that because the HBS admissions office explicitly states that applicants are not to write anything in advance or receive outside help with this essay, your mbaMission Consultant will not edit your writing but will instead offer detailed strategic direction via comments only.
To purchase your HBS mock interview preparation session, click here.
Harvard Business School Interview Guide
The Harvard Business School Interview Guide provides applicants with insight on the role of the interview in the school’s selection process, what to expect when interviewing with HBS, and how to approach the required Post-Interview Reflection.
In creating the HBS interview guide, we have drawn on our extensive communications with HBS MBA students, alumni, and admissions officers, in addition to our vast library of interview reports submitted by mbaMission clients who have interviewed with HBS. Our Harvard Business School Interview Guide provides the following:
- Insight into what the HBS Admissions Office is evaluating and hoping to gain from the interview
- An explanation of HBS’s approach to interviewing (self-scheduled or invite-only, blind versus comprehensive, etc.)
- Past applicants’ firsthand accounts of their HBS interview experience and multiple sample HBS interview questions
- Tips on preparing for and responding to questions that most typically vex applicants
- Guidance on formulating compelling questions of your own
Download your complimentary copy of mbaMission’s Harvard Business School Interview Guide today.
HBS Interview Workshops
Find out exactly what you need to do to prepare for your interview during our free “Decoding the HBS Interview” workshop. Led by mbaMission Managing Director and HBS Interviewer in Residence Devi Vallabhaneni, the interactive webinar will cover the following topics:
- What makes the HBS interview so different from all the other business school interviews
- The philosophy behind the HBS approach
- Tips on how to prepare for your HBS interview
Coming out of the session, you will have a much better sense of what to expect in your HBS interview and how to prepare for it so you can approach your interview with competence and confidence.
Our next session is September 28, 2023, at noon ET. Enroll for free today!
MBA Interview Tip Videos
In our MBA Interview Tips YouTube playlist, you will find videos on frequently asked interview questions, common interview mistakes, and how to respond effectively to the “tell me about yourself” prompt, and even a mock HBS interview with Poets&Quants’ John Byrne and mbaMission’s Devi Vallabhaneni. Click below to start watching, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel, where we add new videos on the MBA application process every week.
Common Worries About the HBS MBA Interview
Being invited to interview with Harvard Business School is unquestionably exciting and a positive step in your admissions journey, but it can also trigger a lot of concerns and questions. Here are some of the most common worries applicants have about the HBS admissions interview.
Not Knowing What to Expect from Your HBS MBA Interview
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.
Not Having 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.
Coming from a Complex or Nontraditional Work Background
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.
Similarly, having a nontraditional background 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.
Being 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.
Not Standing Out to Your HBS Interviewer
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.
Common Harvard MBA Interview Questions
Since Harvard Business School’s interview is quite conversational and natural, it is tough to predict exactly what will be asked. Here we present a few possible interview sequences, based on past HBS interviews from our clients and from Devi’s time as an HBS interviewer.
Harvard MBA Interview Example 1
- Would you go back to [current private equity firm] post MBA?
- What skills do you still need to gain for your career goal?
- What are you doing now in your day to day? [The applicant was working in a different role at the time of the interview than the one they were in when they applied.]
- How did your experience at [private equity firm] prepare you for what you’re doing now?
- What have you learned about yourself in the past six months?
- What kind of classmates are you most excited about meeting at HBS?
- What job do you want to hold right after HBS?
- What strategy of investing would you pursue?
- Why did you choose [office location] at your firm instead of [other office location]?
Harvard MBA Interview Example 2
- What is your day to day in your current role?
- How many people do you manage?
- How does your company make money?
- Who are your customers?
- Who are your competitors, and what do they do better than you?
- Why were you awarded [X award]?
- What skills enabled you to get promoted in both your current role and previous role?
- You said your goal was [X]. How does business school fit into your goals?
- Give me an example of what specifically you’d do if you were in the position stated in your longer-term goal?
- What’s the most creative icebreaker you’ve ever come up with?
Types of HBS Interview Questions
Although every HBS MBA interview is completely different and is tailored specifically to each individual applicant, the following main types of questions are generally asked, and we provide here some samples of each:
Interview Questions About Your Past Experiences
- Why did you choose your undergraduate program?
- Tell me about the work you did at your previous job.
- What was your most difficult project? How did you grow from it?
- Who was the most difficult person you worked with? Why?
- Why was it important for you to share X in your application essays?
Interview Questions About Your Current Role
- How does your new role differ from your old one?
- Do you have any employees reporting to you? How have you mentored them?
- What is the most challenging part of your current role?
- What is your company’s business model?
- What differentiates your company from the competition?
- What industry competitor do you believe is doing the best and why?
- Where do you think your company could do better when it comes to diversity?
Interview Questions About HBS and Your Future Goals
- Why do you think that an HBS MBA would be useful in obtaining your goals?
- How would you contribute to the HBS community if admitted?
- What will be most challenging in business school for you?
- What would the next two years look like if you were not going to pursue an MBA?
- What’s your ideal internship?
- How do you hope to be remembered?
Good luck to all HBS applicants! If you believe you might benefit from one of our interview-planning services—or if you would simply like more information on these offerings or on the interview process in general—feel free to contact us anytime!