Meet Devi Vallabhaneni
Devi Vallabhaneni has almost two decades of admissions experience, including interviewing and evaluating Harvard Business School (HBS) candidates, a passion she first developed when she herself was a second-year student at the school. She is a Managing Director at mbaMission, as well as our Harvard Business School Interviewer in Residence, offering HBS Intensive Interview Simulations to HBS hopefuls. In fact, her services are so popular that she always has a waitlist of candidates who want to prep with her for the coveted HBS admissions interview. Here, she answers some questions about the Harvard Business School interview.
How do you prepare to prepare applicants for their Harvard Business School interview?
The HBS interview season is only about eight weeks over the two rounds, so it’s what I do the remaining 44 weeks that’s important. There is a through-line between each year’s MBA applicant pool and current events in business, which is why I think of admissions as being in the business of business.
CNBC or Bloomberg is always on in my office. I love following the markets, which allows me to be several steps ahead of my interviewees, who are working on the most newsworthy SPACs [special purpose acquisition companies], latest innovations across industries, newest business models, and the most pressing societal problems. My job isn’t to give them answers but to ask the right questions and challenge their thinking for them to formulate their own viewpoints.
I hear you give homework to your clients. What does that mean?
Recently, I was helping an interviewee who was sharing his struggles at his service-based start-up. He was advising leadership that to be customer-centric, they had to be employee-centric first, but leadership was having a hard time making this connection. I gave him homework: to study the Service Profit Chain developed by HBS Professor James Heskett. He shared it with his leadership, who started listening to him. Because there is no divining rod of who will be accepted, I make sure to leave them with something tangible they could use on their job as well as during the HBS interview.
How do you address EQ [emotional quotient]?
Some clients haven’t fully processed their emotions around their path and inadvertently infuse their answers with regret and negativity. The interview process can be emotional, and at times, people cry telling me heart wrenching stories about their setbacks or disappointments. The more that is processed during practice, the better. Confidence comes when you understand yourself emotionally, so if that’s the bottleneck, that’s what we focus on. It’s amazing to see the lightness of their persona when emotions are processed in a safe and nonjudgmental way.
Why is Harvard Business School interview prep so important to you?
Prepping clients for the HBS interview is a strangely intimate, intense, and personal experience for me. They know nothing about me, yet I know everything about them. Our exchanges become their biggest priorities for a few weeks. They place their past, their future, their hopes, their disappointments, their goals, and, most importantly, their trust in my hands. I’m constantly thinking, What do I need to ask them to get them to where they need to go or for them to see their path differently? My process is more of an art than a science. I view each client like a protagonist in a case study. Instead of analyzing whether a company should launch a product or build a new plant somewhere, the case study is their life.
It’s a privilege to be trusted with someone’s yet-to-be-written story. It’s a privilege to be the second call after their immediate family to share in their acceptance!
Be sure to check out Devi’s top five tips for acing your MBA interview!
Devi’s First-Hand Account of Her HBS MBA Interview
I arrived at my interviewer’s office in Chicago’s Loop a few minutes early. His assistant showed me in and offered me a seat at an empty table. While waiting, I looked around the office. Between the nerves that were causing my heart to jump out of my throat and the weight of the moment, it took me a few seconds to focus on the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling color photo of my interviewer (a Harvard Business School graduate) and his wife skiing with Michael Jordan and his wife—all four looking sporty and stylish on top of a mountain under the bluest of skies.
Luckily, I had no time to overthink the situation because my Harvard Business School interviewer walked in and began our conversation. In 30 minutes we touched on many topics: growing up as an only child, deciding to study accounting and finance, working with the Royal Hong Kong Police Force on what was then its largest white-collar-crime case, having lunch every day with the last Hong Kong governor’s former bodyguard, debating British influence in India and Hong Kong, traveling through Russia and Romania, and exploring my goals.
When the interview ended, I thanked him for the opportunity. As I walked through the skyscraper’s lobby, a rush of emotions stopped me in my tracks. I was thinking, If the road to Harvard Business School ends now, I will not be sad because I think I just received a bigger gift—what it feels like to observe yourself reaching a personal best. The outcome felt so farfetched that I could not focus on it. I was just a happy-go-lucky, studious kid from Chicago who had somehow been drawn to business at a young age. In high school, we had had to pick a biography to read, and I chose a book about Lee Iacocca and how he saved Chrysler. I was reading Mark McCormack’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School alongside Flaubert and Dostoevsky.
Harvard Business School admits people, not applications. The interview is a human experience, more of a right-brain than left-brain exercise. You have no spreadsheets to crank out during the interview, and no one is going to ask you to recite the Black–Scholes formula. Instead, you have to express who you are, what you have done, and where you want to go—in a simple, self-reflective, and comprehensive manner. Doing so is easier said than done, so work backward from how you want to feel afterward as you plan what you want to say and how you should say it.
Do you want to feel like you barely scraped by?
Do you want to realize that you had the answers in your head but had trouble verbalizing them?
Do you want to know that the interview was conversational and straightforward?
Do you want to feel that you achieved a new personal best?
Do you want to feel like you had fun? (This question shocks people. How could something so stressful be fun? Practice, I say.)
Even now, more than 20 years later, I return to that moment in the lobby whenever I have to push myself to achieve a new personal best. Yes, my goals have evolved, but the feeling is the same. Attending Harvard Business School has many benefits, and this one is, by far, my most cherished. Do not wait for business school to give you confidence. Bring it to your interview. Practice wisely! By practicing for your HBS interview, you create your new personal best by seeing yourself differently. This is my goal for each of my clients.