Tips from Inside the HBS Interview Experience

Devi Vallabhaneni, an HBS graduate and former HBS MBA interviewer, is now mbaMission’s HBS Interviewer in Residence, conducting HBS Intensive Interview Simulations.

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Congrats—you received an invitation to interview with Harvard Business School (HBS)! Suddenly, your heart rate picks up because entry into HBS’s hallowed grounds seems that much more real. What do you need to know? Drawing on my six years as an interviewer at HBS, I have a few helpful tips.

Feeling Nervous

Feeling your nerves kick in is totally normal, but would you believe that every time I interviewed an HBS prospect, I was just as nervous? You might find that hard to imagine, but it is the truth! I felt like I owed each and every interviewee the courtesy of bringing my best to them, really getting to know them, and working just as hard as they had to arrive at the interview. So, first things first, know that the person on the other side of your HBS interview is eager and sincere in wanting to know the real you.

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, refresh your familiarity with your entire application, even the parts you think are trivial.

Master the What & How

How you accomplished something is just as important, if not more than, what you actually accomplished. The how shows the real level of effort you had to expend to reach your end result. To me, the how also lets you share a deeper version of your story with your interviewer. I once interviewed an 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, may not have stood out to me as something meaningful. Be sure to detail the how of your achievements for your HBS interviewer so that he or she 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 ultimately 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.

Prepare for Your HBS Interview with a Former HBS Interviewer: Devi Vallabhaneni, mbaMission

mbaMission’s HBS Interviewer in Residence, Devi Vallabhaneni

Strive for Practiced, Not Scripted

You worked really hard on your HBS 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 does 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 practiced 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 pre-made answers and simply recited them when given the chance to speak. Make sure to prepare useful points and stories and practice verbalizing them before your interview, but once you are in the meeting, pay attention to the questions being asked and call on those points and stories as appropriate. 

Forget About the Introvert Versus Extrovert Factor

Prospective interviewees regularly ask me, “Am I at a disadvantage if I’m an introvert?” and assume the interview is better suited to—and more beneficial for—extroverts. The truth is that I have seen both be extremely successful. Shy, quiet, low-key people can be just as compelling as those who are outgoing, animated, or gregarious. I remember an interview I had with a soft-spoken individual who had intriguing manufacturing experience in a foreign country. He really blossomed when he shared his worries about that country’s upcoming elections and how the outcome might affect his company and export potential. Your HBS interviewer is much more interested in your experiences, background, values, and interests than in your personality type—so just be thoroughly you.

Anticipate the Interviewer’s Homework

I once interviewed an HBS applicant who was working at a start-up in a foreign country. I had never heard of it, so 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 HBS 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.

Be Earlier than Early

I interviewed a candidate once who was 15 minutes late. His interview was essentially over before he even (finally!) walked in the door.  Just as you would plan to arrive early for an important work meeting to make sure you are physically and mentally ready, plan to arrive for your HBS interview earlier than necessary. If you know you have a problem with timeliness, plan to arrive even earlier still. This way you can have a few peaceful moments to gather your thoughts and prepare. If you end up being so early you have extra time on your hands, you can use the opportunity to meet other applicants, walk around campus, or just sit back and enjoy the moment. Whatever you do, just never be late!

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 may be feeling and make the most of the experience! The HBS interview is an extremely human process for both the interviewer and interviewee. Embrace the opportunity to engage with the school on this next level and show your readiness for its unique MBA experience.

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