Getting Ready For Those MBA Admission Interviews
Maria |
November 9, 2021

This episode of Business Casual is going to be a little more fun and interesting than usual as it is aligned with Maria’s expertise, who is an MBA consultant from ApplicantLab and an alumni of HBS. Plus, Caroline of Fortuna Admissions and former admissions head of INSEAD. Listen and pay attention as they both summarize the list of things applicants would expect in an MBA admission interview.


  • Listen as Maria responds to a slew of questions tossed at her by John and Caroline. (Learn from the master!)
  • What are the things that you have to expect in an interview? How would you prepare for it? What are the questions they usually ask? 
  • What are the things you should or should not say during your MBA interview?
  • What are the usual responses and qualities that admissions officers look for in an applicant?
  • How challenging and mind-bending is an MBA interview from a psychological standpoint?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.390] – John

Well, hello everyone. We’re back after a little bit of recess. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants, with Business Casual, our weekly podcast, which wasn’t exactly weekly. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing a lot of travel. I know that Caroline was in the UK to celebrate a very big birthday for her mom. And I was in Madrid and then I was in Indiana, and before that I was in Boston, in Illinois and California and other places that I can’t even remember anymore. But we are back and back at a time when it’s a sort of exciting time for applicants who are invited to interview at a school. After the round one applications went out and they got that little thing in the email, it said, we’re inviting you to talk to us a little bit more. So they were able to overcome the first turtle and now they’re trying to jump over the second. And so we want to talk a little bit about what can you expect? How can you prep? Should you prep? You don’t want to seem scripted. And then we know that actually Maria has been spending a lot of time lately doing mock interviews for Harvard Business School candidates who would in fact have been invited to interview.


[00:01:30.720] – John

So we might have a little fun with that. We might have Maria ask us a few questions that she basically uses on her candidates to prepare them for the Harvard Business School interview. So Caroline, in general, what should people expect when they have to do an interview? And of course, it may differ between staff, alumni, or current students at different schools.


[00:01:56.450] – Caroline

Well, there are very different formats. So some of the schools have alumni conducting the interviews and in that case the format can diverge quite significantly. Right. Because for example, I was managing a call about 30 interviewers. So whilst you give them guidelines and their expectations of what sort of things they will ask about and what they will report back on, in practice, there’s a huge amount of variability in how they actually conduct the interview and what they ask. So that is quite variable. But often they will be probing into your background and they’ll often be asking behavioral questions as well to get examples of what you’ve done and what is your style, what impact you’ve had, and so on. Then other schools will have staff conduct in the interview. The HCs interview, which you were talking about, is quite unique in style and quite an interesting format. It’s a half hour, so pretty intense and practice that 29 minutes, right. So you have a short window to impress your interviewer, whereas with alumni interviewers they can often go on for much longer than that. I’ve even had clients who’ve had interviews that have gone on for 2 hours plus with alumni.


[00:03:15.660] – Caroline

So with HDF, it’s a concentrated format. You’ll have someone who’s asking you questions and someone who is observing who is taking notes, and the interviewer will have scrutinized your entire application, which is often not the case for the long night interviews. Often with the alumni interviews, they may have just read your resume or just read the resume application form. They don’t always have access to the essays. So in the case of HPS, they will have spent a lot of time digging through everything that they’ve received on paper about you. And so they will have some very focused, specific questions to delve into some of the things that they want to learn a bit more about, given what they’ve learned about your rate. So you’ll get less of the general questions. Talk with your resume that you might get with other schools because they’ve already learned a lot about you from reading through all of those different elements.


[00:04:11.810] – John

Yeah. Now can you really prep for these, or should you not prep?


[00:04:16.710] – Caroline

Well, you can prep. You should prepare. There’s a balance to strike, because sometimes candidates over prepare and then sound a bit rehearsed and a bit scripted, and you don’t want to fall into that trap. But it’s certainly worth. There’s a lot of information out there about sample interview questions, so you should prepare for the more obvious questions.


[00:04:42.820] – Maria

For sure.


[00:04:43.240] – Caroline

You don’t want to be caught off guard by something that will typically come up, perhaps asking you about your chosen career path or a switch that you made and why you changed employers. Just be prepared to answer the typical questions, the more obvious topics that will generally come up. And it’s good to sit down with someone, I think, and have them put you through your paces. It just often gives people a greater sense of confidence on the day if they’ve had some practice beforehand. And also get some practice with being asked questions that you’re not expecting, because you will need to be prepared to think on your feet. You’re going to get a question at some point that you have not anticipated. Regardless of how much research you do or how much practice you do, something is likely to come up that you weren’t expecting. So you need to also prepare for the unexpected and just practice thinking on your feet and how you respond to those types of questions so that you’re not too thrown by it and you don’t get destabilized.


[00:05:53.420] – John

Yeah. I mean, we have a story on the poet site called Routine or Oddball. These are the questions Harvard asks MBA applicants, and I went to Maria. How legit is this? I’ll give you a few of the questions. Do you have a dream place to work and why? What is something unique you would bring to the classroom? You wrote about this story and your essay. Can you give us more details about that story? What would you change about your undergraduate experience? Please tell me about three failures you’ve had, what is your greatest weakness? Or how about these oddball questions? If you could change one thing about the organization that you work for, what would it be? Here’s one. It is six months after the MBA Monday morning. What will you be doing? Are those legit, Maria?


[00:06:44.040] – Maria

I don’t necessarily consider those to be oddball questions. I would think something like, oh, if you were an animal, would you be a squirrel or a Tiger? That would be an oddball question. But I think if you think about the fact that one of the things they’re trying to get at is number one, what are your motivations for making the choices you make? Right? Several different people on paper might have made the same choice, but the reasoning behind it might be completely different depending upon their value system, et cetera. Another thing is when they ask you things like, what would you do if you were the CEO of your company or which competitor of your company do you think poses the biggest threat? It’s because they want people who are intellectually curious and who don’t just go into their job and do their work and their assigned tasks every day and don’t ever look up from their desk or their cubicle or I guess whatever the Zoom equivalent is now. Right. They’re looking for people who are just so naturally curious that they sort of look around and they’re like, look, even though I work in this division, man, if I were in charge of that division, I think we could be doing so much better.


[00:07:42.730] – Maria

Or a real weakness my company has right now is that we are way too concentrated in one vertical, and that poses a real problem for us if someone else comes after us. So they’re looking for people who have been thoughtful, not just about how do I get my job done every day, but what is the role of my company, my industry, et cetera, et cetera? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? Sometimes you’ll get asked questions to defend what your business or what your industry does, in part to see how do you deal with how can you think critically? And also, how do you deal with someone confronting you a little bit? Because in the case method, if all 89 people, all 90 people in the room agreed with the exact same thing all the time, it would be a super boring discussion. So how does this person deal with somebody else maybe knowing a little bit more than they do or confronting them a little bit? So don’t you think that your industry is really actually damaging for the planet? Or couldn’t you say that your industry is at fault for killing all this wildlife?


[00:08:44.230] – Maria

How do you respond to that? I don’t know that any of those questions are necessarily oddball. And the ones about your weaknesses, that’s just a question of how self aware are you? We all have weaknesses, and we all need to find ways to mitigate those weaknesses. And sometimes people will pretend that they don’t have weaknesses.


[00:09:04.050] – John

And that immediately is a huge red flag in Harvard has different ways of asking the question, too, right? Here’s one. What’s the one thing you’ll never be as good at as others? How about this one? Describe something that you should start doing, do more of and do less of. I think that’s an intriguing question. Or how about this one, which I think is really, frankly, pretty difficult for someone to answer. What have you heard about HPS that gives you pause? Got to be careful answering that one. If it’s just too negative, you’ll just knock yourself out, wouldn’t you?


[00:09:39.710] – Maria

You can say something that’s negative, but then you can also qualify it with. At first, I was very worried that HBS would be really snobby. However, I spoke to several students, I attended the Webinars, whatever, and I’ve heard that that’s not the case.


[00:09:54.360] – John

That’s really good.


[00:09:55.780] – Caroline

Maria nailed it.


[00:09:58.130] – John

That’s like, tell me one of your faults. Oh, I work too hard.


[00:10:01.730] – Maria

Yeah, that’s not a good one. I ask you, what are your faults? And you say, I work too hard and I care too much.


[00:10:08.570] – John

Now, Maria, when you do a mock interview, and I’m thinking, really, we address the issue of prep with Caroline. She mentioned this. I would happen to think that the best way to prep is actually to practice, practice with someone who will give you these questions and pretend you’re in a real interview. Now you do this and you’ve been doing a lot of this lately as people queue up to do their Zoom interviews with Harvard Business School staffers. What’s one of the first things you would ask someone in a mock interview?


[00:10:45.650] – Maria

It really depends completely on the person’s background. Right. The HBS interviewer has read. Caroline mentioned that when the other schools do alumni interviews or student interviews, they basically usually only have your resume. The HBS interviewer has literally your entire packet and has read it back to front. So they even know, like, what your parents do, they know how many siblings you have, they know where you grew up, where you went to high school. Honestly, for me, it’s often what is I either start chronologically with, okay, so why did you major in this? That’s kind of weird. Like you’re from Oregon and then you moved to Florida. Why did you even go to College in Florida? Things like that? Or if not, I’ll start with, okay, what are you working on right now? What’s new? Since you submitted your application, MIT often also starts with this question. So you were writing in your essay about this project that was still underway. That was two months ago. So where is it now? Did you win that brand? Did you get that deal?


[00:11:45.110] – John

And then we go from there, right? I mean, here’s another question that we have in the story. Incidentally, the questions I’m reading off are from the Harvest Interview Guide. They’ve been gathered by students who actually were interviewed by the admissions staff and who luckily got admitted to the school. And then they’ve basically gave some of the questions to The Harvest, which is a student newspaper at Harvard Business School. What is one thing I never have guessed about you, even after reading your application? That can be a tricky one, too. Maria, how would you answer that?


[00:12:26.870] – Maria

There are so many things in here that don’t necessarily fit. There’s a lot that can go into the application, but there are many things that don’t necessarily fit into the application. Often these would be very personal things. It could be something very moving about. Maybe as a child I overcame a debilitating illness or I’m very close to my family. We’ve gone through some tough times and we’re very close. It could be a number of things. It could also be fun things like, oh, I was once almost swept off a beach by a tsunami wave in Thailand, or, I don’t know, something a little bit more like lighthearted. Actually, that’s not lighthearted at all. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I was trying to think of something like Thailand. And then I was like, what’s more exciting about Thailand anyway? There are so many things about you that are not going to fit in that interview. So just really know thyself and know thy application inside and out.


[00:13:20.450] – John

Now it’s inevitable that many candidates, after spending so much time trying to get a good score on a standardized test, filling out all the applications and just thinking through the process and engaging in introspection that’s necessary to do good essay or essays, that someone who is invited to an interview would be pretty anxious about it. Caroline, what advice do you have for a candidate to calm his or her nerves?


[00:13:49.110] – Caroline

Well, I think the practice helps, right? If you feel prepared, then you’ll probably be calmer than if you’re going into the session. And we haven’t done any practice ahead of time. So I do think the preparation helps, and then you need to figure out your techniques that work for you for staying calm, particularly all of the MBA admissions interviews are stressful and people get very nervous about it. But the HVS one is particularly intense and short, and sometimes people get flustered and thrown by a question, and then they struggle to recover. I think that’s sometimes an issue that the candidates that happens more with the HDS interview than with other interviews, because if you know that you’re there for an hour or longer, if you sort of mess up on one question and you’ve got time to come back and recover, if you’re in there for literally 29 minutes and they’re grilling you and the pace is pretty fast, it happens more frequently that candidates get thrown by a question where they feel they don’t respond to it very well, and then they feel that they’ve messed it up and then it seems sort of unraveled from there.


[00:15:05.440] – Caroline

So it’s a very good point that you need to anticipate the stress that you’ll be under and how you can best manage that. One tip I’ve given some clients and they find it very useful is I don’t know if you’ve seen this as the Amy Cuddy Ted talk where she talks about body language and the importance of body language for confidence and power pose. And I’ve had some clients do that ahead of interviews, and it’s definitely helped them feel more comfortable and feel more confident. So it sounds a little bit weird, right. This power pose, but it does work for a lot of people, so that’s something to check out. But otherwise, yeah.


[00:15:52.590] – John

You mentioned it’s one of the most popular Ted Talks out there.


[00:15:55.980] – Caroline

Yeah, it works. Figure out what works for you, because just be aware that you probably will be under significant stress during that interview.


[00:16:06.120] – John

Now, Maria, I wonder, in practicing people in mock interviews, what are the more common mistakes that you find people make?


[00:16:15.510] – Maria

I think, as Caroline said before, sort of memorizing or rehearsing an answer is really not great, especially because HBS is going to phrase a question in a way that you might not expect. I’ve had many times where I ask a very specific question and I get a very well rehearsed answer to a question I didn’t ask. So I might ask a one part question that is just I just want like a one sentence answer. And instead the person answers three different questions and two of those questions I didn’t ask. So I think you have to be very present in the HBS interview to really listen to what is the person what exactly are they asking? And along the same lines, there is a tendency to want to give a lot of background information that is really not relevant. Right. If what I’m trying to get at as an interviewer is how do you persuade and influence others as a leader? That’s one of the key things I want to know if you start going into like, well, it was a Wednesday morning and it was budget season and everyone was really stressed. But then the story goes on to something else.


[00:17:18.490] – Maria

I’m like, well, it was completely irrelevant to the story that it was budget season. Right. I want you to include details that are relevant that impacted your actions and that really impacted the story. But if I asked, how did you persuade management to do whatever and you start going off about like, well, management, they were really stressed out because it was earning season. And I’m like, okay, but my question was, were they stressed out? My question was, how did you persuade them? So you can cut right to here’s what I did and not necessarily have to set the stage completely.


[00:17:53.500] – John

I mean, in almost all cases, you should be fairly succinct. I would imagine that you should think of it this way. You’re in a Harvard Business School case study class. You’re cold called by a professor who asks you a question. You damn well better have an answer that directly is connected to the question and more often than not, add some value, but doesn’t meander all over the place, because no one wants to listen to someone who is not making any point whatsoever at all. And that’s crucial to listening to the question and answering it directly. I imagine some other mistakes might be about attitude, frankly. I mean, some people may appear arrogant or they may appear that they know it all. And those are things that even if you answer a question perfectly and they’re probably in many cases, no right or wrong answers. Let’s face it. Right. This is more about how articulate are you? Do you listen well? Can you persuade others? It’s not about there’s a right answer and the wrong answer to every single question you’re going to be asked. Isn’t that right, Caroline?


[00:19:05.310] – Caroline

Yeah, that’s true. And what you’re saying about humility and honesty, it’s so important, it makes me think of a comment one of my colleagues, Carla Cohen, made once, and she was telling me about her experience of interviewing candidates at Harvard, and she had a candidate once you actually said after the interview and asked a question, and Carla was the observer in that session and the candidate said, no, the question you should have asked me was humility is important, that’s for sure. And authenticity.


[00:19:43.990] – Maria



[00:19:44.560] – Caroline

I think sometimes, particularly for Harvard, people feel that there’s a sort of image that they need to live up to to be a credible candidate, and they can fall into the trap of pretending to be someone that they’re not. And humility and authenticity can go a long way to winning over your interviewer.


[00:20:06.140] – John

Yes, exactly. Now, Maria, how often should one practice is one mock interview enough? Or do you do a mock interview with an admissions consultant and then maybe you get a friend to follow up with you. What’s your advice?


[00:20:22.710] – Maria

I think it depends on the school that you’re interviewing for. You might need a mock interview. I don’t necessarily know that you have to get one. I think one of the important things is I think it’s important to practice saying your answers out loud and hearing yourself, maybe recording yourself on your phone, because in our heads, when we say, okay, well, if they ask me about this project, I’ll talk about blah, blah, blah, okay, cool. I’ve got it covered. And then in the moment when you actually start saying the words start coming out of your mouth, if you haven’t practiced them before, you might realize, like, oh, my gosh, I am going off on a tangent or I just misspoke and I just said something wrong. And so at least I think get used to answering the questions out loud so that if you do tend to stumble on a certain let’s say you have a tendency to go off on a tangent or repeat yourself. That’s when I see a lot where someone will tell the story and then they’re like, so in conclusion, I convinced her to do this. I’m like, yeah, I know.


[00:21:22.850] – Maria

You just told me that we can move on. That was specific to HPS, because that is sort of the faster one where you have to be quick. But yeah, if you catch yourself doing these things, that’s going to be 85% of it right there. In terms of having a friend do HBS mock interviews, that can be a little bit tougher just because it is I don’t want to say it’s confrontational, but it can absolutely be right if you give an answer and you say something about whatever. And I’m like, well, but isn’t it true that isn’t it true that the batteries for electric vehicles are actually more damaging to the planet than Petroleum? Right. Or something like that? Developing that intuition for pushing back is not necessarily very easy for your friends to have. But I just think again, just sort of go through everything in your application and ask yourself, what questions might they have about this? How would I tell the story? How would I tell similar stories and practicing them out loud? And I think that’s most of it.


[00:22:20.640] – John

Yeah, that’s really good advice. Here’s something I’ve found over the years to be true. Some people walk out of that interview and they think they bombed it, and then they get an acceptance. Why is it that people can walk out after that half hour spent in front of two Harvard Business School admission establishment? Because that’s how it works. One is taking notes, one is asking questions. How can they walk out and think they totally bump it and yet they still get accepted?


[00:22:51.070] – Maria

Well, first of all, that goes back to the topic of humility. People who tend to be more humble and self aware always will find fault with things after the fact. I think part of it is I’ve had people there are so many different buckets of types of questions that the HBS interview might ask. And so sometimes if I want to see how does someone react to a question that they weren’t expecting? Because that’s exactly what the case method is. If I start going down that road, they might think, oh my gosh, I’m bombing it. But really, I just want to see how quick are you on your feet? Do you get defensive if I question you, if I sort of say, well, but come on, that wasn’t really much of an accomplishment, right. Like that procedure was already in place. You didn’t really do a whole lot. Do they get really defensive? Do they start to argue with me? I’ve had people, for example, think they go in and they’re all ready to talk about their leadership questions, and instead 20 out of the 29 minutes are just about your industry and your country and how is this evolving in your industry and who are the main players?


[00:23:51.460] – Maria

And then they walk out and they’re like, wow, they didn’t ask a single question about my leadership. That means I’m not getting in. And in fact, I’m like, or maybe you did such a great job in your application describing exactly the sort of leader you are that they didn’t really have a lot of questions about that. So you have no idea sometimes if I’m pushing against you or if I seem disappointed in your answer, it’s not because I’m actually disappointed. It’s because I want to see how you react to me being disappointed, if that makes any sense. Does it shake you? Do you lose your footing?


[00:24:21.280] – John

The other thing I hear constantly is how poker faced the Harvard Business School admissions staffers are who attend these interviews. Why do they have to be so. Well, I’ll put it out there hard ass about this.


[00:24:36.430] – Maria

Well, you know what? Actually, I wish more of them were more poker faced because I think because it’s human nature. Right. You’re going to relive that interview for the next three days. It’s all you’re going to think about as a candidate. You’re just going to replay it and replay it and replay it. And any momentary sort of scowl or frown, you’re going to think, oh, that’s it. It’s game over. Or if they smile too much, you’re like, oh, I’m totally in. This is great. And I just think that it needs to be as neutral as possible. I’ll tell you, I have had some candidates who instead of having a very harsh interview and coming out and being like, oh, I’m never getting it, and then they get in. I’ve had candidates experience the exact opposite where at the end I actually had I was working with someone from a warm climate. And on their way, they were interviewing in person in Boston. And on their way out the door, the person who was walking them out said something about the weather and are you worried about the weather? Ha ha, it’s so cold here. And the interviewer said to him, well, you’re going to have to get a warm winter coat if you moved to Boston.


[00:25:38.360] – Maria

And so, of course, when you hear that, you’re like, oh, my God, I’m totally getting in. Right? Because why would this person say you’re going to need to go buy a winter coat? You’re going to need a winter coat.


[00:25:47.920] – John

And of course, they didn’t.


[00:25:49.100] – Maria

They did not get in. No, they did not.


[00:25:50.690] – John

They didn’t have the buyer winter coat.


[00:25:52.580] – Maria

I hope they didn’t go on buy I hope it was returnable if they did. But little things like that where I think sometimes the schools just sometimes don’t often think about how everything they say or do is going to be replayed 100 times over. And I also just think it makes it for a more level playing field because if everyone has an experience where the interviewer is more stone faced as opposed to, well, my interviewer was great and some of them actually are quite friendly in HBS, but that might be the opposite. They might be super friendly to you and on the inside they’re ripping you into little pieces. I can do that, too. That is also a skill I possess.


[00:26:29.350] – John

Maria, do you have any recall of your interview?


[00:26:32.590] – Maria

I do.


[00:26:34.150] – John

Really? So all these years later, you still remember at least part of that interview you had?


[00:26:41.770] – Maria

I do. I remember because at the time there was an entire essay devoted to your career vision and what you wanted out of the MBA degree. And I had written that, oh, my dream, my career was to do X, y, and Z and I was grilled for several minutes on. Well, aren’t there already other people doing that? How are you going to compete against the incumbents? What are you going to do that’s going to be different. Doesn’t it make more sense to go work for one of the incumbents first and then try to change them from the inside as opposed to starting your own thing? I got several questions based on.


[00:27:10.500] – John

Wow, that’s a lot of pushback.


[00:27:12.170] – Maria

Yeah. You just have to fake it. You can’t just be like you’re, right? Oh, no, my idea is terrible.


[00:27:24.950] – John

Well, Maria, clearly you passed a test. And I hope that the advice that we’ve dispensed during the podcast will help others pass this big test. I mean, let’s face it. If you get that far to be invited to an interview, I almost think you’re better off being turned down earlier because then you know how close you got. Because I think it’s roughly 60% of those who are interviewed get accepted. 40% don’t. And man, after getting that close to get that turned down or in the wonderful euphemisms that Harvard Business School uses released. Yeah, I mean, that would really be a killer. So everyone out there, we’re wishing you the best of luck and hoping you do well and get the outcome you want. Meantime, Carolina Maria, thank you so much for all the wisdom you’ve dispensed today. Really appreciate it. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual our weekly podcast.


Getting Ready For Those MBA Admission Interviews
Maria |
November 9, 2021


New around here? I’m an HBS graduate and a proud member (and former Board Member) of AIGAC. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I wanted to make high-quality admissions advice accessible to all, so I “scaled myself” by creating ApplicantLab. ApplicantLab provides the SAME advice as high-end consultants at a much more affordable price. Read our rave reviews on GMATClub, and check out our free trial (no credit card required) today!