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How NOT To Blow Your Harvard Interview

by John A. Byrne
November 4, 2010
Poets & Quants

All the round one applicants to Harvard Business School yesterday (November 3) heard whether they've been rejected, waitlisted, or invited for an interview with an admissions official. If you're one of the estimated 800 applicants who won an interview opportunity, you're bound to be jumping for joy. But in all probability, you're also filled with anxiety over the final hurdle you have to overcome before getting into Harvard.

This crucial step of the process confronts applicants to most of the other highly ranked schools, from Stanford and Wharton to Columbia and Kellogg. At Harvard, virtually all the interviews are by admissions staff. At Stanford, where nearly 400 first round applicants will get invites for interviews, alumni do the vast majority of interviews. At Wharton, second-year MBA students, admissions staff, and alums are called into action. Wharton, which interviews between 30% and 50% of all its applicants, can invite as many as 900 MBA candidates for interviews in its first round.


If you get invited to an interview by Harvard, you stand a 64% chance of getting accepted to the school–much better odds than if you were invited to an interview by either Stanford (48%) or Wharton (43%). Application numbers are for the classes that entered this fall. Numbers for interviews and acceptances are rough estimates based on interviews with admission directors at each school.

The big question now: How do you not screw up your interview?

For some smart, tell-it-like-it-is counsel, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, aka HBS Guru, the rebel savant of MBA admissions consulting. The highly opinionated Kreisberg has been advising applicants to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and other elite B-schools for some 15 years. During the 2009-2010 application season, Kreisberg conducted mock interviews with more than 100 applicants to Harvard alone, a service he offers for $300. (For details, click here.)

Obviously, if you made it to this stage in round one, it's a big deal. The interview is the only thing separating you from a seat in the class, right?

Yes, but it's like being born. It's a special passage where awful things can happen. Tremendous damage can occur in a very short period of time. You should worry about it, and you should prepare for it.

What have you picked up so far in your coaching of applicants who are prepping for these interviews?

The real news this year is that Stanford and Wharton are trending toward behavioral questions versus the more typical ones like 'why Wharton, why now, why do you want an MBA.' Of course, it would still help to prepare for those questions as well. But if you are being interviewed by Stanford or Wharton, you should Google behavioral interviews and you'll get some bad advice about how to answer those questions but at least it will help you get some standard questions. They're asking people things like, 'Tell me about a time you worked on a great team, or a bad team, or worked with a great leader. Tell me when you disappointed yourself and what would you do differently if you had to do it again. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a person and how you resolved it. Tell me about a time you dealt with an ethical issue.' For some reason, Stanford and Wharton seem to be tilting toward those questions this year.

Sandy, what's the most common misperception about these interviews?

Some think this is like an audition for a symphony orchestra where the conductor is choosing one violinist out of ten and you have to be .001 better than nine other people. It's not that. It's more like an audition for a marching band. You just have to be able to bang a drum in terms of talent and not appear to be arrogant, inward, unsure of yourself, or confused.

At Harvard, that means if they interview ten people, they will reject one with marginal English right out of the box. If you can't speak English, you're done. You won't be able to survive. Then, of the remaining nine English speakers, one to two people might have a meltdown of some kind. They have a bad hair day or a bad tongue day. So the way that smart people blow the Harvard interview is to have a bad half hour.

And what does a bad half hour look like?

The most common way that smart people blow a Harvard interview is to get lost. Talking too much. Digressing. Getting lost in the weeds. That is the most common mistake. It outweighs every other mistake. You're asked a simple question like, 'Why did you go to Cornell for your undergraduate degree?' And you begin with a history of Cornell and tell the admissions person all about your family. You're eight minutes into it and you haven't yet answered the question. It is one of those moments where you hear yourself speaking and you cannot believe you are saying this. You just generally come off as inarticulate and struggling.

In terms of intellectual preparation, you just have to make sure you don't get lost. Go through your resume and for every job and transition in your life be prepared to crisply explain why you did it, and your stories and explain why you did it, what it was like, what you learned, and how you would do it differently. Be able to talk about every job in 40 seconds. Don't feel the need for completeness. If they are interested, they will ask a follow-up question.

So Harvard and other schools are looking for succinct and clear answers, not meandering detours for answers. Makes sense to me.

The answers need to be specific, crisp, and articulate. They want to see you draw a straight line from one end of the canvas to another. The way you mess up a question is to draw an squiggly line across the canvas. You need pop-up answers. Why I took this job? What my best accomplishment on this job was? What the culture of the firm, was and why I took my next job and how I would improve the job looking backwards. The correct answer to the Cornell question is, 'I lived in New York and wanted to get away from home yet not leave the East Coast. I was interested in liberal arts and not certain at the time what my major goals were. My high school guidance counselor and friends who went there suggested I look at Cornell. On my campus visit, I was excited by the enthusiasm of the students, and I immediately felt that it was a place where I could feel at home. Looking through the course catalog, I got really excited.' The quickest way to get rejected is to answer with a 'duh' because you're surprised at how simple the question is. A lot of people are thrown by this question. Kids who went to Harvard College are asked why they chose Harvard and often have to watch themselves from saying, 'duh!'



There's got to be more to it than that. I imagine that Harvard and other schools are looking for certain answers.

Aside from getting lost, the second way smart people flunk an interview is by being a super jerk. Super jerks come in all types: there is the Bain/McKinsey super jerk, the Goldman super jerk, and the Teach for America and World Bank super jerk, and most recently, the Google super jerk. Almost any Bain Capital or TPG guy dinged by HBS has flunked the interview on the jerk meter.

Non-HBS types come in all varieties. About 20% of the Harvard admissions committee members dislike investment bankers and private equity people. They are just looking for you to say something that is not politically correct. If you tell Harvard you are interested in opportunistic investments in distressed debts because you can make a killing, or even any nice version of that, you have just committed suicide. Instead, they want to hear you say you are interested in investing in companies that can really make a difference. 'My greatest transaction was in supporting an orphan drug company that created a drug to help people with a rare type of diabetes.' Or that you found a creative way to help finance a social enterprise in rural India to provide clean drinking water to people.'

It's hard to believe they'll fall for that, but I get the double bottom line emphasis, given all the accusations about greed. How should an applicant dress for the interview?

There are two mistakes you can make here. One of them is making a statement with what you wear. If you are a banker, don't show up looking like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. You shouldn't be on campus wearing a white collar on a blue shirt or a pair of gold cufflinks. Definitely no suspenders. You are not getting credit for suspenders when you are 24-years-old. The shoes should not scream 'these are $1,000 shoes!' The other mistake is more rare. Some techies often show up from work wearing chinos. You don't need to wear a suit; you can wear a blazer, but dress in a way that shows you are taking this event seriously. For women, you should be a cross between Hilary Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Don't make a statement in terms of accessories. Go light on the bling.

Are there different rules for an interview at Stanford where it's generally more laidback?

You may be able to wear jeans to a Stanford interview if it's pre-arranged in the back and forth with the alum who will interview you. Because alumni generally do the interviews, they sometimes set it up at Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, 'Is this Saturday dress or business casual?' If the guy is nice, he'll say, 'Well, I'll be wearing jeans.' But you could have one in a Starbucks on a Saturday. You can say, 'I'll be wearing Saturday casual and the guy might say sure. But I wouldn't do it unannounced.

How does an applicant prep for one of these interviews?

You should know what the standard questions are. About 90% of the questions are, 'Take me through every line of your resume.' They say, 'Why did you go there?' They are obsessed with transitions. 'What did you accomplish? How did you accomplish it? How would you do it differently?'

You also should be prepared to discuss how the economic downturn has affected you and your industry.

And then, there are frequent flyer questions like, 'What did you think of the application? Have you attended an HBS class?' That is an important question. Your answer should be truthful. If you haven't, you should say so but add that you have seen a video of a class on the Harvard website. And then you should be able to do a song and dance on what you thought of a class. The big mistake is to say, 'I went to UVA (University of Virginia) and I've had case study classes so it's not going to be a problem for me. Harvard is looking for case method virgins. They want you not to have been to the big city. They want you to say, 'Golly, holy smokes, the class was a mind blow. I was really impressed with the energy and with how the case study helped students bring to bear their different experiences and backgrounds in the class discussion.' The wise guy UVA answer by inference says, 'I have done this before and it won't be a problem for me and I can give a better answer than the guy next to me when the time comes.' That answer becomes the first drop of poison in the cup. If you keep answering that way, you are toast. Goodbye.

Another mistake people make is they think they have to deliver their whole package. They already have your package. Some people come out and say, 'We never talked about my plans for health care reform.' They don't care. A large part of a Harvard interview, like 40%, can be your college experiences and internships and some jive about clubs you will join at HBS.

What's your best advice on the famous closing question of many interviews, "Do you have any questions for me?"

The way you can kill yourself at the end is when you're asked do you have a question for me? Basically, the interview is over, your grade has already been faxed in. They are just trying to get you out the door. But you can screw this up at the last minute. You can pick an argument. You can say, 'Do you really think you can teach finance through the case method?' That is an awful question to ask because you are calling their baby ugly. They believe you can learn anything through the case method. So you don't want to get into a debate over it. A better answer is real light. If you're from another part of the country, you might say, 'I've never experienced a New England winter. Have you got any tips?' One of the best questions would be, 'How hard would it be for me to organize a forum around one of my passionate interests?' They'd love that one. If the chemistry was right between you and the interviewer, you might even ask if they could recommend an Indian restaurant in Harvard Square.

What are the basic differences between interviews at Harvard vs. Stanford, or Wharton?

One big difference between Harvard and the other two is that the Stanford and Wharton interviews are run off your resume. At Harvard, they have your entire folder. That's because admissions staff does most of the Harvard interviews. Stanford and Wharton don't have the essays, for example.

Alumni do up to 90% of the interviews at Stanford and it's well known that the interview is more of a marketing device to get alumni involved. You have to do something really dramatic to commit suicide in a Stanford interview.

Wharton interviews are a mixed bag. Second-year students on the school's student admission committee do a lot. If you can, my advice is to try to get an admissions board member first, then a student, and finally an alum, simply because alumni interviews can be odd. If they don't do many interviews, alumni of a school can have un-normal standards. If you only do two interviews, your standards tend to be higher than if you do 50 interviews. And some alums are just nuts and in rare cases predatory.

Sandy, you've got to be exaggerating.

Well, predatory is rare but not zero. If you can help it, you'll always be better off with an interviewer with a lot of experience because they are less likely to make oddball judgments. You want a normative interviewer, someone who knows the standards and who has been through it a million times. Alumni often have a chip on their shoulders. They may have issues with the school that can get projected in the interview. They may want to use you to deliver a message to the school, or they could have a prejudice against people who are in Teach For America or other non-profits. That happens a lot. And some alumni interviews can go on for more than an hour. They're just so much more unpredictable.

You're obviously doing a good number of mock interviews right now. What most bothers you about the whole process?

What upsets me is people who are good people but who have a bad hair day. The call I fear is from the person crying on Amtrak. They had their interview at HBS. They are on their way home on the train to New York, and they call in tears because they think they have blown their interview. If you think you've blown your interview at Harvard, you probably have blown it. Those are real sad calls, especially if you like the person, and they rehearse how they lost a step, then another and then tripped. If you could have prevented the first lost step, they would be in at Harvard. That happens, man, trust me. That happens. Years of work and hours of preparation and poof, it's gone, because they could not explain why they went to Cornell for college in 30 concise seconds.

For more admissions advice from Sandy Kreisberg, also see "The World, According to Sandy."





How To Answer Harvard's New 2012 Essays-my interview in Poets & Quants

by John A. Byrne
Poets & Quants

The new, four mandatory essay questions (with word limits):

  • Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
  • Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
  • Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
  • Answer a question you wish we'd asked. (400 words)

They replace last year's lineup:

  • What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600 words)
  • What have you learned from a mistake? (400 words)
    Please respond to two of the following (400 words each):
  • What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
  • What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
  • Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.
  • When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates.

Sandy, what's the headline news here?

The important news is that you now need six stories instead of four. Last year you had to write about three accomplishments and a mistake. Now you need three accomplishments and three setbacks. That will separate the men from the girls. There's no choice of questions. You have to write 200 more words, and then there's a free throw question on the essay to answer a question you wished Harvard asked.

What do you make of the changes?

They do this very casually. There are no tea leaves to read. The biggest change was going from six to four required questions several years ago. This is about as minimal as it can get. I think they figured out that four is enough. They know what they are looking for and they can get it with these questions. I give them credit. There is no baloney about ethics. No concession to multi-media. They are not asking you to design a website. This is a very old set of questions.

It's not a radical redesign, but it will require a little more horsepower because it's six stories instead of four. That requires more experiences or more creativity. The three-setback question could be the stumper for some.

My top line advice: Be a victim or help victims.

That is a story situation which really pays off. 'How I overcame being a Muslim in a conservative high school in Texas' or 'How I helped other Muslims/Latins/people in the slums of Brazil.' Any slum is a great place to situate an HBS essay.

Do it anywhere you can, in your accomplishments and in your setbacks. Also keep in mind, the reason I say six stories is that any accomplishment could be posed as a setback. Your job is to come up with six stories and then figure out which of them is an accomplishment and which of them is a setback. What six situations in my life do I want to show a picture of? Let's say you helped your dad turnaround his business and it was a great accomplishment because you get to help your dad and overcame a generation gap. That could be either an accomplishment or a setback. As a setback, you might write that you weren't able to follow through with helping your dad turn the business around because you made some great starts but lost focus over the next year because you failed to balance helping him with your job.

So let's take the first one. How does an applicant approach the requirement to tell Harvard about three accomplishments?

This is the most important question. What they are interested in is both a solid accomplishment and seeing some reflection. A solid accomplishment to them frequently has metric results. 'I started an organization and it grew from zip to 500 members who have done one, two, three. And here is how I did it, and this is what I learned.'

They want to see you with and working through other people and see you leading people in different ways. So you should pick stories that conform to those criteria. What they don't want is a brag sheet or something baked into your application. Winning a Rhodes scholarship is not an accomplishment. How you managed a work/life balance problem to be recommended for a Rhodes scholarship. And how you get help from advisors and friends to prepare for the Rhodes selection process is what Harvard is interested in.

If you do a work accomplishment, it helps if it has impact. It helps if you were able to gain allies. And it helps if you were capable of pointing out how you were effective in doing x, y and z. the biggest mistake is starting too far back. I read a lot of essays where after 180 words of throat clearing and explaining we finally hear about the accomplishment. In some cases, the last sentence should really be the first sentence. You don't need a back story. A good rule of thumb is to just say doing X required me to be very flexible. And then write more specifically about how you were flexible in achieving X and show different types of leadership.

But whatever you do, pay tremendous attention to story selection. What they want to see is you having accomplishments in different fields at work, with peers, your impact on the community. Good story selection and serviceable execution is better than boring and unimpactful story selection and brilliant execution. No amount of great execution can save a tepid story. When you read 100s of apps, as I have, you see this immediately.




The story selection advice has to apply to the second question that requires an applicant to write about three setbacks, right?

For setbacks, story selection is critical. Ideally, you will need to write about a professional setback, a personal setback, and an extracurricular setback. As a general rule, they are not interested in 'I got it right the second time.' That's less important than people think. 'I made a lousy presentation about my idea and then I did it right.' Ho-hum. A better essay actually is why you did it wrong in the first place and what you learned about yourself. Sure, that could be told in the 'after' story, but often folks get so caught up in the 'winner' version, they blot out most of the reflection. Another common weakness in these answers is a story which is just bad luck and not a setback. For instance, 'We bought a product to market and the recession killed us.' That is not a setback that you can do anything about. They are interested in a setback that someone else with greater skill or different character could have done correctly, or a relationship that could have been managed correctly.

What they like is humble service leadership. Don't be afraid to admit failure. Believe me. They don't blame you for mis-managing your relationships with your ex-fiancé. Very powerful setback stories are about family mismanagement. 'My dad was dying and I wasn't able to help my mom enough because I was reenacting some bad oedipal script so I didn't have the energy to deal with my mother. That is perfect.

A classic setback? 'I was managing a team and there was a sales part and a quality assurance part. They were always fighting about the infinite features the sales team wanted. My job was to bring the two together. Instead, I got entranced with the train wreck. That is classic. Team mismanagement is a good setback. Mismanaging team dynamics is an excellent setback. Once again, story selection is key. 'When I volunteered at the leper colony in Zimbabwe, I did not pay enough attention to the tribal chiefs and never was effective.' That is a gold star. Keep in mind the golden rule: Be a victim or help victims. You can't do better than working in a leper colony for Harvard Business School. Even if you failed, believe me, a complete failure in a leper colony is worth 100 success in some merger deal.

Then, there's the question pretty much every business school asks applicants, if not on the application, then during the interview: 'Why do you want an MBA?' Obviously, the real answer is 'I want to make more money.' But you can't write that.

This is a question where you should talk about your long-term goals and why you need an MBA to reach those goals. You should actually answer last year's question: 'What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?' Now, a lot of people think that his is a question where you can score a home run and distinguish yourself. Get that idea out of your head.

This is a question that can damage people. There are no great answers but there are a lot of bad answers. The really bad answer is you want an MBA to be a great real estate agent. Another bad answer is 'education is important to you even though I don't need it for my job.' That is a damaging answer.

'I want an MBA because I'm a doctor and I should know a lot about business as well.' That's a dumb answer. It can also be damaging if you list goals that do not emerge from your work experience.

Another damaging answer is to give them a business plan. In other words, 'I want an MBA because I've invented a new procedure to cure gout and the MBA will help me exploit this and get patents and build a company around my gout treatment.' They don't like business plans. They want career vision. Not a business plan. As a rule, they don't like people who want to start their own businesses. I don't care what they say elsewhere on their website. The HBS admissions committee does not want people to start their own business.

How come?

Because they don't think they can help you do that. That is a damaging thing to say, and it can never do you any good.

So what are some good answers?

A good model is 'My two years in private equity have shown me the impact that helping small companies grow can have. I want to be a private equity leader in an X field to make more of that happen.' Or just take out private equity and put in anything that you have experience in. Give examples of things you have been involved in which do that. Say you need an MBA to be a leader in this industry, to understand global trends, and to manage others.

Alright, what about that last throwaway question: 'Answer a question you wish we'd ask.'

The biggest piece of advice here is think value added. Don't think about a question you'd wish they asked. Think about a question that allows you to tell them what you think they need to know. Put it in the form of a question. Do an Alex Trebek.

In some cases, this question can serve a practical purpose. 'I wish you asked me how come I couldn't get my GMAT scores over a certain number. Or how come my GPA is 3.2 and why I think I can attend Harvard with that GPA. This is a perfectly legitimate place to discuss interruptions in work experience or the time you spent in jail or low GPAs or GMATs.

If you don't have problems like that, you can talk about passions, hobbies, etc., especially playing the piano allowed you to raise money for a non-profit. If you haven't been able to discuss your family background and that background is interesting, this is a good place to do it.

'I wish you asked me how my family has influenced me.' That is totally legitimate.

'I wish you asked me who my mentors have been and what role they've played in my life.'

This question is not worth pulling your hair out over. In fact, this question is another example of one which could probably only do you damage. By that I mean, f you are marginal and say something stupid. You are not going to tilt your app from a ding to an admit with this answer. By the time they get to it, your race is basically run. If you are very, very close, a bad answer can damage you, and a great answer might maintain your very, very close position.

Sandy, the other change has to do with recommendations. Harvard is now asking recommenders to write up to 1,000 words, from the 750-word limit last year. And there's a new question to boot.

Yes, there are three exact questions from last year and a new one. The new question is, 'How does the candidate's performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?" They always wanted recommenders to address this issue. This makes it a little difficult for investment banks and PE shops that write a lot of recommendations. It's hard to write five recommendations year and year and say this guy is the best guy I have ever seen, year after year. But for most recommenders, this is an issue which should have been addressed last year, anyway. They are just making it explicit to help out international recommenders who often would never compare applicants to others or American writers or just don't know how to really write recs.



A Candid Look At HBS’ New Application

Original interview published in Poets & Quants, May 22, 2012

by John A. Byrne
Poets & Quants

Shortly after the unveiling of the new Harvard Business School application, with its changed essay set, Poets&Quants interviewed Sanford “Sandy” Kreisberg, the founder of, an admission consultancy which focuses on HBS and other leading business schools. Kreisberg has been consulting with applicants since the 1970s and has seen more than a dozen iterations of HBS applications, including the one Harvard MBA Admissions & Financial Aid Managing Director “Dee” Leopold herself filed with eight essay questions. (He was not Dee’s consultant). He also typically does over 100 mock interviews for HBS candidates and writes the perennially favorite Poets&Quants’ weekly feature handicapping the odds of MBA applicants. As always, Sandy was his provocative self.

PQ: So Sandy, what do you think is driving this?

SK: Well, it could be the admissions office picking up a hint from some direct or off-the-cuff remark from the new Dean, Nitin Nohria, who has been ‘disruptive’ himself in his first years, especially the initiation of the Field Program (of trips and business plans) to the first year curriculum and who seems to like to shake things up. It could be Dee Leopold wanting to make changes for the sake of changes, pre-empting a seven-year itch (she has been the adcom head for six years now). It could be “innovation envy,” a feeling that with the whole school running around and hiring coders to start companies, as part of the Field Program, well, admissions had to make a splash as well. It could be all of the above.

PQ: What is you assessment of who this helps and who this hurts?

SK: It turns the application into something like a law school application, where they have your grades, your standardized test scores, and a couple of short essays. That helps people with high grades and high GMATs and a clear and branded work pedigree. It hurts non-traditional candidates, who have less room to explain themselves initially, and it hurts traditional candidates who were on the bubble, and also wanted to explain themselves. One word you don’t hear about in this application is “leadership”– which used to be the one-word description of HBS and a keystone of its motto, “to develop leaders who make a difference in the world.” What they appear to looking for now are high-achievers who are hip to starting disruptive things, however defined, and new businesses. “Disruption potential” has replaced “Leadership potential” as the new buzz words. Call it the Post-Zuckerberg effect. Well, the alternative –reality Zuckerberg Effect, they want Zuckerberg-types who did not drop out, and instead get good grades, good jobs, and found their “disruptive” Zuckerberg mojo later in life.

PQ: But how is that reflected in the new application?

SK: First, by the very fact that is new, and disruptive itself, “Hey look at us, we can innovate too!!” Second, by {Admission Director] Dee’s oft-stated and now even more clear obsession, especially in 2+2 candidates, with STEM applicants. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). STEM and Disruption have now replaced Leadership and Old-Fashioned Change (“change” was a hot HBS topic five years ago, and a required essay) as some useful clichés in understanding admissions policies and fancies. The fact they have slimmed down the essay part, and jettisoned such classic questions as “Describe three significant accomplishments” and “Describe three set-backs.” They even jettisoned, “What do you wish we had asked?” which is a pretty blue-sky question. So last year, you had to come up with seven stories (3 accomplishments, 3 set-backs and one blue sky event, what do you wish we had asked) over 1600 words, plus some goals blah, blah blah which could also be creative, all of which took some real digging around in your life and thinking about what matters to you, and then strategically picking seven value-adding and representative stories, while this year, it is more high-stakes, more like a business plan, where you need less writing but one “bet the ranch” what are you good at idea, and one “Hey, I’m a work in progress because . . .” idea.

P&Q: Let’s take a look at the actual questions: Tell us something you’ve done well and tell us something you wish you had done better.

SK: There is one word to describe the tone and content of those prompts-California.

The very removal off the word ‘accomplishment’ for the more touchy-feely ‘something you’ve done well’ and the banning of the judgmental ‘set-back’ for the infantile and Little-Train-Who- Could ‘something you wish you had done better’ is a way of signaling , “We Don’t Need No Real Accomplishments or Set-backs” (well, of course, aside from getting into ace feeder colleges, getting strong grades and solid GMATs and working for traditional feeder firms), you can just riff on this.

But, of course, I am just being analytical and old school. The most important part of the new application is the naked fact that the initial essay set has been reduced, as you noted, from 2000 to 800 words.

PQ: Meaning?

SK: Words don’t count so much, or more charitably and probably more accurately, “Folks, we get the idea about you real fast. You’re a start-up, we just need the elevator pitch. We don’t need you to explain it to us. We know what we want and we know a future HBS admit when we see one.”


PQ: How do these changes impact the rest of the application? The parts of the application that applicants can control?

SK: Well, it upgrades everything else a bit. Your resume becomes more important as a way of featuring significant accomplishments. They may start seeing more two-page resumes, with “mini” essays about extra-curriculars that somehow did not make it into the essay set. Recommendations become more important, especially recommendations which can tell your work accomplishments with some color to how you are a leader, etc. Preparing recommenders becomes more important.

PQ: OK, all that said, let’s take what they are asking, one question at a time. “Tell us something you’ve done well.” What is your advice?

SK: Well, one knee-jerk answer is that “I’ve done well in different environments,” and then sneak in some concise, ahem, accomplishments, and allude to how you were successful. To their credit, they are never legalistic with their instructions. So “something” does not necessarily mean ONE THING. So some catalog of accomplishments in different settings is one OK answer, and one which I suppose they will see a good deal of, especially if you don’t have the facts to support, “Something I have done well is forgive the sadists in Hell-Hole Despotic Country who tortured my parents to death while also maintaining my parents’ activist ideals about human rights here in America.”

OK, just an exaggeration to point out that an answer which deals with overcoming adversity, especially any adversity with an identity politics/PC twist is still a good answer. Another way to deal with the question is to say LEARNING FROM OTHERS is something I’ve done well, or FINDING OUT WHAT DRIVES ME or even BEING HONEST WITH MYSELF.

Of course, all those answers gain force by the concise examples you are able to squeeze in. The question then becomes a mini version of the Stanford classic, “What matters most to you and why?” where the answer resonates with some big words like GROWTH, LEARNING, SELF-AWARENESS and manages to screw in some compelling examples. If you are a STEM nerd, you could probably get away with, “Making stuff better” or” making products better,” or even “making my start-up better” is something I have done well, and follow it with 400 words about how, and why. If you have been deep enough into something like starting a company or designing a product, and have some tangible proof, HBS will meet you more than half-way on the actual execution of the essay (assuming you bring along a great GPA and good GMATs). And if you screw up, the essay won’t count so much. They can tell if you are total basket case at the interview.

PQ: OK, what about “Tell us something you wish you had done better.”

SK: It’s actually 90 percent the same question as “tell us something you have done well,” with some built in reflection. You can take all the suggestions above and work it into this format. With some therapeutic mumbo-jumbo. To wit, you could write about not learning from persons X, Y and Z (your parents, mentors and friends) and why those were key watersheds, or not being honest with yourself in situations 1, 2, 3 with blah, blah takeaways. Not to mention the classic, “I wish I had not let my anger about the sadists who tortured my parents to death interfere so much with my mission of spreading their great human rights initiatives in America. “ That version is actually better than the original.

HBS is not looking for the Dalai Lama, more like “not-so-spaced son of Dalai Lama.” Of course, you can also say, to go from the sublime to the banal, “I wish I had done a better job with the due diligence of Widget Inc, but the reasons for my weaknesses in those models and meetings are revealing . . . blah, blah, blah.” That answer, as banal-sounding as it is, along with a 3.9 from Princeton, a 720 GMAT, and some solid recs from two non-indicted guys at Goldman or JP Morgan and a final rec from the board member of CHARITY YOU FOUNDED will get you in to HBS, in most cases. And even if your recommenders have been indicted, hey, innocent until proven guilty plus 1. no one yet has been indicted, and 2. even if your recommender has not only been indicted but convicted and in jail, well, he probably will have more time to write your rec and being in jail won’t take away from what he says about you.

PQ: What do you make of the 24-hour post interview essay, where they ask you to say what you wish you had said.

SK: Let me be real careful here. It’s apples and oranges. Or more precisely, apples and oranges and then, when you thought you were done, ANOTHER APPLE. The actual interview (oranges) is an important way to get a lot of information you cannot get in an application (apples), so I support interviews for sure. Throwing in some stunt essay AFTER the interview will not churn up any new information not already in the application and interview, and it certainly will NOT make applicants feel better about getting in the last word. Dee, baby, I LOVE YA, but that is dreaming.

I’ve done hundreds of mock interviews for HBS applicants. The ones that go well, go well. Those kids are just going to be burdened with yet more homework and anxiety and instead of walking out of the interview and saying, “OK, this is over . . .” there is now one more stupid and made-up essay to write, which probably can only damage you. The vast majority of kids who don’t do well on the interviews, screw up because they got lost, or were digressive, or arrogant or unlikeable (from the adcom’s POV).

Well, I guess they can rush over to Starbucks and write 400 words about “I wish the interviewer had asked me right near the end to explain why I am not usually such a spaz, and won’t be after you admit me.” Which, however heartfelt and convincing and unlikely, will not change their view that you are a spaz. How come? Because they saw you spaz out with their very own eyes and ears, and you saying “don’t believe it,” won’t change anything. And, most importantly, for the vast majority of interviewed applicants who have OK but not super-duper interviews, it is just more stressful work that is not going to add any value or new information or change anything.

The whole exercise strikes me as too clever by half, desperate innovation for innovation’s sake, a logistical nightmare for some jet-lagged kid who also needs to catch another plane home in those 24-hours, an invitation for those who interview on campus NOT TO VISIT CAMPUS and instead stay holed up for 24 hours doing a hateful and made-up essay (ditto, those who travel to Paris or Mumbai for interviews) and finally, some crazy Christmas gift cum nightmare for consultants.



Sandy On Harvard’s New MBA Application

Original interview published in Poets & Quants, May 30, 2013

by John A. Byrne
Poets & Quants

Harvard Business School kicked off the unofficial start to the 2013-2014 MBA admissions cycle today (May 30) with a radical change in its application process. The school reduced the number of essays to just one open-ended question–and even suggested that it would be possible for prospective applicants to the Class of 2016 to skip the essay entirely.

For analysis and commentary on the change, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, of, a prominent MBA admissions consultant who works closely with candidates who apply to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. In a wide-ranging interview, Kreisberg commented on who will gain from this new format, who will be in danger, what mistakes to now avoid, his suggested word counts on both the single essay and Harvard’s post-interview reflection and other issues.

JOHN A. BYRNE: So Sandy, there’s big news today from Harvard Business School. Dee Leopold, the admissions director, shook things up last year and she’s at it again with a new application that requires only one essay. Last year HBS asked applicants two questions,

Tell us something you’ve done well (400 words) and Tell us something you wish you had done better (400 words).

The new question is “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” and there is no word limit. What is going on?

SANDY KREISBERG: A lot and nothing.

Let’s start with the nothing. The essay, however mystical it can seem, and this one comes wrapped in mystery, with no word limit, remains some other piece of the application–along with the rock hard facts of your GMAT/GRE, college  and GPA, your major (HBS likes STEM), your age, your  work history and its selectivity, your recommendations and extras, plus the usual identity politics issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. As Dee says, the essay is one piece, and that is true and unchanged.

The essay BY ITSELF can, in some 10% of cases, damage you, and in some 20% of cases help you, and in most cases, confirm what they already know from the other stuff — which is a lot. To that extent, nothing is new. The new HBS essay is actually very similar to the famous Stanford essay, “What Matters Most to You and Why?” in that it is open-ended, and especially in the no word limit format, it can provide lots of room for you to drift into trouble. To the extent you can drift into trouble because it is open-ended, well, I suppose that is new and important. It was really harder to screw up last year’s essays and become offensive or annoying. That is now easier. On the positive side, it gives some people lots of room to explain their backgrounds (that was not the case last year), career goals, if they are career switchers (that was also hard to do last year) and you have the satisfaction of being able to say whatever you want.

BYRNE: How can the essay damage you?

KREISBERG: As noted, you can drift into trouble, especially since it is open-ended. The most common way is that you can go down some rabbit hole of personal story telling, quirky affectations, “literary” style, and bragging. To that extent, developing a personal voice in the essay versus just being bland in some acceptable way, can be dangerous if 1. you were marginal in the first place, 2. your voice turn offs the reader in  some hard-to-define but easy to feel way. You can sound dislikable, whiny, immature, and unaware.

BYRNE: Give me some examples.

KREISBERG: Well, bragging in all its many overt and covert forms is the most common way to seem immature and silly. Writing an essay along the lines  “that I would like you to know what is behind those bullets on my resume and what  a swell job I did on  projects X Y and Z”  and then straining to make that case, even if true, by rehearsing a lot of facts and cliches, and then having that pile up, for a lot of examples, even if all of them are ‘true,’ well, yeah, I could see that turning some OK candidate into someone you don’t want to interview. They would blame you for the lack of self-awareness, for not knowing how you are coming across.  At HBS, being boring or unaware or immature then leads to the $64 Billion Dollar Question, “Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?” And the answer is NO!. There are a million variants of bragging. There is being boring, there is saying too much of the same thing, there is presenting OK material with cliches and overstatement. There is just sounding immature, in all its varieties, which is probably more frequent and deadly than sounding boring, although boring is not good either.

BYRNE: What about saying something offensive or politically incorrect?

KREISBERG: That needs to be watched and I suppose it comes to mind first, and will be listed as first by others, but in reality, that is pretty rare.

It is rare for someone to say, “Gee, I want you know what a good job I did in planning Joey’s retirement party and arranging for those strippers and getting that Mormon guy drunk, and even the gals got a kick out of the fact that I also had a male stripper, because, you know, everyone loves strippers and booze and cigars . . .” I mean, you love to tell stories about essays like that, and you hope those stories are true, but gaffes like that are really rare. Although, yes, for the record, do not write about strippers, or how Islam is a religion that is hard to square with Western business practices, or how gay marriage could logically lead to plural marriage, or how your brilliant marketing scheme for that tobacco or beer company was so good because it appealed to kids.  But more importantly, because this is likely to happen more frequently, do not use a megaphone in any context.  And when you find yourself on an easy  roll, ask yourself if you are slipping into cliches and possibly offensive ideas.

Let me also add, most adcoms are liberal in general outlook. It may be unfair, but you can write a good essay about how you were effective in organizing a campaign to support gay marriage. It is taking a real risk to write about organizing a ballot initiative against gay marriage or in favor of banning abortions–don’t argue with me. Argue with the academy. Adcoms, will, of course, deny this, but don’t believe the denials. At bottom they will blame you, in their own minds, not for your political views, but for taking risks and a lack of judgment.  Not for being against gay marriage,  but for writing about it in this context.  Catch-22.

BYRNE: OK, how can this new and no-limit essay help an applicant?


KREISBERG: If you have powerful extra-currics or if you have an adversity story that is hard to fully ‘get’ in a shorter context, this essay can give you the  chance to flip a switch in the reader’s head that says, “I REALLY LIKE THIS KID.’  Keep in mind that you get a chance to list extra-currics on your resume and in some outline form in the body of the application, and most applicants do not realize how powerful  that list can be all by itself.  But beyond that, this essay, as with the famous Stanford essay, can give you a chance to talk about how those experiences helped form your values, who your mentors were, how you evolved as a thinker and doer, and also how that impacts your goals. That would actually be my “go to” advice if you don’t need to use this essay to explain bad grades, or too many jobs, etc.  Or even if you do.


You can include work experiences in that, just focus on how you were effective, why that project was important to your larger development, how you convinced others, led, negotiated, made friends out of foes.

BYRNE: Sandy, do you think a lot of applicants will be retrofitting their Stanford “What Matters Most Essay” into this one?

KREISBERG: Ha, ha, good one.  Actually, given that the Round One HBS deadline is in mid-September  and Stanford’s Round One deadline is several weeks later, I can see the opposite. A lot of HBS essays fitted into Stanford, with some transitional material, of course.

BYRNE: Do you think HBS was copying Stanford?

KREISBERG: No. I think Dee was feeling her oats and wanted to do something new and fun and not too crazy, and this is what emerged.

It is, a perfectly logical question, in some ways,  the mother of all questions. “What else do you want to tell us that we don’ t know?”  It is only after the essay consultants go to town on it that it emerges, through the iron of the essay writing process and the quirks of the application process, that a good way to answer this question is very similar to THE good way to answer Stanford.

BYRNE: Dee mentioned in my interview with her that it was possible that some applicants will not write anything at all. Do you think that is wise?

KREISBERG: Well, I salute anyone who does that, and gets away with it, and some peeps probably can.

I would advise against it, just on a risk/reward basis.  It puts into play your own cockiness and if there is other evidence to support that, you could be in trouble.

I can also see  a question during the last 5 minutes of your 30 minute HBS interview along the lines of, “Gee, now that we have found out all about why you attended school X, and what you learned from jobs 1, 2 and 3, and what advice you would give each of your bosses, and what industries besides yours you think are attractive, and how you work with others”–which are all classic HBS interview questions–”how come you did not think any of that was worth adding to your application to help us to get to know you better, or do you think this interview has been a waste of time??”

OK, there is an answer to that, but still…….

BYRNE: What about applicants who do have issues like grades or low GMATs to explain.

KREISBERG: Well, they used to give you some really short space to do that  and now you have unlimited space. I suppose that is an improvement, just from the demands of brevity, but I am not expecting to see the new unlimited space make a difference in any one case.  There are only so many ways you can say, “I screwed up college because I was a jerk but now I am serious . . .” Although let me add, there may only be so many ways to say that, but some ways are better than others. As with everything else, remember, “Is this the kind of excuse making I would want to hear from the kid sitting next to me?” That is a golden test for HBS. That is the way adcoms think. Now that I think about it, having more space, as noted, can lead to drift, and drift can lead to bad judgment and affectation, so this new format might be dangerous for “explainers” as well.  Let me also add that you can also write a Stanford type essay and then draw a line and explain why your GMATs are not a fair predictive metric of how well you will do at HBS. Writing the full BS essay does not preclude you from also explaining things like grades or GMATs. Although the change in tone and sensibility is often jarring.

BYRNE: What about strong applicants with super solid grades from Ivy schools and top feeder firm jobs who just don’t want to blow this question. What is your advice for playing it safe.

KREISBERG: This becomes a similar exercise to the post-interview reflection they asked last year.  You recall that question was, “You’ve just had your HBS interview. Tell us about it. How well did we get to know you?” The formula  answer to that, and, ahem, one that worked in 100s cases that I am familiar with, was, about 400-600 words, along the lines of

“Thanks for the interview, and just a list of things that were sorta special and did not come up in the interview.  My guess is, if you want to neutralize this essay, the standard answer will be like that. Something close to 750  words, to let them know you are not blowing this off (that is also a similar word count to  Stanford Essay One), and some kind of discussion of what three or four things in your background mean, and how you were effective at doing those things, and what those events mean to you. Some discussion of 4-8 events, people, etc. in 750 words, my guess is, you just described 70 percent of the essays of the admitted class, and 70 percent of the essays of the dinged class.

Another issue is goals and why HBS. Last year you had 500 characters (including spaces) to discuss that, as a required short answer inside the application. That may give you some idea of how important they think that is. Not very. I suppose you could stuff out an essay this year with some rap about your goals and why HBS, blah, blah. That won’t hurt you, unless you are already in the warning zone of being boring and banal, but it won’t help either.  It is especially a low gain situation to talk about why HBS.  Talking about your goals, well, sure, especially if you can make that discussion follow powerfully from some prior discussion about what your values are how the two match up.

BYRNE: Sandy, what about stunt  essays, like making a list or writing in verse or drawing a picture?

KREISBERG: Well, not sure if you can draw a picture. Just in terms of technology. Making a list of people and places that mattered to you, if done well, would get you a pass, which means if you were getting in, you would still get in. If you were a reject, you would still be rejected. It could depend on what you said about each.  In theory, that would be as good as a regular essay. Writing in verse, phew, risky, but I am rooting for you.

BYRNE: What about writing about ONE event?

KREISBERG: Sure, along the lines of “I’d like you to know about X, which reveals several things about me . . .”

Stanford essays often work that way. “What matters most to me is the year I spent doing X”

BYRNE: Any final tips?

KREISBERG: Don’t fall down a hole. Writing can be a drug. That is good and bad. The drug can energize you and distort your judgment. Leave lots of time for revision. Show your essay to people. They may not be able to tell you what is good or bad, although sometimes they can, but they can alert you to what is odd, offensive, unclear, or just annoying, Trust those responses, even if they are inarticulate. As with the HBS interview, the real test is not to blow it. This essay, in terms of  adding value to what they actually do know about you from everything else, is not going to turn bronze into gold. It may turn high silver into low gold, and that can be critical. It can also turn gold into gold dust, seriously, so make sure that does not happen.

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