This Wednesday (October 12) is one of those days on the calendar that tend to stop everyone in their tracks and dominate the headlines. Nevermind that the Duke Fuqua or Dartmouth Tuck deadlines are right around the corner - no, it's all about the final HBS Round 1 notification deadline. Interview or ding? Rather, interview or ding or deferral, as that appears to be a popular option this year as well. Let's make sense of things and offer some advice on how to respond from here. We'll group it result-by-result.
If you got an interview, congratulations. You may have found this out last week, during the first two of the "three notification dates." Many are offering the best guess that the majority of the interview invites went out last week, just as they did on the first date last year and the year before. I don't know if I agree. There is a new director at HBS, so there is zero reason to expect he would want to do things the same way. Further, HBS loves to test confidence and dare people to panic, so what better way than to hold back some of the interviews until the end - maybe they can get 20-30 people to flinch and then rule those candidates out. Either way, a good number of people are waiting to see if it's an interview, a deny, or a deferral right now. Now, if you DID get an interview, obviously I don't need to tell you to feel good about it because you already do. You are halfway (or better) home to an admit from HBS and you got some validation very early in the process. That said, there are a few things I find myself telling many clients, so they are worth posting here.
1. Don't change your plans.
It's one thing to lock up an admit to Sloan or Columbia and let that change your plans (get more aggressive with top schools and so forth), because it's an admit - it's a bird in hand. An interview is obviously not an admit. Even if you are amazing in interviews, even if you have the charisma of George Clooney, don't change a thing about what you are doing. Stick to whatever plan you laid out for yourself at the beginning.
2. Bunch your prep.
What I mean by this is first set your interview date and then set up your prep to take place within a window fairly near that date. You may be excited about getting an interview, but it does no good to race off and practice and do mock interviews 3-4 weeks before the actual interview. Any refinement will be lost at that point. You want to set up your prep work about 7-10 days before the real thing - close enough to keep it fresh, but far enough out that you can incorporate any feedback.
3. Own your goals; get to know HBS.
If you were a client of mine, you probably do own your goals and you know exactly why you want to go to HBS. However, due to the open-ended nature of the essay this year, many applicants might not have done those things. If you walk into an HBS interview and don't know exactly what you want to do with your life (and why) and if you don't have a really deep and detailed understanding of HBS and what makes it special, you are at a severe disadvantage. In many ways, if you did not build up to this point with a good consultant or at least good advice, you are kind of starting from scratch.
4. Start thinking about the post-interview writing assignment.
This is not something that you want to be too polished (HBS has gone to great lengths to make sure you know this, to the point where I joke that you should make an intentional grammar error just to make it look nice and scruffy), but you do want to it to be well thought out. Think about what you might cover in the interview and what you have said so far in your app, and what might be left for you to say. Consider the talking points you want to bring with you to HBS and then, when the interview is over, you will be able to see which ones are left and you can build upon something unsaid to bring real depth and meaning to a tricky assignment.
If you got a deferral, well, I hope you like limbo, because you are now going to be just hanging out for about 3-4 months as you wait for HBS to collect its Round 2 wave and see what it has. The pragmatist looks at what HBS is doing and thinks "they must have had a huge Round 1 application haul; they clearly want to see what they have before they commit too many spots, while also making sure they don't punt away some great candidates." The cynic looks at what HBS is doing and says, "Boy, they really think they are something; they have no respect for their applicants." The strategist looks at this and says, "Okay, how does this fit with what HBS is doing more generally?"
On that front, I would say do this: convert the word "limbo" to "ambiguity" and then read literally anything I have written about HBS in the past two years and you will see where I am going with this. HBS wants to see how you deal with ambiguity! That's the name of the game. They have added post-interview assignments, they have made the essay open-ended, and now they have used an aggressive deferment strategy. All of those things create massive amounts of ambiguity for the applicants and I honestly believe the are taking note of who handles it well.
So … what should you do?
1. Keep your spurs from jangling.
See above - they are trying to measure how well you deal with all of this, so the best thing to do is stay low and stay cool. If they deferred you, they clearly like you and were very interested. They just either don't want to overcommit too many spots too early or they want to see how you handle things. If you leap at them like a cougar, you are toast. If you hang back and play it confident, your chances seem pretty good. (Note: I have said the same thing to waitlisted HBS clients in the past, to great effect.)
2. Call in those favors, so long as the favor is handled correctly.
This is for the "should I have so-and-so call and put in a word?" question. The answer is almost always "yes … as long as it is done right." What does "right" mean? It means respectfully.
"Hi there, Adam Hoff here, CEO extraordinaire. I wanted to give you a call on behalf of John Doe, who is currently deferred. Look, I don't want to presume anything and I would never in a million years pretend to know who should or should not get into HBS, nor am I trying to influence the way you do your job. This call is for me. I just know that I feel so strongly about John that I'd be kicking myself if I didn't pick up the phone."
That is how to do it, basically. It's all about proper deference and deep passion. If someone can't say they words "I'd be kicking myself if I didn't put in a word for him/her" - meaning they don't feel that strongly about it - then don't ask them. "Hey there, I'm calling on behalf of … let's see here … oh, right, John Doe, who is one my cousin's top associates at blah-blah-blah private equity…" is not the right way to do it. If it feels like that person is just doing someone a favor and peddling influence, it will either not work or it will harm your chances (because it offends the person on the other end of the phone).
To summarize: only have someone place a call if they really are so passionate about it that thy would hate themselves for not doing it, and then make sure that they call in a really respectful way.
If you've been dinged, I am honestly very sorry. HBS was a lot of work this year and if you did the essay right, there was a lot of "you" on the page. It's difficult enough to be rejected, but when you've really put yourself out there, it's even harder. That said, there is a game plan for this as well:
1. Remind yourself of what you knew when you started.
Which is that HBS is the second-hardest school to get into by the numbers and maybe the hardest in reality (when you account for who makes up these applicant pools). HBS is often the dream, but it's rarely the reality. I have been blessed to see a lot of client get the admit from Harvard over the past three years (and got some great interview news this year as well, by and large), but there are still lots of dings in that mix - and I'm only taking on top-flight people I truly believe in. It's just the nature of the beast. You can't let yourself feel uniquely victimized by this result, nor should you ever take it personally. (Also don't play the "I can't believe I didn't at least get an interview" game. They only interview about 18% of the applicant pool; ie, the acceptance rate at Wharton. Besides, moral victories are pointless - they mean nothing.)
2. Do not waste any time trying to diagnose a "reason."
Maybe you were too old, maybe your GPA was too low, maybe your work experience did not indicate enough leadership, maybe, maybe, maybe. Honestly? Who cares. It doesn't matter. There is a very low chance you will reapply to HBS and if you do, that won't be for about 11 months. There is no use trying to figure out a "why" because there is nothing to do with that information.
3. Keep your head up.
Most of all, do not let this impact your overall strategy or how you feel about the road ahead. A few years ago, I honestly considered ceasing the practice of taking on multi-school clients who had either Columbia ED or HBS as one of their schools. Why? Because those schools notify early and so if someone gets bad news, it can threaten future work. There's no time in a breakneck process to stop and give someone 10 pep talks to get them to finish the race. Luckily, I didn't have to make that call because my clients have proven to be mature, resilient, and resourceful. That said, I still often to tell them to keep their head up. Each school is its own thing, so your chances at Booth or Kellogg or Wharton or INSEAD or even Stanford have zero to do with a decision rendered by HBS. Stick to your plan, stick to your guns, and see the whole thing to completion.
Hopefully the above advice will prove helpful regardless of what camp you find yourself in. Good luck the rest of the way!