The Harvard Interview: What It’s Like, from a Harvard Student
Many Harvard hopefuls will plan to apply early decision this fall. And unlike their regular decision counterparts, these students will find themselves scheduling, preparing for, and maybe stressing out about a Harvard interview in October.
What is it like? How should I prepare? Is it true that I’ll be asked questions by a panel? If these questions and more are running through your head, you’ve come to the right place. Here, a current Harvard student expounds on her interview experience, dismantling once and for all the intimidating rumors about “the panel” and letting you know what to expect.
I would be remiss to inform you that these questions are simple or easy to answer off the cuff. As with any interview, you need to prepare in advance, and you must be particularly ready to answer these questions without rambling.
Harvard’s interview questions are all predicated on your application, which you will have already submitted and which your interviewers will have read in advance of your interview. Thus, you won’t be expected to simply describe your activities and experiences but rather reflect on them. These types of questions should not necessarily be hard, so long as you do the work of thinking and reflecting on your experiences before you go into your interview. That is to say that there is no “correct” response to such questions so long as you are genuine, but an interview is not the setting to consider for the first time what you learned from a particular experience. That kind of reflection should be done before.
As well, interviewers will ask you questions that have nothing to do with your specific application. These are things like “Have you read anything in the news recently that particularly shocked you?” or “What’s your favorite book?” The best way to approach these questions is to answer them honestly. If your favorite book of late is a graphic novel, say that. No need to pretend that you brought On the Origin of Species with you on vacation—unless, of course, you did.
What differentiates the Harvard interview from most other college interviews is that it is sometimes—although not always—conducted by two interviewers simultaneously. This structure, rather than the typical one-on-one structure of most interviews, has come to be referred to as “the panel,” a name which gives the process an undue aura of intimidating stress.
First off, it’s important to remember that this “panel” is made up of alumni/ae, and thus should not overwhelm you. Though we’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the importance of taking your interview seriously regardless of when, where, and how it occurs, it’s important to keep in mind that your interviewers here are different from the people that will grant or deny you admission to Harvard. This should quell your nerves considerably. Once, they stood in your very shoes.
What’s more, you will not be either at an advantage or a disadvantage if you happen to be interviewed by a “panel” of two alumni or find yourself sitting across the table from simply one person. If you are nervous about the prospect of talking to two people at once, you may find it comforting to know that such a scenario is not guaranteed.
That said, if you do find yourself chatting with two interviewers rather than one, do not fret. If anything, you should view the “panel” structure of the Harvard interview as a boon. As we’ve mentioned, the interviewing process serves not only to help schools get a sense for you but for you to get a sense of a school. With access to two different alumni, you’ll be able to get a sense of the multiplicity of their experiences at and beyond Harvard. This is especially useful to keep in mind as you’re preparing your questions for your interview.
As for the questions you’ll be asked, the good news is that the interview is largely what you’d expect. No curveballs here: Harvard alumni will ask you pointed questions about your interests and experiences as they appear on your Common App for about 45 minutes, and then they’ll open up the floor for your questions in the last 15 minutes.
For the most part, you should prepare for this interview like you would any other: with practice, preparation, and research. Like with all interviews, you should go into this one with a list of questions to ask about Harvard (if you haven’t yet, read these guides to both good and bad interview questions).
While you’re perusing the blog, check out the other articles about interview prep—all the advice outlined there helped me prepare for my interview. I’m about to give you a pretty extensive reading list, so get ready: This article outlines how to prepare for your interview; if you’re an introvert like me, this article will give you helpful tips; here, you’ll find more information about making the most of your college interviews. For a dressing guide, check out this article. Then, when you’re done with all that, read this article, which gives you an idea of how to follow up with your interviewers the next day.
Phew! Can you make it through all those articles? Try! Because if you’re armed with the advice from all those posts and put in a few hours of practice and prep, you’ve done almost everything possible to prepare for your Harvard interview, honestly. There’s no special way to prepare for Harvard’s interview that is different from the preparation process for an interview at any other school.
A Point to Stress: Don’t Stress!
Most importantly, I’d like to dispel your fears. From a student who has prepared for the Harvard interview with fear and come out on the other side—alive and accepted—I can assure you that it is not harrowing or scary. In fact, it was one of the more pleasant interview experiences I’ve had in my life.