Cold feet for the HBS cold call – a survival guide

cold_feetThe MBA program at HBS is fully case-based. Students prepare a case up front and discuss all aspects of the case in class. The professor has the role of facilitator and specialist. As these discussions are such an important part of the teaching method at HBS, students’ grades depend heavily on class participation. Most of this class participation is on a voluntary basis, as students get called on after raising their hand. There is however one exception to this rule – the HBS cold call.

The vast majority of classes at HBS starts with the professor walking in, pointing at a (random) student and saying: “Hey you, tell me about this case. What should the protagonist of the case do and why?” The professor and the chosen student will then spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of class discussing the case, the protagonist and the actions that he/she should take. To some students, cold calls are an important source of stress. To others, they are a much needed motivator to prepare each an every case. And then there are those who just seem to master the art of “talking their way out” of any difficult situation and don’t consider the cold calls as a threat.

Not all cold calls are the same… and the way cold calls are being done can differ massively between professors. Find my “HBS cold call survival” guide below.

1 The very very very random cold call
They do exist – the professors that make their cold calls totally random. One professor guarantees total randomness for the cold call by throwing a dart at our class’ seating chart. Anyone is welcome to witness his dart skills the day before class at 10AM in his office. At the start of class, he will go up to the student who ended up being the “bull’s eye”, show him the hole in the seating chart paper and start questioning him as part of the cold call. One downside of randomness – the same student can be cold called multiple times… or even twice in a row! There just doesn’t seem a way to avoid a potential call. Our advice: make sure you have a seat on the outer limits of the classroom – his darts don’t seem to make it to that area very often. Or spend every day at the professor’s office at 10AM and see if you got ‘darted’.

2 The supposedly random cold call
Other professors don’t perform the whole darts procedure and just assign someone in class, supposedly on a random basis. However, be aware – all too often, it’s the students that don’t speak a lot in class that get targeted for these kind of cold calls. Bad news for the silent ones, good news for the active ones. Avoid these cold calls by making the occasional voluntary comment in class… and as such avoid a potential cold call on a tough day.

3 The supposedly predictable cold call

Example of a HBS classcard (obviously a fake one)

Example of a HBS classcard (obviously a fake one)

Other professors go a long way to peform their cold calls. At HBS, professors need to ‘know’ their students – they need to know the students’ names, background and specifics. They gather this information from the HBS classcards, an online tool in which every single student at HBS enters his/her general information, professional background and a set of additional random facts (see example). This information is supposed to help the professors in steering discussions in class based on people’s expertise. One professor took this part of his job very seriously. At the beginning of every class, he would walk through his reasoning of how exactly he chose today’s cold call. And often, he would find some kind of link with the case of the day – as an example, he would call on a person who likes to travel to comment on a case on Airbus. However, stating that this link was too obvious, he would go for the student that has all of the letters of Airbus in his/her name… or to the French student in class since Airbus is French. My assessment – keep the “additional information” field in the classcard as empty as possible to avoid links to cases.

4 The “I-thought-I-was-safe” in-class cold call
While most cold calls happen at the start of class, some professors like to keep attention levels high by calling on random people during class. I have seen this happen most of the time in finance classes… as a lot of people would happily let go of the discussion once the cold call passed. I only have one advice in this case: prepare your (finance) cases!

5 The “Ow Shit!” cold call
So you are sitting in class and start shaking your head. You do this because a) you where thinking about that great song you heard on the radio earlier OR b) you totally disagreed with a statement of a fellow classmate. Whatever the reason, this kind of reaction can get you a call by the professor even without you raising your hand. In this same category, we find the “stretching-in-class-and-the-professor-thinks-you-were-raising-your-hand” call. Our advice – always stay low profile.

6 The non-existing cold call
Only seen in the second year at HBS… where some professors indeed never cold call. However, this is an exception to the rule.

7 World’s funniest cold call
One of the (younger) professors at HBS had his parents over in class one day. The class was well underway when we were stuck on a certain problem. At that time, he turned to his mom and said: “Mom, what are you thinking?” Her reaction was priceless… 😉


cold call calculationI would like to emphasize the value of above advice and I have data to prove. When making some “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, a student at HBS has an average chance of being cold called 7 times over the 2 years of the MBA program. Having spent more than 65% of my time at HBS already, I should have been called at least 4 times by now. Well, I have only been cold called twice! (tap on the back) Stay tuned for more advice on how to successfully survive HBS.


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