Preparing for Interviews
Your applications are signed and mailed, and the waiting begins. Although you will not know for several weeks whether you have been selected to interview, you should prepare now.
Why practice for interviews now? First, the skills you hone aren't wasted; they will serve you well for graduate and professional school interviews, and for job interviews in the future.
Second, the more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel with answering questions "on the fly"—and ease in the interview setting is an important ingredient for success.
Know what to expect
- Talk to people who have been through similar interviews to find out what helped them and what they wish they'd done, or not done.
- Use your mock interviews to listen to yourself, to practice framing answers that include the information you want to convey, and to help you with your sense of timing. Twenty minute interviews go by fast.
- What points do you want to be sure to make? What character traits do you want to project? Write them down, and review your list before each interview.
- Go over your application carefully. Interview questions will mostly derive from your application materials: the personal statement, study or policy proposal, activities, transcript, and letters of recommendation. Mentally review past course material, consider what activities matter most to you and why, and be prepared to discuss anything and everything.
- Brainstorm a list of possible questions, and practice speaking the answers. Although actual interview questions will most likely be very different, the practice you'll gain from thinking on your feet could transform a hesitant and cautious response into an articulate, confident and effective statement.
- Also, brainstorm a list of potential questions in your major field of study. Ask your advisor to help you. Focus on issues that would interest an educated generalist (and since you've been reading the New York Times, The Economist or the Wall Street Journal, you know what these are). Formulate your answers verbally.
- You may be asked questions on current events. Know what is happening in the world, and have opinions to articulate. Be able to defend knowledgeably your positions on cloning and stem-cell research, campaign finance reform, the federal budget, missile defense, etc.
- Don't be surprised by questions that touch on your extracurricular interests, the kind of books you read, and what you like to do in your free time.
Managing the Interview
- Remember that the committee members are intelligent, accomplished, successful and occasionally famous people. Don't, however, let yourself be intimidated. Engage confidently in the exchange of ideas; respectful differences of opinion are expected and even welcomed. Know the difference between a debate and an argument, and avoid engaging in the latter. Remember how short your time is, and how many other things you have to say.
- Take a moment to think before you answer. Ask for clarification if you need to. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know; do be afraid to fake it.
- Know when to stop. If you feel you could talk forever on a particular topic, ask the committee if they would like you to go into more detail.
- No matter how well you prepare, you will be asked questions you can't anticipate. Expect the unexpected. Even if you feel you've just made a fool of yourself, remember all the other questions you answered well and move on.
- Be honest; be confident; be yourself.
Advice for Competitive Scholarship Interviews
Put your selection as a Finalist, and the upcoming interview, in perspective. This is already a significant achievement, a tribute to your accomplishments, an honor for your institution, and an opportunity to share your views and opinions with panelists.
Extensive preparation will not guarantee winning a Scholarship. Other outstanding candidates from your state or district will also be interviewed.
Review your application and study proposal. If recent developments have made your proposal out of date, what do you now recommend? Can you be more specific about your goals, objectives, and opinions than when you prepared the application?
Think about the questions you hope or expect to be asked, and how you might respond. Be careful about having precisely worded answers ready in anticipation of specific questions. Candidates with "stock" answers frequently stumble, having prepared for slightly different questions than the ones they're actually asked.
Participate in one or more practice interviews. National fellowship interviews are generally a challenging and intense experience far different from a job interview or the normal classroom setting. Candidates who have not practiced often perform poorly.
Prepare 30-second opening and closing statements. You might have the chance to introduce yourself, or close with interview with final thoughts. Thank the committee for the interview.
Learn the names of the panelists, and try to use them during the interview. Unless invited, avoid addressing them by their first names.
Dress appropriately. A suit or dress. Professional attire is required. Although we like to think that 'looks don't matter'; unfortunately, they do.
Help the committee have a good interview. Let the panelists set the agenda. Answer questions precisely and concisely. Maintain eye contact with as many members as possible—particularly the one who asked the question.
Be willing to admit that you do not know the answer or are not familiar with an event or situation. Panelists do not expect candidates to be well-informed on all issues.
Understand the question before you answer. If in doubt, ask for clarification. You may pause to collect your thoughts before answering a complex question.
Be honest and forthright. Give the answers and opinions in which you believe, not what you think the panel wants to hear. Don't be afraid to express your opinions, convictions, and passions. The panel wants to know what you believe or think and why. It's not looking for a particular answer or agreement with an opinion of a member. Don't overestimate past successes and achievements.
Don't evade a question or try to mislead the panel in answering a question that might reveal ignorance, failures, or mistakes. Acknowledge that you don't know, own up to mistakes, don't hide your failures. Tell the panel what you've learned from them.
Avoid appearing to be an expert. At least one panelist is likely to be more knowledgeable than you on the issue. Be careful when presenting data and factual information, especially on complex issues. Be sure that what you state is true, and qualify your answers when making conjectures or assumptions.
Be concise. The panel wants to see a well-rounded picture of you in a short time. You can help by allowing time for many questions. Answer each question directly. Spend no more than 15-20 seconds on short questions; for complex questions, limit your responses to 60-90 seconds. You can always ask, "would you like me to elaborate?"
Let other candidates say "ah," "uh," "you know," and "like." Don't use slang. Don't use "stuff' as a noun.
Don't be defensive about your views, values, and opinions when you think the interviewers disapprove. Panelists are likely to challenge you to test the depth and basis of your convictions. You should not be judged unfavorably as long as you have a clear ethical and intellectual basis for your views, values, and opinions. You may disagree with the statements or premises of questions posed by panelists. If so, respectfully state your disagreement and why. Panelists sometimes make provocative statements to give you a chance to analyze the issue, present a different opinion or view, and justify your views.