National Fellowship Interviews: Preparation, Advice, & Guidance
Compiled by and from the National Association of Fellowships Advisors
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 easing into 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.
- 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.
Suggestions for National 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.
Although you need to prepare for the interview to have a good chance, 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 the 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. Most men will wear a suit or jacket and tie; women, a suit or dress.
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.
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 an 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 amount of 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.
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.
Benefit from the travel opportunity. Have fun meeting and getting to know the other finalists. Visit a nearby museum, go shopping, or check out a graduate school.
At the reception and during the day of the interview, you will spend time with the other candidates.
- Don’t speculate about how you might compare with the other candidates.
- Don’t let them distract you from being yourself at the interview.
- Don’t worry too much about the outcome.
You won’t be able to guess the outcome, so why spend time second-guessing your answers? The objective is to give all candidates challenging interviews with opportunities to shine. You cannot know how well you met the expectations of the panelists, or how well the other finalists did. Be proud you had the opportunity, and build on the experience for your next challenging interview.
Advice from a Truman Scholarship Finalist:
Don’t try too hard. Just go with the goal of interacting with some pretty neat fellow interviewees and panelists, and I guarantee if you do that, you won’t be disappointed.
Don’t go overboard. Read a little, brush up on what’s happening in the world, but don’t go nuts trying to digest every article in the New York Times, reading ten Truman biographies, and absorbing sixty years’ worth of Congressional hearings on hydroelectric power over the next few weeks. Bottom line: Be comfortable with who you are and what you know.
Relax. Bring a game to play with other finalists in case you draw a late interview time. Don’t let a long wait increase your nervousness.
Be familiar with your transcript. A good number of my interview questions derived from classes I took (for example, panelists saw I’d taken environmental policy, and as a result I was asked about the breaching of Snake River dams). I don’t suggest you reread every book from every class you’ve ever taken. Go over your transcript class by class and brainstorm some possible questions, perhaps with the help of a professor or two.
Be ready to shoot from the hip. I guarantee that one-third to half of the questions will take you somewhat off guard (in spite of all those mocks). Having a successful interview doesn’t mean being ready for every question; it’s being able to deal confidently and conversationally with questions that you don’t expect.
Your interview attitude is just as important as what’s between your ears. Expect a rigorous and fun conversation with some smart and curious folks. Don’t view the interview as a test — you’ll probably flunk.
Have fun. For goodness sake, you’re a finalist for a Truman Scholarship! Do you have any idea how many thousands of applicants in the history of this scholarship never even got to this level? That’s a distinction no one can take from you.
Don’t go in thinking you have to win. That attitude will start you on an emotional roller coaster — very bad for your self-confidence. When I played baseball, what I loved more than anything was my crusty old coach who would yell, “Way to be!” every time I was on the field. Your university is already proud of you; the rest is gravy.
PREPARATION AND STRATEGY
Adapted from information via Reed College
- Be sure to re-read your application and try to see it as a third-party. Also re-read your transcript before the interview. If there is an out-of-place grade on it, that’s obviously fodder for a question. If there is a course there that seems well outside your specialization, you might be asked how you as a chemist responded to Crime and Punishment or how a linguist can contribute to a discussion on evolutionary theory.
- Be current on current events, especially those that may be related to (directly or tangentially) or might impact your area of proposed study/research.
- Don’t rush your answers. It’s fine to pause a moment to collect your thoughts. Once you’ve answered, keeping your answer concise but thorough, be quiet and wait for the next one.
- You may be interrupted while giving an answer, and this may simply be intended to see how fast you react to a new situation. It is important to say “I don’t know” if necessary. Interviewers want to see if you will hold on to your ideals but not be so dogmatic as to not budge an inch. Otherwise, they may pursue you into rougher waters. If you feel you didn’t answer something well, don’t let it fluster you. You’ve probably answered other questions better, so just move on.
- Don’t rave about your accomplishments; that’s already in the application. But do be prepared to answer questions with specific anecdotes and examples from your own experiences.
- Have an opening and closing remark in mind — no more than thirty seconds — just in case the need arises. For example, some scholarships typically begin, “So, tell us a bit about yourself.” And they often end with, “Do you have anything you would like to add?”
- Know your benefactor. While reading his/her biography, look for any parallels with, direct application to, or remote echoes of your own “story.”
- Think of the interview as participating in a good discussion rather than a back-and-forth Q&A, and endeavor to construct logical arguments on your positions and goals during the interview itself.
- Practice! Avail yourself of mock interviews through the Office of National Scholarship Advisement, and also ask your friends, roommates, parents, and professors to interrogate you. The more questions you get from varying perspectives, the better.
Common Mistakes Made during Interviews:
Adapted from information via Reed College
- Candidates use the words “never” and “always.” That simply opens oneself up to a forced withdrawal.
- Candidates are falsely confident. It is fine to be phased; it is acceptable to be a bit embarrassed.
- Candidates refuse to say “I don’t know.”
- Candidates attribute everything they knew on a given subject to a particular book they read in a particular course. In such cases, “you” disappear and the book takes your place.
- Candidates take the interview as an exercise in defense rather than discussion. At an extreme, candidates even get defensive when something about their application or personal statement is under examination.
INTERVIEWING FOR SCHOLARSHIPS
Adapted from information via Kansas State University
These tips cover some common mistakes and some of the factors that come into play.
- Nobody can do all these things perfectly.
- Every conversation is different. Read the moment.
- You can improve your skills through practice and reflection.
- Bring your ID and whatever the panel has asked you to bring.
- Pack everything you need.
- Scout the location well ahead if possible.
- Buy/download a map well ahead.
- Build flextime into your travel schedule. Allow for the unexpected.
- Arrive a few minutes early.
- Dress suitably for the interview. Nice. Conservative. Professional.
- Consider packing two options for clothing.
- Eat two to four hours before you arrive. Moderate. Healthy.
- Consider taking an early walk.
- Bladder status … empty when you arrive.
- Take some slow deep breaths before you enter. Discreetly.
- Know thyself.
- Bring a copy of your application. Review what they know about thyself.
- Know the scholarship. Know the organization that gives the award.
- Read the newspaper that morning.
- Look forward to the challenge of difficult questions.
- Visualize a confident and comfortable meeting.
- Smile when you enter and when you leave.
- Make eye contact. Spread it around evenly.
- Show an interest. Let them see an engaged candidate.
- Do not swivel just because your chair does.
- Sit erect even if your chair leans back.
- Lean slightly forward to communicate interest.
- Pull up to the table when you sit down. The table is the playing field.
- Never give a judge your shoulder.
- Keep them away from your face.
- Avoid repeated tics like picking at the edge of the table.
- Let them out of your lap. Hidden hands seem tentative.
- Some gesturing: not bad. Makes you seem animated.
- Same gesture over and over again: bad. Makes you seem automated.
- Shake hands with a firm grip. Present your hand with confidence.
- The gesture is incomplete unless you smile and make eye contact.
- Stay focused but relax … interviews are not lethal.
- More deep breaths if the jitters hit you.
- Make sure you are clearly heard. Articulate carefully. Project across the room.
- Avoid jargon and slang.
- No chewing gum.
- Budget the time you spend on any single answer.
- Pause to collect your thoughts as needed. Keep your brain ahead of your mouth.
- Listen carefully to each question.
- Follow general statements with concrete examples. Particulars. Details. Instances.
- Realize when you have no more to say. Dead air beats rambling.
- Show respect for opposing views as you articulate your own.
- Have an introductory or concluding comment ready. Read the situation if asked for one.
- Admit it if you don’t know an answer. Provide the facts or context that you do know.
- Reveal your expertise and knowledge.
- Reveal what you are passionate about.
- Move on if you botch an answer.
- Almost all questions are an invitation to talk. Merely “yes” or “no” is insufficient.
- Filter your strengths through your experience and goals. No bragging.
- Don’t try to guess what the judges want to hear. Show them how you think.
- Ask for clarification if the question is unclear or too broad.
- Try not to introduce topics about which you are unprepared to talk.
- Do not ask the judges topical questions. It eats your time if they answer.
- Thank the interviewers for the opportunity to talk with them.
- Show your positive side.
- Make it feel more like a discussion. Less like an oral exam.
- The interviewers want to get to know you through the discussion. Let them.
- Have the confidence to sound as sharp and insightful as you really are.