Preparing for Interviews

If you apply for a nationally competitive scholarship, fellowship, or experiential learning opportunity, it is likely that you will be expected to interview with one of our CCSA faculty committees.  For certain opportunities like the British Marshall, Rhodes, Mitchell, Gates-Cambridge, Scwharzman and Truman, you may be invited to interview at the national level.  If so, well done in being selected; it is honor to be invited to interview with the national review committees.

It is important that you treat any scholarship interview – be it campus, regional, or national – with the same seriousness and adequate preparation you would a job interview.  Interviews are an opportunity to put your best self forward and, with planning and preparation, will also give you the chance to have a meaningful dialogue about the things you care most about.  There are a variety of resources available to you to help prepare which will also help minimize the nerves, affording you a certain level of confidence and courage.

If invited to interview for a nationally competitive opportunity, the CCSA will coordinate individual practice interviews as well as a series of mock-interview with a faculty committee.  These are meant to re-create, as best able, the experience of an actual interview, which can be very challenging and certainly requires a good deal of forethought and advance preparation.  Your campus mock-interviews will likely be with a highly-educated, non-expert audience though in some cases, you may have faculty from your own discipline represented.  You can expect be pushed and pressed about anything and everything in your application (hence the necessity of carefully considering what you include in your personal statement.  Everything is fair game if written down).  CCSA staff and your faculty interview panel will provide follow-up guidance and feedback, all in effort to make sure you feel as best prepared as possible for your national interviews.  All UChicago students invited to interview with a national committee will be expected to participate in mock-interviews. 

Here are some ideas on making the most your interview preparation:

  1. First, and foremost, remember that in the case of national scholarship interviews, this is your chance to ‘be at the table’ with a panel of experts genuinely interested in your work and your future.  Make the most of it and, remember too, that you are the expert in the room on the subject at hand – you! So, be confident, intellectually agile, and well prepared to have a challenging and potentially rewarding experience;
  2. The interview will be largely guided by all of the materials in your application.  So, review it carefully and anticipate questions focused on your proposal and personal statement, as well as your CV and transcripts;
  3. Be as well-educated about the specific scholarship opportunity as possible and especially informed about the purpose and people behind the opportunity.  For example, know something about Truman when preparing for a Truman interview; have an opinion about the Marshall plan if pursuing a Marshal Scholarship; find out about  Cecil Rhodes; read up on Senator Mitchell’s views on US-Irish relations; and so on;
  4. Anticipate difficult, challenging questions that may feel confrontational or intended to ‘trip you up’.  That’s not the purpose, but difficult discourse is meant to give the committee a sense of your intellectual agility and ability to cope with differing points of view.  If you don’t know the answer to a question, acknowledge that fact and try to redirect it toward something you are comfortable speaking about.  There is nothing worse than getting backed into a corner because you’ve made false claims about what you actually know;
  5. Practicing with friends, colleagues and even your faculty advisors will only help you to develop the skills and confidence requisite in these particular types of interviews.  Find ways of improving your communication skills, increase your vocabulary, and breadth of knowledge.  Read, read, read.  The more you expose yourself to by way of current events and other kinds of literature, the more you will have to draw upon in an interview;
  6. Take control of the interview by taking time to pause, think, and even re-state the question. This allows you a moment to collect your thoughts and helps you to avoid rushing through answers and, by default, going down an unintended path of discourse;
  7. Time your answers (in mock-interviews, CCSA will make a point of timing you).  You want to err on the side of brevity.  Often, when we get nervous, we tend to ramble and speak too quickly.  Make a point of practicing directness and stop talking when you’ve answered the question.  There may be as many as six members of your interview committee; keeping your answers short and to the point makes it easier for everyone to engage in dialogue;
  8. Practice makes perfect.  It is hard to adequately give voice to your accomplishments, experience, and preparedness whilst not sounding overly self-absorbed.  Much as you did in your personal statement and even project proposals, find a way to always come back to specific examples.  This keeps the conversation from being lost in the abstract and grounds the conversation in actual experience.
  9. Learn to say you ‘don’t know’ graciously and effectively.
  10. Finally, be excited!  You are passionate enough to have come all the way through the process; now is your chance to really give voice to the dreams, ambitions and cares you have.  By being well prepared you can transfer that nervous energy into a kind of engaging, energizing conversational style.  Don’t be deferential or apologetic but rather excited and evidently committed to the work you are proposing to undertake.

In your campus interviews and in national interviews questions will largely be focused on your application materials.  As a part of your mock-interviews, you will be pressed on those questions and compelled to entertain seemingly unrelated questions as well.  Here are a few ideas to help you think about what you might expect:

  1. Be able to articulate, briefly your story.  In other words, to be able to answer the who (are you), what, where and why type questions;
  2. What are your greatest strengths? Weakness? Challenge you’ve had to overcome?
  3. What do you do for fun?
  4. What books are currently on your bedside table?
  5. If you were currently the President of the U.S., what would you change first?
  6. How have you adapted to a challenging situation? Give examples;
  7. How will this experience get you closer to what you hope to do five or ten years from now?
  8. Why said host-country? What do you hope to gain from being in a foreign country?
  9. Can’t you do the very same work at ‘X’ institution in the U.S.? Why should you receive support to pursue advanced studies abroad?
  10. What is the great problem currently facing the U.S.?
  11. How do you feel about current policies on gun control in the U.S.? On immigration policy?
  12. What are your prejudices?

Here are some additional resources to help you in preparing for campus and national scholarship interviews:

A few words of advice on interview attire:

Treat campus and national interviews with the same professionalism as you would a job interview.  Guys and gals, if you are comfortable in a suit, wear one.  Guys, if a blazer, tie and trousers make you feel best, go with that.  And, ladies, wear attire that causes you absolutely no concern in terms of length, cut, and comfort.  In many cases, you will be at conference table but in some interview situations, you may be in a parlor-type setting and should be comfortable sitting in chair without a table in front of you.   Of course, don’t wear hats, sunglasses, or anything else that would be distracting.

In other words, don’t be memorable for your fashion.  Be memorable for what you had to say and what you plan to do.

In addition to a formal interview, you may be asked to participate in a dinner the night before you interview that could include scholarship alumni, administrators and interview committee members.  Or, it may be a cocktail reception (general rule of thumb, leave the ‘cocktail’ out of it).  Consider this to be a part of your interview; dress the part appropriately and remember that you are being assessed on how you interact with other candidates, the committee members, and others involved in the process. This is not the time to be memorable for things you say, or don’t, for what you do, or for you shouldn’t have done.  Be prepared, gracious, humble, and mindful that this particular part of the interview process gives an indication to the selection committee of your ambassadorial merit.  This is true regardless of whether or not you are interviewing for an international experience or for something state-side.  In all cases, it is about how you will come across as an ambassador and representative of the scholarship program.