The more prepared interview participants can be, the better equipped they will be to handle not only routine questions and topics of conversation, but also the inevitable surprises, twists and turns that accompany any in-person interview or interaction.

Be Prepared

  • A significant percentage of questions will be based on information and ideas presented in your application. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that you know all aspects of your own application well: personal statement, proposal, transcript, list of activities, etc. Whether it’s a particular activity, a class, or a job, you should be prepared to answer various questions: Why did you do this? What did you learn from it? Why didn’t you continue with it? How did it change you? Other questions will be more open-ended: e.g., What activity has been most important to you and why? Try to imagine many such questions and then try to answer them—out loud!
  • You will almost certainly be asked to expand on or even defend your proposal for study or research. Develop a list of ten or twelve questions that emerge from your proposal and practice answering them. Ask the professors who read drafts of your proposal to ask you questions and give you feedback on your answers.
  • Many different fellowships provide useful advice to applicants regarding selection interviews. Be sure to review any information provided for your fellowship.
  • Review information about the history and goals of the fellowship you’re being interviewed for. Be prepared to speak to ways that you are a good match for the fellowship.
  • Make a list of points you’d like to make about yourself and your ideas and activities. Review the list the evening before your interview.
  • Good interviewing skills build on skills you already have and should be developing every day. Speak up in class or in meetings. Go to professors’ office hours to talk about work you’re doing, ideas you have, etc. Get used to doing things that make you nervous.
  • Take full advantage of opportunities for mock interviewing. These include formal mock interviews set up by the Dean’s Office and CDO, as well as less formal venues.
  • Stay informed about major political and cultural events of the day, as well as important developments in your field. Develop the habit of reading around in the New York Times (or The Economist, or The Wall Street Journal) most days. Talk about current events; develop opinions and express them.
  • Think about books you’ve read (or read part of) recently outside of class. Be prepared to discuss one. If the only thing you’ve read outside of class is the latest Harry Potter, you might want to read something else!
  • Many interviews end with the question, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you.” Think about what you might say to that.

Be Yourself—Your Best Self, That Is

  • Dress appropriatelywhich is to say, professionally. Try to wear something that is also reasonably comfortableespecially shoes. You do not need to be a “corporate clone,” but nor should you wear extreme fashion. You want the committee members to remember you, not your clothes.
  • As much as possible, try to relax. Channel your nerves into enthusiasm.
  • Smile, make good eye contact, get yourself comfortable in your space.
  • Remember that being chosen for an interview is an honor. The committee clearly views you as a strong and viable candidate, someone they want to talk to.

Answering Questions

  • A good interview is often described as a conversation. You are being given the chance to talk to remarkably intelligent and accomplished people about things you care about. While it’s natural to be nervous, there should be some pleasure involved.
  • Be in the moment. Don’t worry about what is in the past (a question you answered less than perfectly) or what is to come (the question you’re scared you might get).
  • Pay attention to what is being asked, and as much as possible, try to answer the actual question. Say what you think, not what you think the committee wants to hear.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Avoid boasting.
  • Avoid self-deprecation.
  • Remember: no interview is perfect.

Characteristics of Successful Interviews

Adapted from "Characteristics of Successful Truman Scholarship Finalists" by Louis H. Blair, former Executive Director of the Truman Foundation

  • Candidates demonstrate comfort with the interview setting.
    Although some nervousness is natural, successful candidates generally relax quickly, enjoying the give and take of the interview. They are not put off by challenging questions, nor by the lack for encouraging words or smiles from panelists. The best interviews happen when candidates turn them into a conversation with panelists by engaging with questions, rather than merely responding.
  • Candidates demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of the issues facing society, or in their chosen fields of study.
    This means understanding that rarely are solutions clear-cut, that nothing happens overnight, that there may be opposing, but equally valid, points of view. Just saying that something should be this way or that way is rarely enough for an interview panel.
  • Successful candidates are rarely "single-issue" types.
    They have a variety of interests, and a breadth of knowledge beyond their chosen career field. At the very least, they can discuss issues that relate to their studies, and make connections to other, tangential topics.
  • Candidates show some ability to analyze "on the fly."
    Panelists like to see a candidate thinking out an ethical issue, or grappling with concepts they haven't previously considered. "What are the most critical issues facing American society?" is one example of a question that can throw a candidate who isn't prepared to think it through. How does one deal with such questions? You can never anticipate every questions, but you can think of how you might answer variations of questions, such as: five books you would recommend to the President; three figures from history you'd invite to dinner at the White House; four most important people of the 20th century; three characters from Shakespeare; how you would divide the national budget; how you would spend the next 24 hours if you could do anything you wanted to. Make lists, brainstorm, go wild! (note: each of the previous questions was really posed to a scholarship finalist.) What do you want the panel to see? That you have opinions, a sense of humor, an understanding of your priorities; that you care about people, the issues, the future. There is no one right answer. The only right answer is one that accurately reflects who you are. The only wrong answer is having nothing to say.
  • Candidates demonstrate commitment to their community, and show they lead an active life. Panelists aren't looking for scholars only; being smart isn't enough.
  • When a candidate isn't handling a question well, he or she doesn't get bogged down.
    Few candidates, even successful ones, answer all questions well. Far better to keep your answers short, admit you don't know instead of bluffing your way through, and cut your losses. Let the panelists pose lots of questions so you'll have more opportunity to shine.
  • Successful candidates, whether or not they are selected as Scholars, keep the interview-and the outcome-in perspective.
    Feeling that you "have to win" virtually guarantees a poor performance. Don't think about what you think the committee wants to hear; think about how you can help them get to know the real you. Be yourself.
  • And above all, practice, practice, practice!