When we think about interviewing for something, the model we’re mostly familiar with is that of applying for a job. And while employment interviews can and do differ, one constant is that, at the very least, you know going in what the required skills and abilities for the job will be. It’s in the job description. You can review that job description and consider ahead of time which personal abilities and experiences might be a benefit or detriment in obtaining the position.
Applying to university is different.
Universities don’t provide you with detailed descriptions of their ideal candidate. They generally don’t even have an ideal candidate profile in mind when they interview you. When interviewing for employment, there’s much more likely to be a “correct” answer to the questions asked during your interview. University interviewers aren’t so much looking for correct answers as they are trying to find out who you are, your thought process while answering the question, they want an idea of who you’ll become, whereas employers want to know who you are now.
When universities interview, they’re looking for diversity and potential. They’re not mentally ticking the boxes for the exact characteristics of the ideal candidate; they’re amassing information on all of their candidates and then making their choices based on the particular group they’ve been handed. Personal achievements and test scores and prior academic success are, of course, important, but they’re only one part of a bigger puzzle.
So, if you can’t just anticipate every possible question and prepare a canned response, how can you make yourself stand out at university interviews?
Here are a few tips to help you along.
It’s easy, when stepping into any interview situation, to view the interviewer as some sort of adversary to be defeated. You’re the captured soldier, down behind enemy lines, and they’re the enemy interrogator. You must answer their questions to avoid torture, but you must not let any valuable information slip. If possible, you must deceive them into sending their forces into a cleverly designed trap. One slip of the tongue, however, and all your buddies back in the fox holes will be lost.
Stop being so dramatic.
As hard as it might be to believe, the interviewer is on your side. They don’t go into an interview situation hoping that you’ll fail miserably, they go in cheering for you. They want to find great candidates, and they’re hoping you’ll be just that. They’re not trying to trick you into giving away the wrong information. They’re not waiting to strike back and end the interview at the first “wrong” answer. They’re genuinely interested in who you are and how you go about answering their questions (as opposed to whether you’ve answered “correctly”). Most importantly, they genuinely want you to succeed.
Repeat after me:
“The interviewer derives no pleasure from my failure.”
“The interviewer is on my side.”
“If I’m looking for international intrigue, perhaps I should consider a career in the spy business.”
And that includes interviewers. There are as many different approaches to interviewing, in fact, as there are types of student candidates.
An interviewer may spend a great deal of time in reviewing all the information about you at their disposal so as to know as much about who you are as they possibly can before the interview begins.
Another interviewer may only acquaint themselves with a few salient points prior to beginning an interview, preferring to hear the details from you than from sterile numbers or from well-thought-out written responses or personal statements.
One interviewer may spend all of the interview time asking questions, while another may prefer to let you lead the conversation a bit.
The point is, don’t let anyone tell you that all interviews are going to be just like the one they may have sat through. Approaches will differ widely between two interviewers, whether they be from the same or different universities.
The best approach for you is to simply be prepared. Re-read your personal statement before going in so that, if you get hit with a barrage of questions about it, it’s fresh in your mind. Most importantly, be flexible. Don’t go in expecting a specific interview experience. The interviewer’s approach will become apparent fairly quickly, and the sooner you recognise and adapt to that approach the better off you’ll be.
Just as in an interview for employment, it’s just as important that you research them as it is that you do an adequate job of presenting yourself. One of the things an interviewer is undoubtedly going to want to know is exactly why you’re interested in their institution over the plethora of options available, and they’re not going to want to hear that it’s because you like the idea of wearing robes like Harry Potter does, or that you hear the parties are legendary.
Learn as much as you can about the university; its strengths, its weaknesses (yes it’s perfectly fine to ask about perceived weaknesses, as we’ll learn below), their approach to learning, and the success of their students post-graduation. Not only will this information be useful in the interview process, but it might even save you the time and effort in interviewing for a university that, as it turns out, doesn’t fit your educational needs or goals.
But the university isn’t the only thing you’ll want to research. Assuming you’re still interested in attending after delving more deeply into the plusses and minuses of the university as a whole, the next step is to learn as much as possible about their interview process and, most importantly, the specific interviewer with whom you’ll be speaking.
Of course, many times you won’t be informed ahead of time as to exactly who your interviewer will be, but there are ways of finding out (or at least of narrowing things down). One good place to start is with any friends you may have who are currently attending the same university. Even if they are pursuing a different course than you, they may have other friends in your chosen course who could give you valuable information, not only about who will likely be interviewing you, but also about that person’s temperament and interviewing technique.
Another useful strategy is to research the faculty of the course you’ll be pursuing. While it may be impossible to narrow down exactly whom you will be speaking with, you can do as much as possible to research a prominent cross-section of the faculty (or all of it, if it’s relatively small) so that you can speak intelligently about their areas of focus, personal interests, published works, etc. Even if the information you have is not about your particular interviewer, they will still be impressed that you went to the trouble of learning about the faculty with whom you hope to be studying, and it will also aid in giving you intelligent answers to why you want to attend their university.
As stated above, we tend to treat any interview as if the interviewer has a list (either mental or literal) from which they are scoring your responses as either correct or incorrect. The ending tally, we assume, is all that determines your success or failure. If you’ve read this far, you know that, with university interviews at least, that’s simply not the case.
Universities aren’t looking for someone who already knows all the answers to even the most advanced questions in their course. If you already know all the answers, there’s no point in attending university at all. What’s more, though you may be interviewing for one particular course, it’s not uncommon for students to realise after some time that a different course is actually the one for them.
What universities want to know is not how well you’ve already mastered the material necessary for your course of study, but rather what kind of student you would be. University level learning is not about rote learning of facts from a textbook. University learning is about learning to think for yourself, to answer questions by asking more questions, to logically dissect and challenge pre-conceived perceptions. The ability to do this is as important, if not more so than whether your answer is technically “correct.”
Don’t look at an interview as a chance to display knowledge, but rather as an opportunity to learn. If you don’t know the answer to a question, reason it out and ask questions to clarify your assumptions and conclusions. This kind of curiosity and, not just willingness, but true desire to delve deeply into a question to discover the truth through well-reasoned discussion is what they expect in a student. Demonstrate that, and you’ll go far toward impressing your interviewer.
Going in with this type of mindset will not only demonstrate to the interviewer what it will be like to have you as a student, it might also be another factor in clarifying for yourself whether the university environment is the place for you. If the sort of learning described above is not to your liking, in fact, if you don’t thrive under such an environment, you might do best to consider another educational route.
This is really the main take-away from much of what you’ve read above. Don’t look at yourself as simply a target at which the interviewer will lob questions in hopes of hitting a bullseye. Don’t look at the interviewing process as a true/false or multiple choice test in which there is one correct choice to be made for each question asked. Don’t expect to only speak when spoken to, and then only to spout the most concise, “correct” response that you’re able to manufacture on the spot with no give and take. A good interview is meant to be a conversation. A successful interview is a two-way street.
If you’ve done your research, as outlined above, you’ll no doubt have a fair idea of what may be the strengths of the institution as well as what may be its weaknesses in regard to your particular needs. And while it’s certainly not a good idea to say, “How do you intend to fix this list of deficiencies in order to entice me to grace you with my presence?” It’s perfectly acceptable, and even impressive, to have the confidence and self-knowledge to say to your interviewer, “I know that certain teaching styles seem to work better for me than others. What can you tell me about the styles I might encounter here?”
Don’t treat the interviewer as an adversary, be open to differing interviewing styles, do your homework, act like a student, and remember that an interview is a conversation, not a lecture.
Do these five things, and you’ll be well on your way to an impressive interview.