Preparing for Interviews

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You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

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storyI remember dressing up in an orchid pink Allen Solly shirt (the only one I had back then) and black high-waisted pants to have a conversation with a laptop screen. In my undergraduate university, girls had a curfew that prevented us from stepping outside the fortified walls of our hostel after 9:00 p.m. on weekdays. So, I had to resort to sitting inside the common room on my floor, desperately hoping that no one would walk in, as I had my interview at 11:30 p.m. The internet connection failed me twice, and finally worked the third time, just long enough for me to answer five pre-recorded questions that flashed across the screen.

What does ethics mean to you? (unexpected)

Tell us about one project that really interested you. What did you do and what did you gain out of it?

What does Management Science and Engineering mean to you? What are your favorite topics to study?

Do you have any questions for us?

I anticipated many of the questions I was asked, in this and other interviews. However, in reality, your aim should not be to anticipate questions.

You should focus on deeply introspecting on your life and having a loose framework with which you can answer any curveball they may throw at you, which they will.

The Mighty Nittany Lion

Universities in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere) are very vocal about their motto and mascots. One university archivist even went so far as to co-author a book on his alma mater’s mascot, titled The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale.* Students in the U.S., especially those pursuing their undergraduate degree, anthropomorphize these mascots to reflect the qualities that they wish to embody. Just look at how poetically the authors describe the Nittany Lion:*

The Nittany Lion became a part of our lives soon after we reached Penn State. The Shrine [of the Nittany Lion] is more than just another location on campus dedicated to some tradition or another: it is the embodiment of what we believe Penn State represents. First and foremost, anyone who has looked into those big eyes knows that it is one smart lion—having, of course, studied at the land-grant university he protects. He is powerful, yet not overbearing; regal, yet not snobbish. The Nittany Lion Shrine symbolizes Penn State’s past accomplishments while reflecting its hopeful future, which is key to Penn State’s success in all its academic and athletic endeavors. No school symbol does that better than Penn State’s Nittany Lion.

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Source: The Nittany Lion. Calareso, J. What Is A Nittany Lion. Study.com

If you didn’t know they were talking about a person wearing a mountain lion’s gigantic suit, you might be tempted to think that the Nittany Lion was the majestic founder of the university. All this is to show you just how passionate the universities are about the way their values are portrayed to the outside world.

Even after you graduate, you will represent your university every time you are asked where you went to school. The diploma you receive will be seen by hundreds of people who visit your home. Although the mascots seem to steal the spotlight, the universities know that the primary way to echo their values is by choosing students who fit well into the mold they’ve created over centuries. If you have been asked to participate in an interview, you are already well above the baseline of the average applicant.

They now want to see if you are as good in person as you are on paper.

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Sure thing.

An interview can be categorized into three layers: General Background, Academic Background, and Personal Background. The following are the most frequently asked questions under each category.

General Background

  • Tell me about yourself

  • Why do you want to study at our school?

  • Why do you want to study this major?

  • What do you hope to do after you graduate?

  • Why should we accept you?

  • Where else are you applying? (Always mention at least two other places, but end with a valid reason why their school takes precedence over the others.)

Academic Background

  • How have your past research experiences prepared you for a career in this area?

  • What was the most innovative research idea you worked on?

  • What has been the impact of your research?

  • What are your career goals? How does this program help you get there?

  • What courses did you enjoy the most in your college? Why?

Personal Background

  • What is your most significant achievement and/or failure?

  • Who has influenced you the most? Why?

  • How do you cope with stress?

  • What motivates you to do what you do?

  • What does teamwork mean to you? How do you lead a team?

And of course,

  • What does ethics mean to you?

The above are some hand-picked samples. However, we suggest perusing a few more resources online, either posted on student forums* or university websites,* to create a master list of questions.

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Of course! As mentioned earlier, anticipating the right question is not the key to winning this game. Even if you happen to be the best orator of your batch, you still need to practice tirelessly like everyone else. The approach you take matters, not your well-rehearsed response. We will pick one question from each of the categories above and walk you through the approach.

General Background

Let’s start with the one that will follow you for a long time: tell me about yourself. This is a pithily worded monster of a question, as the answer can range from talking about your childhood dream to recounting what you learned from your worst failure. Because there is no boundary to the degree of variability, students wreck their mind trying to come up with a response that is interesting, memorable, and concise. The paradox of choice* can be crippling, so use the following framework by an academic consulting firm that we found to be useful.*

Do not use this as an opportunity to regurgitate your resume or history.

Remember, they have already seen it. They are looking to understand what made you, well, you. What made you spend that summer volunteering abroad? Why did you choose to become a class representative? Why did you choose to focus on optimization of traffic in metropolitan areas for your final year project? Every decision we take has meaning behind it, which might not always be obvious. Let’s find out now.

Take a pen and paper (or post-its) and create three columns.

actionFirst, if you only had one day left to live, what are the top three activities that you would spend the day working on (assuming you already said goodbye to your loved ones)?

Really think about it. Let me help you out. If it were me, I would write, sing and play the guitar, and host a mini-conference on a topic that I’m passionate about. Think about the activities that make you feel exhilarated, either mentally or physically (or both). Write down each of them in the first column.

actionSecondly, write down why you picked the activity you picked in the second column.

Assuming you wrote down reading books, playing video games, and playing football, the reasons could be the following.

  • Reading books: learning something new and having time to introspect

  • Playing video games: being in a community and solving critical problems

  • Playing football: working towards a common goal and pushing physical limits

actionFinally, once you’re done with figuring out the why, try connecting the reasons mentioned in the second column to how they can help you in the major you’re hoping to pursue.

If you were to pursue a research-oriented master’s, all the skills mentioned above become useful. You just need to explain exactly how. At the end of this exercise, you should have something similar to the following in front of you for all the activities listed.

ActivityReasonConnection
Reading BooksLearning something new and having time to introspectCore trait of a researcher
Playing GamesBeing in a community and solving critical problemsNeeded to work on team projects
Playing FootballWorking towards a common goal and pushing physical limitsAlso applies to cognitive limits

Begin weaving a chronological story that connects some of these elements (it doesn’t have to use them all). The result should be a story that would be refreshing for the admission committee to hear. The following is a (fictional) example:

I grew up in the suburbs of Eastern India spending most of my evenings at my father’s car mechanic shop, watching him interact masterfully with the customers, and always getting their vehicle fixed. Since I used to finish my homework early, I would help my father in handling the finances. Occasionally, I would also tinker with the cars and motorcycles parked there by disassembling them. The accounting work I did there helped me develop a love and skill for math that boosted me academically.

Eventually, my ninth grade teacher asked me to teach mathematics at a nearby non-profit that was designed to help kids with intellectual and physical disabilities. It was hard at first, as I had no experience teaching. However, I learned how to teach from my mother, who held dance classes every evening. As I worked with these kids for years, I could clearly see the potential they had and how the limiting factor was something beyond their control.

Before I left my home to pursue my undergrad, I knew I wanted to work at the intersection of neuroscience and robotics, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I spent the past four years taking as many courses as I could in these disciplines and gaining experience working at companies and universities. I’m the type of person who loves spending days stuck with one problem until that liberating moment of eureka arrives. What defines me is a sense of focus and perseverance, which has gotten me this far. I hope this will get me to your university.

You can see from the example above that this fictional human being is good at math, teaching, and observing others (and learning from them). All of this is in addition to hopefully a shining resume filled with experiences. As the interviewer hears such a story, they can begin to connect the words they read on paper to the person in front of them, and see if this fits within their archetype of a student at their university.

Know that sometimes, even if you’re a brilliant candidate, you might not be a good fit for that particular program. And that’s OK.

Not everywhere you fit is where you belong.

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For the other general questions on why you’re looking to join a particular university and major, simply pick out a few unique selling points that you noted from the chapter on choosing your major and three that prompted you to choose them in the first place.

danger We humbly request you to not mention the rank of a university as a reason to join it. Mentioning it would prompt them into thinking that you didn’t care to scratch beyond the surface and learn more about their department.

Academic Background

The questions under general background focus on what you hope to reap out of the time you spend at the university. In return, the university will also get a lot out of you, monetarily and otherwise. Academic background focuses on what you can bring to the table and how you will collectively help advance the position of the university by working on new areas of research, publishing papers, obtaining funding, and attracting more students.

A commonly asked question here is: how has your previous experience prepared you for this degree at our university?

The question is asking you to talk about your relevant past experiences as well your plan to utilize them for future research at the university.

Let’s assume that you plan to pursue your graduate degree in Computer Science at the University of Washington. If you were to prepare for this question, your first stop should be the page that shows the areas the department focuses its time and money on.* Pick the area that resonates most with your past work and future aspirations (for now, assume it’s security and privacy*), and hop on to the page* dedicated to the research in that area. In this case, the Security and Privacy Research Lab lists 14 projects they’ve worked on in the past (as of this writing). They also link you to over a dozen people (faculty, doctorate students, research scientists) who themselves have dedicated pages that go into more detail on their academic hopes and dreams.

This trove of information can be overwhelming, but try to follow a similar three column methodology like before—mentioning the research work you’ve done in the past, extracting the learning threads from it, and connecting it to a specific area that the lab is currently working on. The following is a real-life template written by a mechanical engineering graduate:

I’d like to share a story here. During my third year internship at [university], I got an opportunity to design an ankle exoskeleton from scratch, as part of the Assistive Robotics Lab. Designing the entire structure, including the motor selection, was a tipping point in my career as it gave me an insight for what I wanted to pursue next in my career.

I developed an interest to learn the control algorithms and electrical interfacing behind these devices. Considering my ambition was to build products catering to different needs, I decided that learning all the related fundamental concepts from my domain first will help me become a better engineer. I had built several products with hands-on manufacturing and assembly techniques for mechanical devices, so I wanted to specialize in algorithms and interfacing components next.

I was going through the projects of different labs at [university] and found that [professor]’s work perfectly aligns with my interests. I noticed the members of the lab are developing an autonomous prosthesis using gait analysis and feedback from different sensors.

Fortunately, my second year internship at [university], where I devised a mechanism for propelling a wheelchair, involved reading a lot about gait analysis and MATLAB optimization toolbox.

With my past research experience and related coursework at [university], and with my coursework related to control algorithms at [university] in first semester, I strongly believe my learning curve to get started with research work on new concepts related to algorithms and interfacing will be minimum, as I have the necessary background.

Personal Background

The previous two categories focused more on your actions during situations. This category focuses more on your reactions to situations.

The university is trying to gauge how you react to both negative and positive situations your life, like stress, success, pressure, inspiration, failure, and uncertainty.

A common player in this field is: list your strengths and weaknesses.

danger Many people interpret that the question is asking them to list one of their strengths and one of their strengths masquerading as a weakness. Don’t be one of those people.

Admitting your weakness shows humility, but you should also follow it with the measures you’ve taken or are taking to combat the same. Sometimes, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.

Your Strength

This is not a wish list of the qualities you wish to possess. For that reason, whatever strength(s) you end up writing down, run it by your supervisor and/or friend who can attest to it. If you picked empathy, wrap a story around it that portrays this quality. Generally, talking about strengths comes easier to people. Below is a fictional example:

A strength of mine that always comes to my mind is my ability to empathize. I grew up listening to stories that my mother read in the magazines and heard on the radio. Many of these were stories of people who overcame great struggles in life. I have an imaginative mind, so every time I heard these stories, I would put myself in the shoes of the protagonist and play out scenarios. This helped me tremendously when I had to lead a diverse team in my undergrad. I was able to tap into their thinking and help them when they faced an issue. In a way, my ability to empathize made me a better leader.

If you were applying for medical school, empathy to the extreme is not a good quality. However, if your dream is to become a human rights lawyer, then this would be one of the top qualities they would expect from you.

While picking strengths can be an easy job, pick the ones that have a direct correlation with your degree.

Your Weakness

Working too hard is not a weakness. Being a perfectionist is also not one. This question is probing you to be self-aware and accept things objectively (to the extent possible). Like before, you can begin with stating your weakness and following up with a story or state multiple instances when you’ve observed it. We also recommend stating your mitigation plan in the end:

A few months ago, I noticed that I struggled with asking questions in front of an audience. In hindsight, I noticed that throughout my high school I asked questions only when I met with my professors in-person in their office. Even then, I would hesitate greatly. This affected my performance on a group project that clearly required open communication and asking questions to each other. I ended up having to assume a lot and did not meet my team’s (or my) expectations. Lately, I’m overcoming this by pushing myself to work in group projects and asking questions openly. I’m also learning from a friend of mine who exudes confidence whenever she speaks in the class.

Lacking confidence in asking questions is a serious weakness for a researcher. However, by being honest about it and detailing the actions you’re taking to overcome it, you will put their mind at ease. As a final tip, if you are asked for both a strength and a weakness, start with your weakness, so you can end with a positive note on your strength.

Rule of Three

Finally, for all of the questions, follow the rule of three if you can. What is the rule of three?

The rule of three is “a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers.”* This applies to both written and verbal communication.

Try to begin noticing the occurrence of this (in this book and elsewhere). You will be surprised at how prevalent it can be. During the interview, use this rule to give your response in three parts wherever possible.

You know what you want.

You know why you want it.

Tell this to yourself before you begin the interview. Walk in with the end in mind.

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Mostly, but not always. In a brief survey we put out, 75% of the 200 respondents mentioned that their interviews happened via a video call, while the remaining 25% mentioned it was through a pre-recorded system. We have rarely, if ever, heard of a student who was flown to the U.S. for the interview (if you were, let us know!).

When you are done writing down the responses to all the questions in your master list, practice saying them out loud in front of a mirror as well as with a confidante of yours.

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Do you remember we said you choose the university as much as they choose you? Time to say it again.

You choose the university as much as they choose you.

Even if the interview is pre-recorded, it generally ends with a question that asks you for any questions you might have. Use this opportunity to dive into two or three questions that have been on your mind a lot. Below are some common ones:

  • What is the biggest strength of this program?

  • What are the career outcomes for students in this program?

  • What kind of experiential learning opportunities are offered by the department (e.g., TA, RA, co-op, internships)?

  • Is the environment more collaborative or competitive?

  • How easy or difficult is it to customize the program to my area of interest?

Again, the above questions depend on who you’re speaking with and your priorities. If your interview is with a human, don’t forget to send them a thank you note after you finish the interview.

Back to the Beginning

We began this chapter by talking about missions and mascots. It is important that you read the mission statement* of the university before you sit for your interview. Every university, and even departments, have their own mission statements and values. The following is the mission statement of Harvard College for liberal arts and sciences:*

The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.

Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created. From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.

Even if the language is slightly abstract, you can pick out some key cues from it: Harvard encourages diversity with respect to your background and the majors you pick. They want to build leaders out of you, and appreciate a student who has the ability to adapt and evolve over one who does not.

Reading the mission statement will fill you with a sense of purpose and excitement, especially if you can relate deeply to the values it mentioned.

Final Thoughts on University Interviews

The interview is the first instance the university gets to connect mere words on paper to a real, breathing human being. This is your chance to show them how all of the experiences from your past align perfectly with what you’re looking for. The interview itself can be divided into three parts for ease of preparation: The General, The Academic, and The Personal.

The General is for them to understand why you made the decisions you made. Why that university? Why that major? Why now? Why you? These are not easy questions to answer, especially the last one. Use the framework we provided by connecting what you’ve done to what you learned to how that will help you in the future. It’s nothing new; however, few students actively think about it.

The Academic is for them to see what you can bring to the table. How have your past experiences prepared you for this venture? What are you interested in? How will you add value to the university? This should be easier to answer if you did a good job choosing your major and universities.

The Personal segment is for you to explain how you react to situations. How did you overcome a major failure? Or work with an unpleasant colleague? Pick your answers carefully, as they have to be both genuine and not too personal.

The interview will happen through a video call. Recently, universities have begun to outsource this task by setting up a system that displays questions and records your answers, which they will later evaluate. So, learn to speak into a computer, and practice rigorously with your friend and a mirror. Learn from my mistake and ensure you are in a quiet environment with a sufficiently fast internet connection before you begin. You know what you want. You know why you want it. You’ve got this!

A Little Reflection on Interview Prep

thinkWhich question took the most time to write an answer to?

Did you find a way to respond by following the rule of three?

Did you identify a friend of yours you can practice the answers with?

What are some little things you can do to enhance your interview experience?

Picking Your Dream University25 minutes

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story“…Everything happens for a reason, so wipe that tear off your face and move on. You are strong. You can do it. You will get through this.”

I came across a short letter I had written to myself after I received my first admit result. It was 12:52 a.m. on February 17, 2017, when I received an email from the Chemical Engineering department’s co-chair at MIT. It began with the all-too-familiar I’m truly sorry to inform you. I remember crying silently into my pillow that night. The second blow came within a week on February 23, from HEC Paris, for their Master’s in Management program. I had attended an interview for this program, which I thought went very well. I guess I was mistaken. And within the next two days, the third rejection came from Yale. In hindsight, I can see I had a next-to-impossible shot with the Yale Silver Scholars program—which is an accelerated MBA program for students to join right after their undergrad—given my research background. Nevertheless, the blow hit hard back then. Yale was my dream university.

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