The Mighty Nittany Lion

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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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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