by Chaffee Viets
When I was in high school, I was fortunate to be selected to interview for a scholarship at a large university. So was one of my best friends. Since only 30 scholars would be selected in the end, it would seem one or both of us might very well end up without it. After all, we didn’t come from a particularly noteworthy high school and, for all I knew, space was limited.
One of my interviewers asked me which of us was the stronger candidate. Wow! How does one answer THAT?! Without hesitation, I said, “We’re both strong in some different and some similar ways. She’s brilliant in math, kind, caring, and works very hard. I’m the more extroverted of the two of us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more engaging. We’re very close friends so this is tough to answer. If you are asking who I think is the better overall person, that would be her.”
To our surprise, we would learn later we had each received the scholarship. We also both received a note from the interviewer in the mail (yes, the mail), afterwards stating that each of us had been asked the same question and answered similarly. We spoke of our own strengths but suggested the other one was a slightly better choice.
The Importance of Authenticity
I share this story to illustrate the importance of authenticity. Not a word of what I said or she said was anything less than honest. Yet both of us knew it might cost us the scholarship. I think we both intuitively knew that in the end, no matter the result, we would end up at whatever college was right for us, and it would all work out. Being true to ourselves and each other was paramount. Being authentic was a priority and it was natural to both of us.
In full disclosure, I was authentic in other scholarship interviews and they didn’t pan out. Pretty sure she had a similar story. What I want to share with you are some practical tips for what to do after you’ve applied to colleges and might end up interviewing for a spot at a college or in a scholarship program where interviews are a part of the process.
What I share is not solely about interview preparation, but how to present yourself as a self-aware, authentic person in other areas of life.
Prepare a resume
Yes, that’s right. Even if you have already done so, keep reading. I am going to suggest a framework that focuses on quality rather than quantity.
- Start by keeping it to one page. Doing so focuses you on what’s most significant in your life. You may ask, “But how can I possibly fit my life onto one page?!” The answer: by considering where you are the most talented, most happy, most deeply involved. “But what if those things don’t align with my dream school?” Answer: why do you want to go to a college that doesn’t think who you are is pretty amazing? How do you know they won’t like your involvements? I hear from students all the time that they pick STEM-type activities to focus on when submitting their application to Georgia Tech because they think that’s all our institution cares about. Totally a false assumption.
- When you are done with your first draft, you will no doubt be over a page. Don’t shrink the font and choose 0.05” margins to fit it all on. Drop the stuff that means little to you. You’ll get it down to one page and it will still be robust. Trust me! Furthermore, if someone asks you questions about your resume, you want it to be about the things that matter to you, because your answers will be more honest and authentic.
- Pull a relevant story from each major part of your resume and think about how to tell it to someone who was interested in that part of your life. No, I am not suggesting you put that in writing on your resume. This part is a mental exercise alone. For example:
- Did you list a sport? Talk about a lesson you learned playing on a team or competing.
- Were you a leader in a club (whether or not you had a title)? Think about a clear time you as a leader influenced others for a positive impact.
- Did you win an award? Why and/or how did you obtain it – and how can you say that confidently but humbly.
Prepare for an interview
Notice I didn’t say rehearse for an interview. Rehearsing has its place, but it can be the death knell of your interview hopes if you focus on it too much.
- Consider different kinds of interviews.
- Standard: anything goes. Tell us about yourself. What’s your favorite book? Who do you idolize? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What books/articles have you read recently that impacted your way of thinking?
- Behavioral – they’ll ask you what you have done in specific situations, e.g. tell us about a time you experienced a challenge to your leadership – what did you do and how did you handle it?
- Group exercise: sometimes there may be something unique, like you and other interviewees will be given a task that you must work on together – hard to prepare for, but think about how you would want to approach that and work well with the other members.
- Consider the setting of an interview.
- Several will be on the campus or at a local business – not much to prepare for there.
- Some may be by video chat or telephone, especially at preliminary phases. Make sure what the interviewer sees on the other end is a neat and tidy space. If it’s your own room, make sure the space says, “this is who I am” without saying “TMI” (that may be the one caveat to being too authentic!). If your interview is by phone, stand in front of a mirror. You will convey in your voice the expression on your face and over the phone that is especially helpful.
- Note that college interviews, as opposed to scholarship program ones, often involve an alum of that college chatting with you at your home, or at a coffee shop, etc. Dress appropriately and if you must err between too formal and too casual, always choose too formal. Think about how to have a neat suit or pants and shirt/tie or blouse that will work. They need not be expensive, but they should be clean and neat.
- Consider your answers.
- Regardless of the type of interview, review and be familiar with what you put in your application for the particular university or scholarship program – you will often be asked about it.
- Be you! Rehearse enough that your answer flows easily but don’t memorize what you are going to say – if something is truly meaningful to you, you shouldn’t have to rehearse that much – that’s a sign you might not be a good fit with whatever you perceive the opportunity is evaluating you on.
- Chat with older friends from the schools/programs you are targeting during winter break if you can – find out what their campus experiences have been – and get more than one opinion for each school if possible.
- Visit some schools if convenient, but remember if you end up interviewing you might be invited to campus – find that out and visit the schools that don’t do campus interviews to get the most bang for your travel time buck.
Finally, don’t stress – enjoy winter break, keep focusing on your grades and transitioning your activities, if you are a leader in them, effectively to those who will remain after you leave for college.
Am I saying that if you do all these things you will end up admitted to a prestigious school or winning a major merit scholarship? No. But you will better position yourself to be where you want to be. Louis Pasteur once said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” I could also add “prepared heart.” After all, I could never have predicted the question about my best friend in high school, much less prepared for it. My answer was as authentic and spontaneous as it could get.
And if you end up somewhere you never expected to be – because you wereauthentic – that’s a win in and of itself that will hopefully carry you through a life of happiness.