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Interviewing for External Fellowships

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Quote: I think the building of the personal narrative is something that is necessary for success in the Rhodes process, but also in life. ..the process helped me sharpen what mattered to me, and how I wanted to be an agent of change. The jobs and fellowships I was applying for simultaneously were a result of self-discovery through the process. I made some friends at the interview, and gained incredibly valuable interview skills.

— Jordan Konell, PC '15

Don't Go It Alone​

In addition to the general advice below, specific advice and interview reports are available from past Yale applicants for a variety of external fellowships, including the Carnegie, Churchill, Fulbright, Gates, Luce, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, Truman, and others. Many of these reports offer information not just about the format of interviews, who served on the interviewing panels, and what kind of questions were asked, but also about the application and competition processes as a whole.

Members of the Yale community may log in below. Alumni who have trouble accessing reports should contact the Fellowships office for assistance.

General Advice for External Interviews

Purpose

What is the purpose of a fellowship interview? What’s your goal? Essentially, you want what they can give you: the fellowship, scholarship, opportunity for which you're applying… (Read more about what happens after applications are submitted and about campus interviews.) The purpose in preparing for the interview is to help you feel less nervous, so that you can breathe and think and be yourself. Beware of preparing or practicing too much, however—it is possible to overdo it. You don't want to psych yourself out or sound "canned."

Strategy

An interview is a little like a game of chess, and some strategy can help. Think throughout the process about the points you might like to make, and watch for openings to make them.  Remember that

  • these points should not be scripted (or at least must not sound scripted); and that
  • you must listen carefully to the questions you are asked and answer those questions (not like a politician steering the answer to whatever point he wants to make, regardless of the actual question).

First Impressions

The good news is that you can get better at interviewing with practice, and that while you are probably most worried about what you will say the words may only be a relatively small part of the impression you make on an interviewer. While this does not mean that you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to say, this isn’t the only thing you should be thinking about ahead of time.

Consider a good conversation with someone you like: when that person misspeaks or leaves out a word, or doesn’t make a point as clearly as he or she might, you still know what is meant—you fill in the gaps.  Good communication can occur despite what’s actually said.  (On the other hand, if it’s a difficult conversation with someone you don’t like, you’re much less likely to fill in those gaps or to give him or her the benefit of the doubt…this is one reason you want your interviewer to like you.)

The dynamic is important:

  • The same words in different tones mean very different things, get very different reactions…
  • Body language says a great deal: whether or not you’re excited, interested, engaged.

Engage

The most important thing you can do is to engage the people with whom you’re speaking, get them to like you:

  • Smile.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Give a firm handshake.
  • Don’t play with props like your hair, a pen, or anything else.
  • Stay focused.

Show you’re interested in what the other person has to say. One way to do this is to take cues from the other person’s posture, tone, pace.  If they’re relaxed, you shouldn’t be too rigidly at attention.  If they speak slowly, don’t give them machine-gun speech; if they speak swiftly, keep up.  If they smile, smile back; if they’re serious, be serious back.  “People like people who are like them…”

Being cognizant of the interviewer’s cues helps the rapport, and when mirroring happens unconsciously it shows that two people are in sync.  Think of all the times you’ve seen friends in the dining hall having a good conversation: how often are they sitting the same way, mirroring each other without even thinking about it?

Breathe.  Slow down.  When you’re nervous, it may make you talk too fast and increase the pitch of your voice—a frantic Mickey Mouse voice doesn’t impress or do justice to what you have to say.  Mirroring the tone of the interviewer helps.

Panel Interviews

A panel is harder to mirror than a single interviewer, but you can take your cue from the overall tone set by a group.  You want to aim for the middle ground, rather than to mirror an individual.  If the overall tone of the group is formal, be formal; if it’s more relaxed, try to relax a bit.

Remember when you're interviewing with two or more people to look around periodically and make eye contact with everyone, rather than focusing exclusively on the person who just asked a question, for example. Making eye contact engages everyone, says you're interested in what they're thinking and what they have to say, and helps to make it a conversation. (Not meeting someone's eye can make them feel excluded, and you'll also miss their nonverbal cues...)

You cannot be thinking too much about all of this during an interview, but the good news is that it becomes second-nature with practice, and just having an awareness ahead of time helps.

Adapt

Take account of circumstances, don’t go in with a prepared act or script—see what the tone of the interview is like, and listen to what you are asked. Don’t answer the question you wish you’d been asked, the question you think you heard, or anything other than the question you were asked. 

Listen. If, after you’ve listened carefully, you’re not sure about a question, ask.

What to do if you don’t know the answer?

  • Be honest.  Don’t try to buy time by saying something like “That’s a really interesting question”—it’ll be obvious what you’re trying to do, and interviewers will tune out. If you don’t know the answer and aren’t likely to come up with something, rather than waffling just briefly say that you don't know. On the other hand, if you think you know something related to what they're trying to get at, you might try that; for example, if they ask if you've read a particular book and you haven't, but you have read another similar book, say so.
  • One real possibility is that there isn’t a right answer and that they’re just trying to see how you think on your feet.  Take a breath to think before you speak, and give it a go. You might say something like “Let me try to think this through” and then do so aloud.  (See below, under Question #8.)

Essential Questions

Essentially, there are only eight questions in the world, but there are countless ways to ask them...

1. Tell me about yourself…

There are three areas you may wish to approach:

  1. Academic: what’s your major? Why did you choose it?  Why didn’t you pick ________ instead?  What do you like about the subject?
  2. Extracurricular: what you’ve done, relevant to the topic at hand.  Give them something interesting, let it illustrate why you’re a good candidate for this particular fellowship.
  3. Personal: what should they know about you? How do other people describe you? Again: what might make you a good fit for this fellowship?

Tip: Don’t make your interviewer work to get at things you should be looking for opportunities to volunteer.

Don’t just give a lot of curt answers which require follow-up questions: verbal ping-pong is tiring and not very interesting. While keeping it brief, give examples or elaborate a little—you want this to be a conversation—but don’t let them wonder why you’re going off on what may seem like a tangent.  Be clear about how things relate to one another, and remember that what’s obvious to you may not be to others.

Answer the question asked, but look for opportunities to say something which might lead to interesting conversation which brings out the points you’d like to make in your interview.  Establish a context right from the first answer you give.  Subsequent questions may well come from something you’ve already said…  Remember, this is chess.

2. Strengths

These kinds of questions are getting at: what are you good at?  what can you bring to this fellowship?  There are two basic kinds of strengths:

  1. skills: pick your three most relevant skills; and
  2. characteristics, rather than hard skills—e.g. work ethic, integrity, capacity to lead: again, pick three things which will make the interviewer feel good about you and about choosing you for this fellowship.

Tip: Don’t say “As it says in my résumé…”—this can be read as an insult: either “You obviously didn’t read my résumé, or you’d know the answer to this,” or “You may have read my ré sumé but didn’t understand it/remember it.”  Even if you’re re-casting something in your application, do it matter-of-factly, without comment.  (Remember, too, that an interview is a chance to give them information they couldn’t get from your application or to let them see it in a way they couldn’t on paper…)

3. Weaknesses

Don’t say you haven’t any—everyone has weaknesses, and you don’t want to sound arrogant or unaware. On the other hand, neither do you want to open up a conversation you don’t want to have.

  1. Say something honest, authentic, credible, but which won’t sink your application. (Avoid “I’m a perfectionist” or “I push myself too hard”.)
  2. Then be sure to say what you are doing/would do to overcome this weakness.
4. Why do you want this kind of thing? 

That is, why do you want a fellowship/post-graduate degree/etc., how will it fit into your longer-term plans and goals, why is it a good idea?  And closely related:

5. Why do you want this particular thing? 

That is, for example, why the Marshall, why the UK, why the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, why a Master's in Public Health? Be specific in your answers.

6. Have you any questions for us? 

Don’t say “no”—it’s a missed opportunity and may make a bad impression. Don’t ask a question if you don’t care about the answer.  (Or simply because someone else said it would be a good idea. It’s another conversation you don’t want to have.)  Don’t ask a question that shows you haven’t done your homework. (Could you have gotten the information from their website had you bothered to look?) Try to get them to talk about everyone’s favorite subjects—themselves, their interests, their experiences. While you may not get this kind of question much in a fellowship interview, this is exactly the sort of situation which arises during the social parts of some interview processes…

7. Context

That is, questions which arise from something already said: remember that you start to set a context with the very first answer you give. Give them openings for things you’d like to pursue further, and avoid introducing topics which would lead to conversations you do not want to have.

8. Cases/Hypotheticals/Behaviorals

For example, "How would you deal with the following situation…?”, “What would you do if….?”

You cannot generally prepare much if at all for these.  What to do?

  1. Take a moment—don’t speak before you’ve thought. Breathe, and think while you’re doing it. (That pause will feel longer to you than to anyone else in the room, so don't worry: besides, pausing to think just shows you're taking the question seriously and can be thoughtful, both of which are good things.)
  2. There is almost certainly no one right answer, and there may not be any right or wrong answer at all.  They want to see how you think, so, talk them through the thought process. Let them see how you tackle a question, how you break it down, the kinds of things you might do to solve the problem set before you.
  3. Try to engage your audience, draw them into your reasoning, if only with rhetorical questions. You might note that there are three relevant points that you can see immediately, list them briefly, and ask which one they'd like you to elaborate. You might ask something like “I’ve just sketched out one possibility: does this seem reasonable to you?” or start a line of reasoning with “How about….?”

Remember, you’re aiming to engage people, to make this a conversation, as far as possible. Try to enjoy this chance to have an interesting conversation about things you care about with people you might not ever have met otherwise. Remember, too, that you've nothing to lose: if the worst that can happen is that you get some practice interviewing, so that the next interview you do for a fellowship, a job, or graduate school is easier, then that's not so bad, is it? All best of luck.

--based on advice from Phil Jones, former Director of Undergraduate Career Services & Assistant Dean of Yale College, November 2007 -notes by Kate Dailinger, with permission