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Interviewing for External Fellowships

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Webinar Workshop: Interviewing for National Fellowships

Join advisers from the Offices of Career Strategy and Fellowships, along with recent fellowship winners, to hear more about preparing for the interview process!

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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.

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


What is the purpose of a fellowship interview? What’s your goal? 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."


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 


The most important thing you can do is to engage the people with whom you’re speaking and 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.
  • Breathe. Slow down.

Show you’re interested in what the other person has to say! Mirroring the other person can help; if they smile, smile back. 

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. 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.


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 or the question you think you heard. 

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. If you don’t know the answer and aren’t likely to come up with something, 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.

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?
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 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.”  

3. Weaknesses

Don’t say you don't have 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? 

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?  

5. Why do you want this particular thing? 

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. Do you have 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. Don’t ask a question that shows you haven’t done your homework. Try to get them to talk about everyone’s favorite subjects—themselves, their interests, their experiences. 

7. Context

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. 
  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. 

Remember, you’re aiming to engage people, to make this a conversation. 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? 

--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

Interviewing Resources

Office of Career Strategy Interview Preparation resources