5 Things Not to Say in a Fellowship Interview

Jan 17, 2018

5 Things Not to Say in a Fellowship Interview

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

You got the interview! Go you! If you’re anything like me, the first thing you did was to start Googling “what to say in fellowship interviews.” Something you may not think of immediately, however, is thinking about what NOT to say in your interview. We have a few ideas for you.

1. Be proud! Be Confident! Don’t diminish your accomplishments! … but don’t brag, either.

You’ve done a lot of cool stuff! You’re smart! It is completely fine to want to convey this to your interviewer. The key is to “show” and not “say” your strengths. You can talk about your experiences as a volunteer or the scholarship you won in college, but you don’t need to explicitly SAY that you “selflessly devoted hours of your time every weekend to a local animal shelter” – the interviewer will gather that you are socially conscious and dedicated from your resume and from talking with you about these involvements. You can also talk about your awards or grades without sounding like you are bragging. Instead of talking about your “3.99 GPA,” you can talk about how you love school and how doing well is important to you.

2. Don’t mention all of your potential career paths.

When your interviewer asks (and they will ask) about your intended career path, pick just one – even if there are some other possibilities. Obviously, not everyone knows exactly what they want to do with their life and people often change careers, but your interviewer wants to know that you have a specific career goal, at least for now. Moreover, they want to what role the fellowship will play in helping you reach your career goal. Musing about different career tracks in your interview will come across as being unsure about what you really want to do with your life. While there is nothing wrong with continuing to explore your options, being vague won’t make for a strong finish to your interview.

3. Don’t disparage the competition.

Similar to bragging, talking trash about the competition comes across terribly in an interview. In fact, I would recommend avoiding talking about other applicants altogether, if possible. The interviewers know you want them to choose you over the other applicants – you do not need to make that clear to them. If you are asked something like, “Why should you be chosen as a such-and-such fellow?” talk about your own qualities instead of talking about the poor qualities of other applicants. You may even start with something like “I am sure that all of the applicants selected for interviews are very well-qualified. I think I would make a strong fellow because…” and end with something like “…and I would look forward to learning from the other selected fellows as well.”

4. Similarly, don’t throw anyone under the bus when explaining any resume glitches.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that speaking negatively about anyone is terrible interview etiquette. If you are asked about the “C” on your college transcript, don’t talk about how the instructor disliked you for no reason or how he gave everyone C’s just to make a point. Not only does that response fail to explain the reason you earned a C, but it conveys that you are unable (or unwilling) to assume personal responsibility when things don’t go as planned. Instead, say something like, “That semester, I learned an important lesson about biting off more than I could chew. I ended up with a C in Statistics. But, I took that lesson to heart and have since been more considerate of my own time and more realistic about what I should take on. I re-took the course that summer and did much better, so I think it was an experience worth having.”

5. Don’t talk about how nervous you are.

Interviews make nearly everyone at least a little nervous, and your interviewers will expect this and likely be somewhat forgiving of your nerves at the beginning of your interview. However, don’t put the spotlight on how nervous you are by saying it aloud. For starters, this is just going to make you even MORE nervous because now you are focusing your thoughts on being nervous. Second, your interviewer is now talking with you about how nervous you are! This will distract from your interview responses and may be the only thing they remember about your interview. Instead, take a deep breath and a pause, and focus on responding to the interview question.

Making it to the interview round of a competitive fellowship selection process is a big deal! If you’re invited to interview, you are obviously qualified and competitive. Now, you just need to show the selection committee that you can operate appropriately under a little pressure. Practice interviewing with your mirror, your roommate, and your parents until you feel confident you can avoid these five little hiccups. You got this!

Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.