By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins
Congrats! You got the interview! But now what? First, take a moment to celebrate! Then, start preparing. While an interview for a prestigious fellowship can certainly be daunting, don’t let it be scary! Just like with your written application – with careful preparation, you can stand out as a top applicant. Here are 5 tips to get you started:
1. Do your homework
This might seem like common sense, but – read the fellowship website again. Read up on what former fellows are doing now, on the mission and vision of the organization, on the history of the program. Find out who the “notable” fellowship alumni are and what they are doing now. Doing your homework on the program and former participants helps you be prepared to answer any questions about why you chose this particular fellowship. If you’re not sure where to start your research, try the fellowship website – read the “About Us/Who We Are,” “Vision,” and “History” sections. Make sure to also read the “Fellowship Experience” and “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” sections as well. You might also try a Google search of the fellowship name followed by a phrase like “press release,” just to get a sampling of the most recent news shared by the organization. If you know the city or state where the fellowship would take place, spend a little time reading up on recent events in that area. And of course, if you can, consider reaching out to fellowship alumni to ask for any advice they might have about preparing for the interview.
2. Re-read your application
After being selected for an interview, it can be easy to forget all about the application package you worked so hard on and submitted months ago, but definitely re-read what you wrote before your interview. Your interviewer(s) will have read your application shortly before the interview, and everything you wrote will be fair game. As it will likely have been several months since you’ve written the essays, your career goals or volunteer involvements may be different by the time you get to the interview; make sure you can talk about what you wrote as well as address any changes that have taken place. Be sure you can answer any questions the interviewers might have about prior research related to your application or about current environmental or political events mentioned in your essays. It also can’t hurt to remember who wrote your letters of recommendation and think about your relationships and experiences with each of those individuals as well, in case a question comes up.
3. Practice answering questions
Practice – but don’t over-rehearse – your answers to the obvious questions, like: Can you tell me about yourself? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? What’s your greatest weakness? What book or historical figure has influenced your life most? Can you tell us about a time that you had to work with a team and/or resolve conflict? Why do you want to be part of this fellowship? How will this fellowship contribute to your career goals? You want to be able to show that you’ve thought about the answers to these questions, but you also don’t want to regurgitate a scripted answer that you’ve repeated fifty times verbatim. Take advantage of mock interview resources available through your university, if applicable, or even ask your friends or your mom to help you practice. Ask them to give you feedback on your answers, as well as your body posture and whether you’re saying “umm” or playing with your hair too much.
That being said, do not be afraid to take a moment to think in an interview, or even answer with an “I don’t know” if you really don’t know the answer to a question. Sure, the interviewers want to see that you can think on your feet, but it is surely worse to feign knowledge about something you aren’t familiar with. Depending on the question, you may also respond by saying something like: “What a great question – I’m not sure I have an answer to that right now, but that’s so interesting. I’ll have to think about it,” or by referencing something you’ve read recently that was related to that question, e.g., “Great question – I was actually just thinking about this while reading [insert book and author].”
4. Prepare your own list of questions
It is always, always good to ask questions when given an opportunity in an interview. Asking thoughtful questions shows the interviewers that you spent time preparing for the interview and thinking about the fellowship. However, you don’t just want to ask any ol’ question. For instance, you don’t want to ask questions that you could easily find the answers to (i.e., online during your research – see Tip #1). Try to come up with careful, insightful questions while doing your research on the fellowship or organization. You might ask questions like: What, in your opinion, makes for a successful [insert fellowship name] fellow? Is there an aspect of the fellowship experience that fellows tend to find most challenging? Can you tell me more about the day-to-day experience of the fellowship? Can you tell me more about the culture of the fellowship? Will fellows have opportunities to interact with fellowship alumni? Is there anything else I can answer for you? Lastly, it’s safe to ask about the next steps of the selection process after the interview.
5. Be yourself
As cliché as this might sound, being yourself in an interview is key to making your interviewers like you. Of course, you’ll be a little nervous, and you’ll be on your toes, but still try to show your personality while answering questions. Show your sense of humor, make eye contact like you do with your friends, all of that good stuff. Interviewers want to see that, in addition to being impressive on paper, you are personable and pleasant. If you’re feeling nervous in the days leading up to the interview, check out this article on Managing Fellowship Interview Anxiety (and Nailing the Interview).
Although it is impossible to predict exactly what you will be asked and how you should respond in any given interview, these tips for preparation should go a long way in making you feel more comfortable about your big day. And remember: if you made it to the interview stage, you’re a finalist! In other words, the interview panel is already impressed with you – now they just want to meet you.
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 2017, all rights reserved.