#9: Nailing the Individual and Group Interviews

May 02, 2012

By ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson

If you’ve applied for a fellowship and are invited for an interview, congratulations! You are fellowship semi-finalist, and that’s something to be proud of.

Normally a fellowship selection committee reviews the written applications and narrows down the applicant pool to a small number of semi-finalists. If you get to the semi-finalist round it means your written application and project proposal have made the cut. At this point, any one of you can win the fellowship. The interview is not for the fellowship organization to hear more about your resume or project proposal, it’s really for the selection committee to learn more about your personality, your social skills and your ability to represent the fellowship organization well.

The semi-finalists are normally invited to a central location for one or more interviews with the selection committee. For all four of my fellowships, I was invited to a multi-day interview event, which involved an individual interview with a selection committee and a group interview with all the candidates. Sometimes the group interview is formal, for example, the semi-finalist group would be provided a question and the selection committee observes how the group responds to the question (much like a team project for a class). In most cases, the group interview is informal. This means that the selection committee observes you and the other semi-finalists during a reception, dinner or other networking events. Often candidates do not realize that the dinner or reception associated with the interview event is a group interview, but it is. The fellowship selection committee is watching your every move from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave. Keep that in mind.

Some tips for the interviews:

#1: Do background research: It’s important to know the ins and out of your fellowship project proposal, of course, since you’ll be asked about it a lot. You should also have a good knowledge of the history of the fellowship organization, current events in the location you are proposing to go to during the fellowship, and the people you will meet at the interview event. If you are interviewing for a fellowship abroad, it’s also extremely important to read up on (and practice) cultural etiquette since representatives of that country will likely be at your interview events.

#2: Practice your elevator pitch: You are going to be asked a million times what your project proposal is, so prepare and practice a short and sweet description. Even if your project is complicated, you should figure out a way to describe it in one sentence and avoid using jargon. Your ability to communicate effectively and succinctly is one of the things fellowship organizations look for in candidates, because it’s a good social skill. Also keep in mind some members of the fellowship selection committee may not work in your field, so don’t talk in technical terms unless it’s clear you’re speaking to someone who is familiar with your discipline.

#3: Be friendly, not smarmy: Smarmy is defined as “ingratiating and wheedling in a way that is perceived as insincere or excessive.” Smarmy might work on Wall Street or at a sorority brunch, but it really doesn’t work in fellowship interviews. Fellowship organizations are looking for candidates who work well in teams, communicate well with high-level officials, are self-confident (not cocky), and act maturely in all social settings. They are looking for people who will maintain the fellowship organization’s good reputation both in the U.S. and abroad. This means you need to be friendly and sincere not just to the selection committee but to your fellow semi-finalists and anyone who serves you during the interview events. They are watching how to you interact with everyone, not just them.

#4: Don’t be intimated by other semi-finalists: I really mean this. Once you are at the interviews, it’s not about your resume, age or work experience, it’s about your personality, your self-confidence and your passion for your proposed project. At the fellowship interviews I’ve participated in, I’ve marveled at the backgrounds of my fellow semi-finalists and had moments of self-doubt. But I still managed to win the fellowships over semi-finalists who had more work experience, more academic credentials and more elaborate projects. I believe I stood out because I did my background research, I practiced interviewing and talking about my topic, I was friendly to other semi-finalists, and most importantly, I expressed how passionate I am about my research.

Check out the full application guide, beginning with #1: Create a Fellowship Application Plan.

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2012, all rights reserved.