Planning for the Worst Answer in Your Academic Interview

No matter how well prepared you are for your academic interview, you will almost certainly give one answer that you feel is less convincing than the others. Your academic interview is a high-stress situation, and to avoid tension that can throw your interview off track, it’s a good idea to think ahead about what to do when you feel you’ve given a weak answer.

Most importantly, don’t let one or two weaker answers interfere with the rest of the interview. Everyone has at least one answer they feel less confident about. That’s just the nature of an interview. You’re always going to think you nailed some responses and gave others that didn’t quite capture your greatness. Don’t stress about it. If your mind keeps returning to a previous answer, you won’t be thinking properly about the rest of your interview.

You have three good potential strategies, depending on how the interview unfolds.

First, you can simply keep going and  trust that the overall greatness of your well-prepared answers will average out into an impressive encounter for the interviewers.

Second, you can ask, “Did I answer your question?” If they want more, they’ll tell you, and sometimes when they ask for details they’ll do so in a way that gives you a clue about what to say. Some students feel they shouldn’t ask if they answered the interviewer’s question. They think it seems unprofessional, but it’s just the opposite. Indicating your awareness that you may not have delivered what they’re looking for shows your critical thinking in action. It makes you look confident and creates a pleasantly interactive interview. Don’t do it every time, but once or twice is ok.

Third, you can always return to an answer later in the interview if something more convincing comes to mind. At the end of another question, just say, “A moment ago you asked about what I hope to be doing in five years. I just wanted to add one thing….”

Finally, keep in mind that if you’re well-prepared and confident, one clunker of an answer is likely to leave little impression on the interviewers. They’ll remember your overall performance more than any one slightly weaker response. And just be glad that you probably won’t do any of the things Eric Hoover writes about in The Chronicle of Higher Education in “When Admissions Interviews Get Weird.”

List of Websites to Make You Smarter

I just found Jenna Goudreau’s list of “25 Websites that Will Make You Smarter” at Business Insider. The article, updated from an original by Maggie Zhang, lists some great finds. You’re sure to appreciate at least a few of them.

Coursera and edX are on there, and so is Khan Academy. All are leading sites for free online courses.

I’m also intrigued by duolingo. Learning languages is a huge challenge, and anything that can make it feel like a “fun, addictive game” is worth checking out.

Try a visit also to Fast Company’s 30-Second MBA. I’m always trying to pack new ideas into my mind, and sometimes there’s just time for a bite-sized morsel. A quick video with one great idea can give you something to ponder and build upon as you seize your day.

Take a look and see what else you find!

Finding University Programs

If you’re planning to study in Canada, universitystudy.ca is a great resource. You can search a database there containing almost 15,000 Canadian university study programs.

The website also has useful information about scholarships and the application process.

If you’re not studying in Canada, a quick Internet search may turn up a similar organization in the country of your choice.

Good luck choosing a program!

Online Course on “Learning How to Learn”

I recently finished a great (and free) online course from coursera.org called “Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects.” I learned valuable strategies for studying and avoiding procrastination, and I appreciated the professors’ clear explanations of the brain science behind the techniques.

You can check the course out here. Here’s Coursera’s description:

“This course gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines. We’ll learn about the how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information. We’ll also cover illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.

Using these approaches, no matter what your skill levels in topics you would like to master, you can change your thinking and change your life. If you’re already an expert, this peep under the mental hood will give you ideas for turbocharging successful learning, including counter-intuitive test-taking tips and insights that will help you make the best use of your time on homework and problem sets. If you’re struggling, you’ll see a structured treasure trove of practical techniques that walk you through what you need to do to get on track. If you’ve ever wanted to become better at anything, this course will help serve as your guide.”

I highly recommend this course to university students or anyone hoping to enter university. It took me just a few hours each week, and I learned a lot that I’m still using myself and sharing with students.

“Resume” Virtues and “Eulogy” Virtues

Being a university student, or aspiring to be, can consume all your physical and mental energy. Applications, marks and references seem like the centre of the universe. And they are, in a way, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that university life is just one part of a bigger picture.

In The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks wrote about his moral “bucket list.” He laments the fact that so many of us lose track of core values as we pursue academic and career goals:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

I like Brooks’ article as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of accomplishment and fulfillment. An excellent career is only strengthened by paying attention to the things that make you a deeply good person, too. Remembering that academic life is not everything also helps you stay strong during the inevitable setbacks in your studies. There’s always more to life than that which seems most pressing at the moment.

Brooks also reminds us that fulfilment comes from looking beyond ourselves:

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s alright to focus entirely on your studies. You need to sometimes! But in those quiet moments between exams and papers, contemplate whether you’re doing all that you can to improve not only your academic self, but also the core virtues that make everything else worthwhile.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to mention that applicants who can show the sort of well-roundedness Brooks advocates are much more likely to wow admissions committees.

Academic Interview Questions–Describe One of Your Weaknesses

University applicants are often asked during admissions interviews to describe one of their weaknesses. As in all questions of the academic interview, the interviewer is evaluating your response at two different levels. First, she is assessing the content of your answer, meaning simply the details of your explanation and how clearly and engagingly you express them. Second, she is evaluating what your answer reveals about your creativity, critical thinking and level of preparedness for the interview.

Describing a weakness is a challenging task. You want to avoid highlighting an important weakness that actually threatens your ability to excel in the program you are applying to. The admissions committee will determine those kinds of weaknesses for themselves based on your application package. So stay away from something like, “I know that engineering requires excellent math skills, but I find math very confusing.” You’ll receive high points for honesty, but you won’t improve your chance of admission with that answer.

I encourage students to respond with a weakness that they are currently working to turn into a strength. You might say, for example, something like this:

During my undergraduate studies I found that although I wrote good papers, it took me a long time to complete them, and this made it difficult sometimes to meet all my study responsibilities. That’s why I’m currently completing a university writing course to continue developing my writing skills and make my writing time more productive.

What a great answer! It highlights a genuine weakness, but also demonstrates that you are good at reflecting upon your skills and identifying weaknesses. It also shows that you’re the sort of student who actively seeks solutions to obstacles standing in the way of your success.

The Last Question of the Academic Interview

Performing convincingly during your in-person or online academic interviews requires careful preparation.

In this first post on the topic, I want to share ideas for what is often the final question from the admissions committee during an academic interview: “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask us?”

This question is especially important since it generally comes at the end of the interview.  Your interviewers are most likely to remember the beginning and end of your interaction (due to what’s called the “primacy” and “recency” effects, respectively), so you want to make sure you have an especially strong answer for this question about questions.

My first and most important suggestion is to NEVER ask about anything that you could easily find on the program’s website. One of your main goals during the interview is to demonstrate that you have selected the program for the right reasons. That means showing your awareness that the program is an excellent match for your goals and interests. Convincing the interviewer of this requires proving that you have researched the program carefully. So the last thing you want to ask is something like, “Is there an internship in this program?” or “What kind of courses will I need to take?”

Ending your interview like that could be a fatal mistake, no matter how well it went up to that point.

The best answer to “Have you got any questions about the program?” is to ask about something that relates specifically to you and that shows you’re considering the program an important part of reaching your specific educational and career goals.

You could say something like, “I’m interested in your program in part because you take very seriously the project of helping students build a network. As a future entrepreneur, this is very important to me. Your website mentions the alumni networking event and two other networking social events. I was wondering if there are other ways you support students in meeting their networking goals?”

This is a great response, because it shows you are thinking carefully about your future in the program, and it demonstrates that you have researched the program thoroughly.

You could also consider asking what sort of jobs recent graduates have accepted. Or, if it’s relevant to you, you might inquire about any special support provided for international students. As long as the answer to your question is not readily available online, and the question relates specifically to you and your needs, then it will be a good one to ask.

My final tip is to always take a paper and pen to your interview, and write your questions on the paper in advance. This prevents you from forgetting them. Make sure to write at least three, because sometimes the answers to one or two of your questions will be covered during the rest of the interview, and you don’t want to be left at the end with nothing to ask about.

Good luck! More on academic interviews soon.