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.”