Preparing for Interviews
Preparation and Strategy
Be sure to re-read your application and try to see it as a third-party might. Also re-read your transcript before the interview. If there is an out-of-place grade on it, that's obviously fodder for a question. If there is a course there that seems well outside your specialization, you might be asked how you as a chemist responded to Crime and punishment or how a linguist can contribute to a discussion on evolutionary theory.
Be current on current events, especially those that may be related to (directly or tangentially) or might impact your area of proposed study/research.
Don't rush your answers. It's fine to pause a moment for thought. Once you've answered -- and keep the answers concise but thorough -- be quiet and wait for the next one.
You may be interrupted while giving an answer, and this may simply be intended to see how fast you react to a new situation. And it is important to say "I don't know" if necessary. Interviewers want to see if you will hold onto your ideals but not be so dogmatic as to not budge an inch. Otherwise they may pursue you into rougher waters. If you feel you didn't answer something well, don't let it fluster you. You’ve probably answered other questions better, so just move on.
Don't rave about your accomplishments; that's already in the application. But do be prepared to answer questions with specific anecdotes and examples from your own experiences.
Have an opening and closing remark in mind -- no more than thirty seconds -- just in case the need arises. For example, some scholarships typically begin, "So, tell us a bit about yourself." And they often end, "Do you have anything you would like to add?"
Know your benefactor. While reading his/her biography look for any parallels with, direct application to, or remote echoes of your own "story."
Think of the interview as participating in a good discussion rather than a back-and-forth Q&A, and endeavor to construct logical arguments on your positions and goals during the interview itself.
Practice! Avail yourself of mock interviews through the CUSE Fellowships Office, and also ask your friends, roommates, parents, rectors, professors to interrogate you. The more questions you get from varying perspectives, the better.
Common Mistakes Made During Interviews
Candidates use the words "never" and "always." That simply opens oneself up to a forced withdrawal.
Candidates are falsely confident. It is fine to be phased; it is acceptable to be a bit embarrassed.
Candidates refuse to say "I don't know."
Candidates attribute everything they knew on a given subject to a particular book they read in a particular course. In such cases, "you" disappear, and the book takes your place.
Candidates take the interview as an exercise in defense rather than discussion. At an extreme, candidates even get defensive when something about their application or personal statement is under examination.
Adapted Message from Tara Yglesias
Deputy Executive Secretary
Truman Scholarship Foundation
I imagine that a lot of folks would have advice for you - but as a Truman Scholar, frequent interviewer, and Foundation employee, I can offer the following:
Most interviews spend very little time asking questions about the written materials (e.g. - "I see that you do college debate. Tell me about that.") and more time using the written materials as jumping off points for other questions ("What skills did you learn as a debater that might help you in your career as an urban planner?"). Sometimes the policy proposal/research proposal is the focus of the interview, sometimes not. You should be prepared for questions that ask you to extrapolate your thinking on the proposal into other areas.
Current events come up fairly regularly. If you don't know what a panelist is talking about, just ask. I rarely hear complaints that a student hasn't heard of something (unless it is in her issue area), but I have heard plenty about students who try to bluff.
The biggest pitfall for students is the inability to identify when a panelist is playing devil's advocate. I often ask questions like: "Why should we care about participatory democracy anyway?" The Scholars are the ones that can happily engage me on that issue and never make me feel like a jerk for asking.
You should also be sensitive to the fact that panelists come from different backgrounds and disciplines. Civilians often ask completely different questions than professors - and many panels are mostly civilians. As for fellow interviewees, most students are surprised how well they get along with each other.
Characteristics of Successful [Interviewees]
by Louis Blair, Executive Secretary Emeritus
Truman Scholarship Foundation
In my observations of about 2500 Truman interviews over the past 20 years, I sense that successful Truman Scholarship Finalists generally possess the following characteristics:
Comfort/Level of Ease in the interview setting: While they may be nervous at the start, they quickly settle in, enjoy the give and take of the interview, do not get put off by challenging questions nor the lack of encouraging words or smiles from panelists. Perhaps the best sign of success is when the candidate turns the interview into a conversation with the panelists.
Sophistication on the issues: The candidate realizes that there are few clear-cut answers and solutions, that there are problems and obstacles, that our political system rarely moves ahead full-speed … and for good reasons. Just saying that something should be this way or that way is rarely enough. The best ways to become sophisticated are probably through regularly reading the NY Times [especially the editorials] and through small-group or seminar discussions of issues.
Exciting in one or more dimensions: This can be through an unusual career/education program that makes sense, outstanding accomplishments, extraordinary devotion, personal appeal, energy, humor, occasionally sheer intellectual horsepower targeted toward public service.
Breadth of interest and knowledge beyond the intended career field: Single issue folks rarely appeal to selection panels. A frequent question to persons who appear to be single issue is: “What would you do if the problem you want to address suddenly went away?”
Ability to analyze “on the fly”: Often panelists ask questions to see how well candidates can grapple with issues and concepts that they have not connected previously. Examples of questions are: “What are the most meaningful books you have read that the President should read?” “What are the biggest issues facing American society?” Successful candidates feel somewhat comfortable in grappling with such far-out questions, maybe even having fun.
Consistency with the written material: Successful Finalists talk the way they write, thoroughly understand their policy recommendations, and display some of the characteristics mentioned in Item 14 and in the Faculty Nomination letter.
Responsiveness to the questions: They address head-on the questions raised and try to respond to what the interviewers have asked, not what the candidates necessarily want to address. Not getting bogged down, especially on questions to which they are not doing well. Few successful candidates answer all of the questions well. It is far better to keep answers short, cut losses, and let panelists pose lots of questions.
Keeping the interview and the outcome in perspective: Candidates who come in with the attitude that they “have to win” or are “destined to win” do poorly. This is not a life and death situation. Most Finalists will get to graduate school.