Tag Archives: authenticity

Common Interview Mistakes

Interviews are often the final hurdle to cross before the application process is completed. Contrary to what many people think, interviews are typically not “make or break” events – that is, the final outcome of your candidacy does not rest entirely on your performance during the interview. Most nice and interesting applicants will simply be confirming the admissions committee’s initial impressions of their paper applications. The applicants who stand out will be those who do particularly well or particularly poorly (i.e., who present some issue of concern such as insufficient English or communication skill, an unpleasant personality, or lack of interest in the school).

Below are some common mistakes that I have found in my past experience interviewing international candidates for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in our collective experience training applicants for their interviews:

1. Sounding memorized and rehearsed

It is very obvious when an applicant has overly rehearsed his answers. Usually, the responses sound like the recitation of an essay: the English is smooth, the language is formal, and the answer is long.

Why this is bad: It gives the impression that you are unable to think and speak spontaneously. As the interviewer will be judging communication skills, the ability to speak naturally will be important. Also, having prepared answers will prevent you from being flexible enough to respond to questions that are phrased slightly differently from the ones you had memorized (e.g., An applicant memorizes a response for “What are your short- and long-term goals?” but instead gets asked “What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?”).

What to do: Instead of reading and memorizing your essays in preparation for your interviews, jot down notes or short phrases (as in a short outline). Use the notes as triggers and practice thinking and speaking spontaneously.

2. Not being convincing enough about your interest in the school

Among applicants who speak English fluently, this is often the biggest mistake they make.

How does one show insufficient interest in a school? This can include providing generic reasons for wanting to attend (e.g., “Your school is strong in general management and has a diverse student body.”), showing lack of effort in researching about the school, and being unable to name any students or alumni that they have spoken to. Of course, you do not need to volunteer information about how you researched the school or which students or alumni you spoke to. However, if you are asked these questions, you should be able to answer them in some detail.

Why this is bad: No school wants to admit an applicant who doesn’t want to attend. It makes their yield (the number of applicants who accept their admission offers) look bad and it simply feels offensive to the interviewer.

What to do: Do plenty of research on the school. When you know about the program and why it fits you, your explanation of why you want to attend should flow out naturally. And what if you are applying to your safety school? Even if it is a school that is at the bottom of your list, it should still be a school where you think you’d be happy if you had to attend. If it becomes difficult to find reasons for wanting to attend that school, then that is a sign that you should not apply.

3. Not smiling, not sounding natural

This applies to those individuals who may have a more “serious” personality or who come from cultures where emotional restraint is valued.

In America in particular, outgoing personalities and warmth are valued, particularly in extroverted environments like business school. And how that is conveyed is, first and foremost, through smiling. Secondly, one conveys that through natural conversation. What I sometimes see in mock interviews are Asian applicants who do not smile, do not engage in small talk, and only recite answers as if they are giving mini-speeches.

Why this is bad: You may inadvertently give an impression that you are cold, unfriendly and overly formal.

What to do: Simply smile when you greet the interviewer. This shows the interviewer that you are happy to meet her and to conduct this interview. Engage in a little bit of small talk if there is time (follow your interviewer’s lead). Small talk is designed to put both interviewer and interviewee at ease before the meeting starts. Close your interview with a gracious thank you and handshake. In between, try to sound and appear professionally relaxed. You can smile or laugh when appropriate, you can move your hands or legs when appropriate, and you can engage in back-and-forth conversation when appropriate. You still have to be professional, but my point is you do not need to be stiff and overly formal.

Just bear in mind that at the interview stage, the interviewer will be looking to see if you are the kind of person that classmates and faculty would enjoy spending time with. They will have your paper application to learn about your achievements and leadership potential. In the interview, they are mainly interested in seeing if you have good communication skills and are a likable person.

Writing your best essays by being honest

I see this a lot: essays that sound formal, that rely on platitudes, that sound like a wall has been built around the words. Usually in such cases I will ask my client to retell me his story as if he is emailing a friend. In fact, I often will ask this person to email the story to me, rather than try and fit it into the confines of a Word document. The story often sounds very different, and much more human.

Stanford Business School has a line on its website that goes something like this: “The best essays, indeed, are the ones that don’t start out trying to impress us.” All schools want authentic stories that are written from the heart.

Last week, I wrote a 250-ish word self-introduction to the clients who have signed on with us. I’ve made this introduction many times before. I usually talk about my career, why I enjoy doing what I do. But this time I wrote it differently. Instead of recounting my career path and the promotions or awards I’ve received, I told the story of how I got interested in admissions. Many years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was rejected by my dream school. I had good grades and a high class rank, and yet I did not get in. I was rejected in favor of others who I knew sat much lower than me in academic rank. It was then that I realized there was much more to the admissions process than just grades.

And I told the story of how I came from an immigrant family. I was not, in fact, even born in the US. However, this early experience trying to access the top educational opportunities despite initial language and cultural barriers, and my experience helping my Chinese parents navigate American society are what influenced me to work as a bridge for international applicants.

I have never told this story to my clients because I believed I needed to appear successful. I am helping them try to enter top American and European programs. How would it look if I told them I was an immigrant, and that I myself had failed to get into my top choice university?

To my surprise, my clients responded positively, writing back to me to say that I had inspired and touched them.

My point in sharing this story is to remind all of you how powerful honesty can be. You are all successful now, which is why you are considering graduate school, so there is nothing to be afraid of showing. Maybe you got to this point by overcoming language barriers, or surviving poverty or depression. Maybe you’ve learned to be a leader by having had doubts or stumbling or even failing earlier in your career. Whatever the path, the fact that you are here is admirable. So don’t be afraid to show it. Be honest, be human, and the admissions committee will be impressed by the real you.