Speculations regarding interviews

Several people have, in the past, contacted me with questions pertaining to interviews.  I want to begin at the beginning: I haven’t much of an idea as to what to do when faced with interviews, either. I don’t believe that anyone truly does. In the next few paragraphs, however, I’ll try my best to tell you what I did during interviews, why I did it, what I think you could do better, and what kinds of questions you may be faced with depending upon the breed of interview you must sit through.

A friend asked about how to answer the generic “Tell us about yourself.” I will try to give some pointers specifically for this question, but I do firstly need to mention that there are many other questions individuals can – and will – ask you. They range from the insanely personal (“Do you have a boyfriend?”) to the intensely academic (“Give me this test score!”), and you should effectively be ready for all of them.

When I say that, however, I don’t mean that you should sit at home thinking up responses to potential questions. That simply doesn’t work, if one thinks about it. Doing so is akin to memorizing all the problem types in a given textbook. It may work sometimes, but if the “examination” material takes a sudden twist, one is stuck.  Know of the most popular potential questions, certainly, but don’t script yourself.

Try to recall, too, that being a successful interviewee takes experience, and that you will come to develop a personalized method of answering questions, retaining your composure, and appearing natural over time.  That being said, there are certain things that I think are useful to keep in mind when sitting interviews. I’ll try to discuss those here.

N.b.:  This is geared primarily at high school and early undergraduate level students.

1. My Interview History

a) Who has interviewed you, and for what purposes?

I’ve sat through a multitude of interviews in the last ten or so months.  I’ll avoid mentioning names and organizations here in the interests of confidentiality.

1.  Unprecedented, informal interview with student director of non-profit organization online (via Skype, with video)
2. Informal lab interview with a professor and researcher
3. Informal interview with a politician
4. M.I.T. interview
5. U.S. Institution interview
6. U.S. Institution interview
7. U.S. Institution interview
8. U.S. Institution interview
9. Informal start-up interview with student director of non-profit organization
10. Project-related, specialized academic interview with professor
11. Scholarship committee panel interview with multiple interviewers

b) Worst interview?
2 (I still cringe when I think about this, despite my having the job), 7 (rivalling a hearing), 11 (four-on-one). 

c) Best interview?
1 (extremely easy), 4 (my favourite, easily), 8 (great discussions), 10 (wonderfully open discussion).

2. Different Kinds of Interviews

Each breed of interview merits a slightly different approach. 

1. Job interview: geared specifically at securing a given position (e.g., Interviews 1 and 2 from my list).

  • In a job interview, ensure that you know the job well. This should be obvious enough, but some people, in the midst of their schedule, don’t prepare adequately.  Find key words and think about how you cater to them.  Understand the nuances of your résumé that could help you stand out.
  • Tailor your résumé or C.V.! If you’ve next to no qualifications, then yes, try to mention anything related. But there’s no reason to inform your potential laser physics research advisor that you’ve done eleven years of Latin ballroom.
  • The higher “above your level” this job is, the less of the interviewer’s time you want to take up. By all means talk, but don’t ramble. A good example would be my interview with my research advisor. I made certain to remain clear where my objectives were concerned. When he asks you “So, what kind of research are you interested in doing?”, you’ll have trouble if you respond with “Physics!” or even “Laser physics!”  You should be saying something relevant to his lab, its publications, and your interests; you should be implicitly emphasizing your skills and your creativity by presenting something akin to a research proposal on the spot.

2. Award interview: geared specifically at securing a given award (Interviews 10 and 11, both done in pursuit of a scholarship).

  • Understand what the award seeks from you. If it’s an academic award that’s geared at rewarding so-termed “brilliance”, talk about how you’ve worked on cultivating your mind. If a keyword is “dedication”, discuss your countless hours of this-or-that activity. Should “sense of community” be a common phrase on the application, mention your volunteering. Understand the nature of the scholarship.  If you go into a Loran interview and mention nothing about your community involvement, you’ll have problems.

3. General business interview: geared at scouting out opportunities that the other party might be able to give you (Interviews 3 and 9).

  •  Present everything that you can contribute to this person’s organization or set of values first. For example, the Member of Parliament I spoke to is known for starting up his own businesses. Reflect upon experiences that your interviewer might identify with.
  • Listen to advice. This is not a “If he or she doesn’t take everything I’m offering exactly as it presently exists, I’m out!” You should be willing to learn from potential partners.

4. School interview: geared specifically at assuring attendance to a certain school (Interviews 4 – 8 above).

  • Know the university. A generic “This is a highly specialized research institution with an abundance of opportunities in both academic and extracurricular life!” will not impress Ivy interviewers. Casually mention the university’s interesting characteristics. Would you love to wander the Infinite Corridor? (Yes!) Does C.S.A.I.L. make you want to cry of joy? (Yes!) Is Eric Lander the most fascinating person? (Understandably!)  Well, say it.
  • Don’t be formulaic. Ironic, given that I’m making very bold suggestions as to what you should be doing, but really, be you. If you want to crack a horrid joke that isn’t dreadfully tasteless, do it!  If you’re nervous, confess that you’re a bit shaky.  If you really like your interviewer, offer a realistic, reasonable compliment.
  • Know your major. Have a reason for your major besides “I think I really like it.”

3. Common and Slightly Frightening Questions

I’ll try to explain these through examples in Section Four.

a) So, tell me about yourself.
b) So I understand that you do a lot of academia, but what else do you do?
c) So, you do a lot of things. You therefore must prioritize. How do you evaluate opportunities to see if they’re worth pursuing?
d) Is there something you can’t do?
e) Hmm, particle physics and molecular biology. Hmm. Anything in the humanities?
f) Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have any friends?
g) How would you solve the existing problems surrounding world peace?
h) What would you do about global warming? 

4. Interview Dissection; Things I Learned

I think it may be best to discuss what I’ve learned in terms of examples. So, here we go.

1.  Unprecedented, informal interview with student director of non-profit organization online (via Skype, with video)

  • If an interview pops up out of nowhere online, don’t reject it.  Don’t worry – just retrieve your résumé and hope for the best.  If this individual surprised you, he or she is probably reasonably confident in your abilities already, and won’t blame you for being slightly flustered.  Don’t pretend you’ve another obligation – doing so may be more harmful to you than sitting through this discussion.
  • If you’re being interviewed online, ask if the interviewer would prefer to see you, too. Generally, the convention is “Yes”, but if you can get by without showing your face, you might be more comfortable.

2. Informal lab interview with a professor and researcher

This interview taught me a lot. It was actually the first formal interview I really ever had.

  • Don’t make a script. I spent about three hours drafting a paper incorporating all of my ideas. When he asked me a simple question, I froze for a second too long, allowing him to take over the conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk. Ideally, if you can do so without cutting off your interviewer, it should be you talking for the majority of the time. I was so intimidated by my interviewer’s accomplishments that I remained quiet and let him tell me things (most of which I’d already learned). This made it seem as though I had no idea what he was talking about. He later discovered that I did, but only because he was kind enough to read my e-mails. That’s why I got the job. Not everyone is as nice as this guy. If I had been the one interviewing me, then that day would’ve been the end.
  • If the job is “above” you, don’t be afraid to show that you know what you’re doing. If you try to be more humble, you won’t get the job. This was another error I made.  I’m nothing special, but I do regularly play around with his discipline – I understand relevant terminology and protocols. However, I didn’t make this clear to him. I was competing with grad. students here. Thankfully, he gave me a try.
  • Have a specific research focus in mind. “Physics”, “laser physics”, and or even “new spectroscopies” is not good enough.  Explain specific interests, technologies, and project plans.

3. Informal interview with a politician

  • If you feel that someone is being rude to you or ignorant of you, don’t call him or her out. Instead, keep courteous whilst trying to highlight your strengths and knowledge. To be honest, I felt as though this person was not at all interested in hearing me speak. He cut me off repeatedly, and it started bothering me immensely. I was glad that my colleague was present, as this individual didat least speak to him, but I felt at times as though he [the interviewer] was not interested in anything I had to say. However, I kept attempting to make contact, and adhered to my views. Eventually, he became more engaging.
  • You should be open to information, but you shouldn’t necessarily be open to completely modifying your aims. Stay strong! I got the feeling again that this person was suggesting I eventually make an organization I own “less of a non-profit”. This completely bothered me, and I pointed it out politely. I then explained my vision for the organization. With time, we stumbled upon an alternative – sponsorships.

4. M.I.T. interview

  • Sometimes, you don’t even need to plan. If the interviewer is happy, don’t change the subject.  The interviewer and I completely melded minds! We had the best two-and-a-half-hour conversation about everything. He started the interview off with the generic “Tell me about yourself question”, and I responded with the line I’d mentioned above. He bit, and we started talking about everything!
  • When your interview tells you he or she likes you, it’s not a lie. At the end of the interview, my interviewer told me that I’m the “most M.I.T.-like person [he’s] seen in years”. On other occasions, I was told that they were “very impressed”, and that I would fit in at the school. During another interview, I was told that I’m the most analytical person he’s met. Look for statements like these.  If they’re thrown out there, then they’re probably well-meant.  Your interviewer has no reason to lie, as far as I’m aware.  Don’t be nervous, and accept compliments graciously.
  • Know other people who are applying to the institution in your area. This was his first question to me. “So, do you know of any other students who are applying to M.I.T.?” I shot off some names, and he said, “Great! First trick question! Smart people should always network.”

5. U.S. Institution Interview #1

  • Again, know the school. When my interviewer asked me what specifically I liked about this Ivy, I was able to say that it was the amazing sense of amiability. I mentioned their letters to students and the “feel” of their website. This drove the interviewer to discuss the fact that this was definitely true.
  • If you’ve an interviewer that’s writing things down, then speak directly and clearly. Make note of your accomplishments. This interviewer primarily noted down the things that I was saying I’d done.  The person from M.I.T., on the other hand, just rambled (albeit sophisticatedly) with me about AI, biology, robotics, M.I.T., and awkward conversations.  I took care to follow my interviewer’s lead, discussing concrete accomplishments and saving interest-based conversation for later.

6. U.S. Institution Interview #2

  •  Ask educated questions! This person was one of the nicest people I’ve ever gotten interviewed by, and nearly the nicest I’ve met, haha, so I haven’t much else to say. If you’re in a related field, ask insightful questions. It’ll show that you’ve been thinking adequately.

7. U.S. Institution Interview #3

  • Know your interviewer. This person was not in my discipline. Had I not known this, I would’ve rattled off my usual physics and bio spiel. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about things that interest you, but you should be open to other information and discussions. We ended up talking about Christian symbolism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because when I did attempt my physics-bio discussion, this person rebounded with “Hmm, particle physics and molecular biology. Hmm. Anything in the humanities?”
  • Awkward personal questions? Laugh them off or explain. “Do you have a boyfriend?” was another one of this person’s questions. My response was “Haha, no, I don’t – I suppose I’m not that wonderful with people, and I’m quite content with my friends. However, I am in a complicated relationship with molecular phylogenetics, hahaha. It’s Facebook-official.” My interviewer actually laughed.
  • Big, general question? Specific answer that shows evidence of a realistic plan! “How would you solve the existing problems surrounding world peace?” My answer discussed how, through my work with Top Tutors, I’ve learned that even a little bit of education can thoroughly alter one’s perspective, and that through my self-studied exploration of Mandarin, I’ve managed to immerse myself in culture. I therefore reasoned that encouraging education throughout the world and stressing the significance of varied cultures throughout educational protocols would be vastly helpful. I mentioned that I’d try to accomplish this by focusing on online education, as it bypasses several difficulties in implementation. My interviewer was not that impressed with this answer, but acknowledged it. Noted that it was too idealistic. I “fought” back, but not to much avail. The next question was “How would you solve global warming?” My answer was: “Well, I feel that it’s nearly impossible to actually get people to cease doing the things that contribute to global warming within the next, say, fifty years. However, I feel that if one were to modify phytoplankton with existing plant modification protocols that I’ve explored to encourage disease and heat resistance, the increasingly warm waters of the oceans would still cater to marine diatoms, and our oxygen supplies would not be so critically endangered.” The response I received? “Huh, that’s smart.”

8. U.S. Institution Interview #4

  • Know your circumstances. I had the good fortune of seeing this person’s previous interview; it did not impress, apparently. I was the last candidate for the night. I knew I had to make it count.
  • Give a strong response to “Tell me about yourself!” I’ve ensured that, throughout my life, I’ve thought about and developed my personal goals. I always start off with a broad summary of those, describing each with accompanying details and a little bit of a purpose. That way, my interviewer can then narrow down what he or she wants to hear about first. For example, I said the following to this interviewer: “Well, I’ve always felt that I love exploring the universe – all of its facets – from a scientific perspective. I view it as essentially an immense system of systems, and I particularly enjoy examining the parts of that system (i.e., the physical foundations of existence, varied organisms, and humanity and its products) through the sciences and pure humanities. Specifically, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gone from being very interested in macroscopic systems to those that are characterized by being small and young. This has led me to want to specialize in the quantum physics of the early universe and the protein folding problem, both of which involve the miniscule entities that control the fabric of the entirety of our universe in their earliest states! However, I also love exploring humanity through its intricate output, so I love linguistics and the study of foreign cultures. I try to incorporate both theoretical and practical experience into my work, too, because I believe both to be essential to true understanding; I’ve tried to build my knowledge through frequent reading of varied specialized materials and higher-level problem-solving, but I’ve also attempted several practical projects and significant research in the hopes of gathering yet more information. Finally, I love sharing ideas, as I quite honestly love seeing people get things and learn to love them as I do! This is why I’ve always placed a large emphasis on both entrepreneurial, non-for-profit work, and bettering my written communication.” So, I just went very broad with specific examples. I’ve left things open. The interviewer can ask things like “You view the universe as a system? Elaborate”, or things like “Oh, linguistics? Which branch?” I’ve mentioned my areas of focus (physics, bio, linguistics), the fact that I don’t want to specialize (good for liberal arts), my interest in theory and practice, some specific examples of work (research, higher-level problem-solving, entrepreneurship), and my focus on communication. The interviewer can (and did) take it from here.
  • If you pause and he or she doesn’t say anything, keep going! This interviewer caught on, but someone else didn’t, so I just kept talking. It worked!

9. Informal start-up interview with student director of non-profit organization

  • If he or she calls it a “meeting”, come well-dressed. It may be an interview. This person and I are actually friends, but this did end up happening. He initially told me that he just wants to meet; when we met, he was sitting with a notepad before him and questions at ready.

10. Project-related, specialized academic interview with professor

  • If you’ve made errors in your work, or have room for improvement (which you nearly always do), say it! This person was again one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, but he’s an amazing linguist. I knew that my project had its so-termed holes; I made a point of noting this. Often, a discussion of errata can be far more stimulating and can showcase that you’re ready to build on what you know.
  • Know the field a bit for this interview. Raise questions or make comments about long-standing debates in the field. I discussed the fact that I’d always wondered about why slimák is a “phonetic anagram” of Limax. He was fascinated! We talked about the evolution of the Chinese writing system. I taught him how to write some characters. We discussed the potential connections to neuroscience.
  • Have an interesting area of focus. He was fascinated by the fact that I loved orthographies, for example.
  • Admit your weaknesses. He said at the beginning of this interview that he knows it’s nerve-wracking, but that I should remain calm. I confessed my social troubles, and we laughed about them a bit. Throughout, I mentioned what had happened to me in terms of interactions with other people. He reassured me, and seemed to be much closer to me because I’d mentioned it. I obviously didn’t plan to let myself go, but admitting this weakness was not a mistake. He viewed me as more human.

11. Scholarship committee panel interview with multiple interviewers

  • If you’re getting interviewed by four people, keep eye contact with each one as you speak. I tried my best to do this as often as I could.
  • Don’t volunteer excess information. They asked me if there’s anything I can’t do, after laughing a bit and saying that I “just do so much”. I thought they’d seen certain medical records, so I launched into an explanation of a certain of my psychological facets and the fact that, yes, I’ve been coping with it, and that it’s going well. Someone eventually awkwardly pointed out that this group didn’t have access to those records. I could only sit there and say “Oh.” I just said, “Well, I apologize for that tangent, then, but this is my response to your question. This is just one of many things that I am incapable of – innate social interaction. I am, however, working on it, as I’d noted.” And they smiled encouragingly. However, that was not a good idea. They seemed very content by the end of the interview, again, but I definitely threw them.

That would, for now, be all.  I apologize for the lack of brevity, but that’s my attempt!  Again, I don’t claim that if one follows these tips, one will have success.  This is, entirely simply, what has worked for me.

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