During a Scholarship or Fellowship application process, we often see applicants make huge strides in telling their stories - Who are you? Where are you going? How would this experience help get you there? - in the written applications. But when it comes to an interview, there’s nothing like having to defend your ideas in front of a panel of really, really smart people asking you critical questions. Here at ONSF, I consider in-person interviews, both the U-M nomination and subsequent practice sessions preparing finalists for national interviews, to be among the most valuable educational experiences we provide for ONSF applicants.
To be nominated for these scholarships students go through a two-stage process. First, they complete a written application, a combination of personal statement, supplementary essays about criteria such as leadership or ambassadorial potential, resume, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. The written applications are then reviewed by a multidisciplinary committee of U-M faculty, and the leading candidates for nomination are invited to in-person interviews. This two-stage process for U-M nomination mirrors the selection process at the national level: national reading committees review all of the nominations made by universities and invite a select group of finalists to in-person interviews with regional committees. Interviews typically last about 20 minutes. The panel will ask the students a range of questions focusing on the scholarships criteria and their applications materials, especially questions about their academic choices, co-curricular activities, and future plans.
Needless to say, these interviews can be quite intimidating.
To help applicants get a sense of what they’re like, we have a few articles posted on the Students section of our ONSF website. These include very helpful descriptions of the Truman and Marshall interviews by Tara Yglesias and Diane Flynn. But I most often recommend that students read the one by an unsuccessful Rhodes applicant. He discovered in his finalist interview that he did have a good response to the most basic questions: “Why do you want to be a Rhodes Scholar? Why do you want to study at Oxford?” How could this happen, you might wonder. Often we think that we have answers to the most fundamental questions until we’re asked to articulate them out loud in an interview.
The website also lists some of the most common interview questions, starting with “Why…?”. In a practice workshop with Dr. Jamie Moshin, who teaches public speaking in the LSA Department of Communication & Media, we wrote out these questions on slips of paper. We had the workshop participants pair up. Each took turns drawing a question and giving their partner two minutes to respond. This is an exercise that I often recommend to students as they are preparing. In real interviews, these questions are rarely asked in generic form. Usually, they are personalized to the applicant’s written application. So, sometimes I will assign students the task of coming up with a list of questions that they would ask themselves if they were conducting the interview, and practicing with those. Finally, I encourage students to seek out other opportunities to have these interview experiences early on in their academic careers.
Beyond picking the scholarship recipients, the application-interview process is a key educational experience for students as they prepare for higher stakes applications and interviews in senior year. The LSA Honors Program has structured its Graf-Meiland Scholarships for top rising seniors with this same two-stage process. Does your unit have opportunities for students to participate in and learn from a similar interview experience? If not, consider adding one: you never know when you might be helping prepare a future U-M Rhodes Scholar.