For the last five years ONSF has partnered with Dr. Jamie Moshin in the LSA’s Communication and Media department to prepare our finalists for national scholarship interviews. Through dozens of practice interview sessions, we’ve adopted a technique which Jamie originally developed in his public speaking courses as a schema for answering interview questions. In this blog we will explain the steps of the schema and offer a few examples of it in action.
Before we get into the schema, we should start with a few preliminaries.
You should always answer the question that is asked. One of the most consistent feedback tips that we give in practice interviews is to point out when interviewees are not answering the question. Few things are more frustrating for a committee member than feeling like a question hasn’t been understood or, worse yet, is being dodged. Many times this isn’t a conscious move by the interviewee. Sometimes they naturally pivot into material that they’ve already practiced and are comfortable with (that’s not always a bad thing, but you have to tie it back to the original question). More often it is because the interviewee is nervous and loses track of the question. This is not always the interviewee's fault. Sometimes committee members will ramble a bit. Before answering you should make clear that you understand the question. If you think you understand the question, but you’re not entirely convinced that you do, you might repeat the question back. (“Just so that I’m clear, what you’re asking is…?”) If the question has multiple parts, you might want to make note of that either verbally or to yourself. (“Let me tackle this issue first and then I’ll move on to the second part of your question.”)
Similarly, interviewees sometimes don’t answer questions in a way that shows them at their best, either (a) providing a personal example, but not demonstrating how that example answers the question, or (b) providing a meta-level answer, but not actually demonstrating what this looks like, how their history or experience shows the answer to be true, etc.
The below model helps ensure that students stay on track and answer the question that was actually asked, and helps students to provide both the reasoning and example that shows that their answer is a good one.
The goal here is to directly answer the question you’ve been asked in one sentence, if possible. Certainly not more than two or three sentences. You’ll have a chance to unpack and support your answer in the following steps. Here you want to provide a header for that discussion.
A great technique here is to incorporate a few key words or phrases from the original question in your answer. As with all the techniques we’ll discuss, you don’t want to overuse this one or make it mechanical. But incorporating keywords or phrases - together with direct eye contact with the committee member who asked the question - is a great way to telegraph to them that you’ve understood and are directly answering the question.
Q: What was the most rewarding class you took at the University of Michigan?
A: The most rewarding class I took during my college career was …, and here’s why…
This simple paraphrase (a) ensures that you are answering the question that was asked, and (b) sets you up to explain your answer. This method works for more complicated questions, too.
Q: Tell us about a time you took a deep dive into an intellectual issue or topic. What did you learn that surprised you?
A: While writing my thesis I had the opportunity to dive into the data on… What surprised me in this analysis was how…
Notice that this was a two-part question, although the second part is really unpacking what the interviewer wants to hear in response to the first part. The interviewee subtly incorporates keywords from both parts, but does so naturally without repeating the somewhat jargony “deep dive.”
Q: What are your plans for the future? What does leadership look like in your future field?
A: Let me tackle the first part of your question regarding my future plan and then I’ll circle back to your question about leadership. Immediately after graduation I plan to work in the policy arena for a couple of years before returning to graduate school either for my JD or a graduate degree in international relations. I then hope to pursue a career in the State Department, so that is probably the place to address leadership.
Note that here the question really does have two distinct parts, and the first one is complex. The interviewee postpones the second question and then provides signposts for how they will answer the first. The key here is that they don’t get distracted by trying to fully answer the first part before moving on. Rather, they set out three separate areas to discuss: (a) postgraduate employment, (b) graduate school plans, and (b) long-range career plans. They can then go on to unpack each of these three in turn before returning to what leadership looks like in the context of (c). Most of the time, when a candidate tries to fully explain (a) before introducing (b) and (c) they will lose track of their place in the answer. Similarly, it is easy for committee members to get lost in an answer. But there is a certain amount of cognitive satisfaction in expecting three parts and then hearing each expectation fulfilled. You might even count off the three parts on your fingers or with a similar gesture as you’re answering.
Here’s your chance to back up and unpack what you’ve just said in your opening remarks. Please note that the “Explain it” step is the place to provide your reasoning, not the place to fully immerse yourself in what that “looks like” at ground level–that comes next. The key phrase that we often use in illustrating this part of the schema is “What I mean by that is…” Please don’t overuse that particular phrase, but it captures the mental movement of your response.
“What I mean…” is a particularly good transition if what you’ve offered is something like a definition.
Q: What does leadership look like in your future career track?
A: As a research scientist, leadership looks like leading a research team in my lab, collaborating with other labs around the country, taking on leadership roles in my department and university and professional organizations. [What I mean is that] I think that leadership is about creating and maintaining organizations of people working toward collective goals to achieve things that we can’t achieve as individuals - and that’s how science works. Science isn’t about the loan genius figuring things out, it’s about …
In other contexts “Explain it” might mean filling out the details of what was said. In the example used above, the interviewee might unpack briefly what types of postgraduate employment they will seek and where, why a JD or master’s in international relations are the main contenders for graduate education, etc.
This formula also works for behavioral interview questions, in other words questions that explicitly ask for a story to illustrate your answer.
Q: Tell us about a recent experience that illustrates your leadership style.
A: [State it] To me leadership is about marshaling the resources of a group of people to accomplish goals that we can’t accomplish as individuals. [Explain it] This means that leaders need to not only push for results, but also need to create an inclusive environment where all members can contribute. [Prove it] Last summer when I was at the State Department …
Note that in this response the statement of what leadership is remains very brief. You don’t want to answer a request for a leadership story with an extended explanation of your theory of leadership. Rather, the statement quickly introduces the key points of leadership that the interviewee hopes will be salient in the following story.
This is your opportunity to offer reasons or specific evidence in support of a claim you’ve made - or to provide an illustrative example, in which case you might rephrase this “Illustrate it” or “Show it.”
If you’ve made a potentially controversial claim or if you have statistics/citations to support your position, now is the time to break them out. Or, less formally, you can walk the committee members through your chain of thoughts in arriving at your conclusion.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do at this point is to offer a specific example that illustrates your more general point. It’s one thing to define your key terms, but you’ll communicate even more effectively if you can provide a clear and compelling example - moving your response from the realm of the universal down to the particular.
This is also a place to pull out a specific story from your past experience that illustrates the more general response that you’ve offered.
Q: What is your approach to management?
A: [State it.] My approach to management is heavily influenced by Kim Scott’s principle of radical candor. [Explain it] The idea is that we first establish a relationship with our team members that demonstrates care, empathy, respect, and psychological safety. This then provides the basis to be very candid when we need to have hard feedback conversations, trusting that such feedback will be received as an act of care. [Prove it.] Scott opens her book with an example of an employee she had to let go. When she told him, he asked “Why didn’t you ever tell me that my work wasn’t good enough.” She realized that in avoiding having uncomfortable conversations, by overpraising mediocre work and soft-pedaling her criticisms of subpar work, she’d failed in her care for this individual. Here’s an example of how I’ve tried to put this principle into practice in my own management… [Insert a very specific story that illustrates the combination of establishing a caring relationship, but not shying away from hard conversations.]
Depending on the length of your response, this part might be pretty quick. A two-minute answer doesn’t really need a summary that rehashes what you’ve just said. Rather, the point here is to signal to the committee members that you’re finished answering and passing the baton back to them gracefully.
For longer answers or those with multiple parts, a restatement of your key response in “State it” might be appropriate. If you’ve told a story in “Explain it” or “Prove it,” here is your chance to state the moral or point of the story you’ve just told, moving your discourse from the particular back out to the universal.
Finally, you might want to use this opportunity to tie your response back to key terms in the scholarship selection criteria or the organization’s mission statement, whether or not those were included in the original question.
Q: Tell us a story that illustrates your leadership style.
A: [Insert the particular story] What I learned from this experience is the importance of … As I move forward in my own leadership development, I will place emphasis on the development of …
Putting the Schema into Practice
As you prepare for an interview, it might be helpful to bullet point some answers using this schema, labeling each move as we’ve done in some of the examples above. The point is NOT to write out answers that you will memorize and recite in the interview. Rather, it is to get used to structuring your answers along these lines. Next, explain the schema to a friend and provide them with a few sample questions. Ask them to break down each element of your response and see if you agree on which parts correspond to the elements of the schema. As always, we suggest that you try to keep your answer to 2-4 minutes, depending on the complexity, so that you keep the conversational back-and-forth energy of the interview flowing. After a practice interview, you can also spend a few minutes debriefing your answers and grading yourself on how well you did.