Most scholarship programs require in-person interviews to advance to the final selection phase. For two years, I was on a selection panel for a prestigious international scholarship program. I interviewed hundreds of candidates. I would like to share with you how the interview process works from the panelist’s (or interviewer’s) point of view.
Before the interview, the panelists only know the applicants on paper. Many of my co-panelists only looked through the files quickly a few minutes before the candidate walked into the room. When you walk in the room, this is your chance bring your application to life. The interview should transform you, in the mind of the panelist, from a pile of papers into a real person with a compelling story. Here’s my advice for applicants going into the interview:
1. Don’t be generic. Panelists often interview 10-20 candidates in one day. It can be difficult to remember each applicant, especially at the end of the day. In reality, applicants are often similar in age, background, and study objectives. Your personality and your personal story need to come through in your interview. Panelists probably won’t choose you if they can’t remember you.
2. Have personal stories to tell. The best way to be memorable is to have a compelling personal story to tell; a story only you can tell. In my experience, the best stories are stories about overcoming challenges. Think carefully about your past. It’s important to have specific stories ready that only you can tell. If a panelist asked you about leadership, have a story ready about a specific situation when you were the leader. Panelists often ask about leadership, cultural adaptability, overcoming challenges, taking initiative, and plans for the future. Keep your stories short and focused.
3. Convey a strong sense of social purpose. When you apply for a scholarship, you’re asking a government or foundation to give you money. Your sponsor wants a return on investment. They want someone who will spread their values and support their mission for the rest of his or her life. Read the mission statement of the sponsoring organization carefully. Match your goals to its mission. Most scholarship programs want you to return to your home community and promote reform and progress in your community. Convey a sense of social consciousness if you want to be competitive. Make your study about your community, not you.
4. Apply to the right program. Many applicants are careless about which programs they apply to. Applicants are often rejected because they are overqualified. For example, applicants with Master’s degrees often apply for Bachelor’s programs. On the other hand, many applicants apply for programs for which they are not qualified.
Read the qualifications carefully for each program. Call the sponsoring organization if you’re unsure. Unfortunately, applicants who did not meet the basic program criteria are sometimes invited to the interview round because of a mistake by the scholarship administration. Sometimes applicants are not honest in their applications.
5. Be confident. It’s important to speak at a good volume, maintain eye contact, keep your head up, and have good posture. I was always impressed with applicants who smiled when they entered the room, shook hands with the panelists, sat up straight, and answered questions with confidence and poise. Don’t start with an apology. Don’t be afraid to talk about your accomplishments. But don’t forget to give credit to the people who helped you in your accomplishments.
6. Know your motivation. Why are you applying for a scholarship? This will probably be the first question you are asked. It is probably the most important.
The most common answer I heard was, “I’ve always been interested in x and it’s always been my dream to study in x.” This is not a compelling answer for most panelists. Why should a government or foundation give tens of thousands of dollars for you to fulfill your personal goals?
A more impressive answer is this: “In my country there is not enough x. The best place to study x is in country x. I want to study x so I can come back to my country and share what I learned about x and develop x in my community.” Panelists are impressed by applicants who have a strong sense of social purpose.
Another warning: never tell a scholarship panel that you want to immigrate to another country. If the panel has doubts about your desire to return home after your scholarship, there’s a good chance they will choose someone else.
7. Smile. A good way to build rapport with the panelists is to smile and have a sense of humor. You aren’t the only one who is uncomfortable. Panelists get bored and tired, especially if they interview a lot of unqualified applicants. A light sense of humor, when used appropriately, is often appreciated and can help you stand out. If you can make the panelists smile, there’s a good chance you can take control of the interview and steer the conversation toward your strengths.
8. Be lucky. Most applicants are ranked as average. They are not highly qualified, but they’re not terrible. Let’s say there are 10 applicants. The panelists will probably remember the best two applicants and the two least-qualified applicants. Applicants who are ranked in the middle have to be very lucky to be chosen. Panelists probably won’t spend too much time debating why number 3 is better than number 8.
There is also the luck factor in who is on your panel. Each panelist has his/her own biases and preferences. I remember a few times when my highest-ranked candidate was another panelist’s lowest-ranked candidate. Scholarship selection is not a science. Some panelists are friendly and ask easy questions. Others are aggressive and will grill you with tough questions.
Scholarship decisions are sometimes random and unfair. But, you can increase your chances of being lucky by being persistent and well prepared.
The Bottom Line
The best scholarships programs are very competitive. Some scholarships are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in college expenses. They are potentially worth millions of dollars in future lifetime earnings. Don’t expect it to be easy. Most applicants fail the first, second, and even third time. Keep trying. Learn from each experience. Never stop improving your skills, especially your English. The people who get the scholarship are not always the smartest—they are hardest working.