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Scholarship Interview Preparation Tips

Congratulations! You’ve received an invitation to interview for scholarships at the university of your choice. Now what? Excitement! Anticipation! Anxiety! With preparation, you can calm the mixed bag of emotions or, at least, minimize the apprehension.

As a professor, I’ve interviewed more than 500 hundred prospective scholarship recipients. Interview days are a highlight for me. It’s exciting to hear students effectively and excitedly communicate their experiences, accomplishments, and hopes for the future.

There’s no doubt the process is a little nerve-wracking for students. After all, money is at stake. My goal as an interviewer, however, is to help you feel at ease and confident. I have suggestions for things you can do ahead of time to prepare for an enjoyable and beneficial interview.

First, tour the university’s website. Click and click and click. Read the mission statement. You’ll learn what the university stands for. On my university’s home page are these words: “Your Calling. Our Passion.” Those words tell you we are looking for students who have a strong orientation toward the future. They suggest we are a university that accommodates your preparation for vocation with services such as individual advising and strengths assessment. Knowing what is important to the university will help you communicate that you’re a good match and a worthy recipient of the university’s scholarship funds.

Next, prepare a response to “Tell me about yourself.”  That’s probably the first thing an interviewer will say to you in an individual interview. Begin with where you’re from. Then go on to make a statement or two about your family. You might add why you want to attend the university. Then share information about yourself that is not in your scholarship application. What have you enjoyed about high school? What do you do for fun? What part of college life are you looking forward to?

Prepare a written response then run it by your favorite teacher. Ask for honest feedback. Then, convert the paragraph to bullet points with simple words and brief phrases you can remember without memorizing them. Limit your response to two minutes.  Practice, practice, practice until you are comfortable talking about yourself.

 Search online for typical scholarship interview questions. There are thousands! Have your parents or a friend ask you question after question. It’s not enough to just look at and think about questions. You need to hear yourself giving answers.

“Yes” or “no” answers are rarely appropriate, but rambling answers, especially if you’re interviewing in a group of students, make interviewers uncomfortable. I can’t think of any answer that should take more than 30 seconds. Avoid typical responses. If human trafficking is the trending answer to “what social cause concerns you?” you should mention climate change, water quality, or the foster system – anything other than human trafficking. You don’t want your answers to be a “ditto” to the answers the interviewers have already heard.

Think of responses to typical questions that will set you apart from other applicants. Draw your responses from your personal experiences. This takes reflection on your part and is the main reason you should prepare responses several days before the interview. Some students are reflective by nature. Even if you aren’t, you can develop the reflective way of thinking. “Why have you decided to major in American History?” “History’s always been easy for me” is a quick answer. A more thoughtful response that tells the interviewer something about you is: “I volunteered in the local museum last summer. I enjoyed learning more details about my town’s history, and I found out I was pretty good at communicating my passion for history to others.”

 At least a week ahead of time, plan what you’re going to wear. Ladies, interviews call for dressing professionally which doesn’t necessarily mean “dressing up.” This is not the time to add extra jewelry or lace, wear higher than usual heels, or polish your nails with a bright color. A clean and well-pressed suit or dress is fine. I’ve seen pants that should have been hemmed so they weren’t walked on and heels so high that the student teetered instead of walked. Choosing what you’ll wear several days before gives you time to try on your outfit and make sure you’re comfortable wearing it. See how it feels when you walk, climb stairs, and sit down.

Guys, plan on wearing a suit or pants with a jacket. A tie is expected. Polish your shoes. Unless your shirt is new, break loose with three or four dollars to have your shirt laundered at your local dry cleaner. I’ve seen many good looking suits and ties worn with shirts that needed attention. The collar with wrinkles is a sure sign that you couldn’t find the iron.

 The day of the interview: Wake up in plenty of time. Eat breakfast. Include protein. You don’t want to crash from a coffee and carbs start to the day.

Talk to somebody! Your mom or dad, the clerk at the convenience store, anybody will do. Just don’t let the interview be the first time you’ve made a sound that day.

 Arrive at least 20 minutes early. If possible, make a trip to campus the day before. Find where you’ll park. Locate the building where the interviews will take place. If the pre-trip isn’t possible, then plan to arrive on campus at least an hour ahead of time. There will be a place for you to wait outside your interview room. Read all the items on the nearby bulletin board. Talk to the student waiting to interview after you. Drink water. Take deep breaths. Do something to keep from adding to your anxiety while you wait.

 Don’t take your cell phone into the interview!

 Shake hands with the interviewer when you enter the room. Wait for the interviewer to tell you where to sit. Sit up straight. Make eye contact.

When the interview is over, shake hands and say thanks. If you’re interviewing as part of a group of students, it’s fine to skip the handshakes. I’ve been in awkward situations that felt like wedding receiving lines when eight or nine students lined up to shake three interviewers’ hands.

Be yourself. Be honest and be yourself. As an interviewer, I want to get to know you. If you’re from a tiny town or rural area, I don’t expect you to have the same high school experiences that the student from a class of 600 has. I want to hear about your 4-H projects or the online college classes you’ve taken. Don’t just say what you THINK the interviewer WANTS to hear. As a professor at a Christian university, I’ve frequently heard responses to questions that were much more spiritual than believable. Interviewers are not easily fooled. Tell us who you are – really!

Have a few questions to ask the interviewer. Examples of good questions to ask the interviewer: What makes this university unique? What global learning experiences are available? What are class sizes? Will I be assigned an academic advisor? The interviewer will appreciate the opportunity to put the university in a good light.

 Relax! Enjoy! You belong here! You’ve been invited to interview because you have the characteristics and accomplishments the university wants to acknowledge and honor. You’re not on campus to prove yourself. Your test scores, high school accomplishments, and application have done that. The interview is your chance to confirm that you’re a good candidate for the university’s investment.

With good preparation, you’ll say what I’ve heard so many times, “I was nervous at first, but then I relaxed and had a great time.”

Becky Rhoades, CPA, MBA, is an associate professor of Accounting in the Business and Economics Department at Evangel University. She is also the Founder’s Scholarship Interview Committee chairman.