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Many of the scholarship competitions require one or more face-to-face interviews between candidates and selection committees, often after a preliminary elimination round. These interviews are in anticipation always anxiety-producing affairs but they often turn out to be enjoyable, even entertaining conversations and are invariably rich and maturing educational experiences. Each is unique, unpredictable, and impossible retrospectively to decode. But over the years certain patterns, styles and expectations have emerged from candidates’ reports on their interviews, and collectively these enable our construction of general guidelines to assist preparation. It is not only possible to prepare for your interview; it is mandatory that you do so. The objective of such preparation, however, is not to meet some universally applicable standard of acceptability; the counsel below should not be viewed or used as a “program” for winning. The aim of your preparation is the expression and representation of your self at its individual best.

  1. Attire
  2. Arrival
  3. Interview Team
  4. Duration
  5. Your Competition
  6. Introduction
  7. Body Language
  8. Listen
  9. Response
  10. Demeanor
  11. Know Your Essay(s)
  12. Questions
  13. Know The News
  14. Exit
  15. Reception
  16. Last Words


What to wear?Understated dress is preferable: you don’t want to be remembered for what you wore. For men, a suit or sports jacket, white or blue long-sleeved dress shirt, subdued tie, slacks, belt, dark socks and polished dress shoes. For women: a conservative suit or dress, or a dressy blouse and skirt, with hose and low heels. Minimal jewelry, minimal cologne. No sneakers, tattered jeans, tanktops, shorts, baseball caps, or bare feet.
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The interview site may or may not be familiar territory to you. Arrive early, with directions in hand. Allow time for getting lost or being delayed on the way. Vandy’s most recent Rhodes Scholar nearly missed his state interview by forgetting that its location–in Chattanooga–is on EST. There is no excuse good enough for being late to this meeting. Upon arrival, find a bathroom and wash your hands. Check your appearance in a mirror.
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Interview Team

Sizes of interview committees will vary; you will probably know in advance how many persons to expect on yours. Occasionally the interview will be one-on-one; more often, teams of four to seven or eight will engage in conversation with you, either one at a time in a prescribed order, or, more likely, after an initial query or two from the committee chair, randomly.
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Interviews typically last from a minimum of twenty to a maximum of forty minutes, depending upon the scholarship, but most candidates feel afterward that the time raced by. You will know beforehand how long the interview should run. Twenty minutes gives you very little time to represent your best self, but it’s also not much time to screw up. You aren’t likely to be conscious of time during the interview but if you become so do not check your watch or sneak a peek at the wrists of your questioners.

Committee members will be well-educated, informed professionals and leaders from various walks of life. Some may have once held the scholarship you seek. Depending upon the scholarship, you may be questioned by doctors, lawyers, politicians, academicians, scientists, artists, priests, business CEO’s, judges, writers, theatrical directors, educational administrators. All will be smart, well-read, current, familiar with your application, and eager to hear from you. They are not the enemy. They want you to do well.
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Your Competition

You may await your turn to be interviewed in a room with other scholarship candidates, or otherwise meet with your fellow competitors at an informational session, a reception, a dinner or something of the sort. Most of these individuals will be as nice as you are, but there is usually one jerk. Do not let his self-promotion put you off: he’s more anxious, less secure than the rest of you. Show civility to your peers, interest in them and their work, admiration of their credentials. Attentiveness in conversation with them will lessen your own anxiety and warm you up for the interview.
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The committee chair will probably escort you into the interview room. Gracefully shaking hands with four to seven persons situated on both sides of a table in an unfamiliar space is a challenge: avoid it unless you’re explicitly invited, by body language or otherwise, to take it up. A smile and a nod to each member as he or she is introduced may be sufficient. If handshakes are invited, they should be firm. Watch out for water bottles and coffee cups when reaching across the table.
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Body Language

Take your seat as indicated by the committee chair, conscious of your posture. Sit up straight but not stiffly (not as though at military attention), hands in your lap, feet on the floor or with your legs crossed at the knees. Try to project an image of comfortable poise. Slouching is not recommended. While engaging your committee in conversation, you might lean into the table, hands together in front of you, fingers interlaced to steady them. Eye contact is important: look your questioner in the eye as you listen and respond to her but include the entire committee in your response as well: she asks on behalf of the committee, and you respond to them, looking around the table as you speak. You might return your attention to the questioner as you complete your answer.
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Listen very carefully to the questions. If you really do not understand what’s being asked, you may request clarification, but try not to do so more than once during the interview. Buying time with a request to repeat the question is a transparent ploy and should be avoided. If a question asks only for a fact of which you are ignorant, a simple “I don’t know” is acceptable; don’t fake it and don’t apologize for having no answer. If a question is merely difficult in presupposing knowledge unfamiliar to you, take it on by using and expanding upon related facts that you do know. Most interview committees are less interested in your recitation of facts than in your capacity to engage in a stimulating intellectual dialogue that reveals your assimilation of facts and your thoughtful reflection upon them, and your application of them to a variety of different situations. You should not duck one question by answering an unasked one, but you may extrapolate from a hard one to discuss a related issue that sheds light upon it. This is tricky territory to negotiate in the middle of a pressured interview: you’ll need to exercise good judgment in deciding when to declare ignorance and when to address a tough question with limited knowledge. It is usually better to wrestle with an “essay” question than to bail so long as your discourse is relevant and intelligent. Babbling away while you try to think of something relevant and intelligent to say is damaging. Remember, the committee wants to hear your mind working, not your tongue wagging. It wants to watch a unique intellectual curiosity knead the given subject into a fresh configuration bearing your individual stamp. It is more important to show informed, inquiring, judicious consideration of the subject than to guess at a “right” or “expected” “answer” wanted from you. Chances are, the committee has no “correct” answer in mind: it wants to watch you play with the idea.

And a little sophisticated, witty playfulness is good: you want to be serious but not somber, sincere but not earnest. It’s okay to laugh, okay to make a tasteful, relevant joke or two. But this is not Comedy Central either.
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Your responses to questions should be relatively brief: six to ten well-shaped sentences, or fewer, over thirty seconds or so, are usually sufficient unless you are invited to elaborate. It’s all right to pause before beginning a response in order to anticipate where you want to end it: then get there by the most direct route. Some students find themselves especially garrulous at the beginning of the session, before nerves have settled: try not to over-talk early on. Watch your interviewers’ body language as closely as they’re watching yours: they may signal impatience. You may be interrupted. Interruptions are not criticisms of your performance but they may be tests of your composure: listen to them and respond calmly; don’t rush to resume your pre-interruption discourse: it may be best to let it go. Always be sure that you’re speaking slowly enough to be understood.
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Your temper should be positive and optimistic, your manner energetic and upbeat but not bouncy. A phlegmatic demeanor bespeaks a phlegmatic mind. Check any “attitudes” at the door but bring your convictions inside. You are expected to have opinions and to be able to defend them, when challenged. And challenged you may be by persons who also have opinions and can defend them. You may find yourself engaged in a political “debate” with a deliberately provocative questioner who may or may not actually “believe” in the position she’s promoting. Stay calm, stand by your convictions, articulate them carefully. You may acknowledge strengths of your “opponent’s” argument but don’t wimp out: she is testing you, not seeking your conversion.
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Know Your Essay(s)

As indicated earlier in these guidelines, the essay is the single most important component of your application package. It’s a major player in getting you here, to the interview. And it will almost certainly be the source of questions to you now. Not only should you refresh yourself on your essay before the interview; you should study it, imagining what questions it might inspire in your interviewers’ minds. What more, what else, what other would persons reading your essay wish to know of you? Look for openings for “why” questions. Where might someone ask, “Can you be more specific about this; or tell me more about this.” What in the essay might link up, in an interviewer’s mind, with a current event, a popular book or movie, a hot political issue, a controversial court decision? Write down these questions and prepare answers to them.
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You should also prepare responses to a number of “standard” questions, open-ended queries that have turned up in interviews more than once over the years. If you’re applying for an overseas program, have a strong answer for the question: “Why not go to Harvard or Stanford for that?” (“Cultural enrichment,” “international broadening,” however true, are threadbare responses. Programmatic details are better.) Be prepared to explain — vividly — the origins of your scholarly interest and to defend your qualifications for pursuing it at your chosen site for graduate study. Other possibilities: “Who’s your hero and why?” “Who was Cecil Rhodes (George Marshall, George Mitchell, Henry Luce, etc.)?” “What are you currently reading?” “How has Vanderbilt disappointed you? How would you advise the Chancellor to change Vanderbilt?” If you have not included a “pivotal moment” in your essay, be prepared to describe a major turning-point in your life and its effects. Have a major success and a major failure in mind: what determined each? “What’s the one thing you would do differently and why?” “If you don’t win this scholarship, what then?” “What’s the greatest crisis facing the world today and how would you address it?” “Which world leader do you most respect and why?”

Remember, some questions may be tossed out just to see how you respond under pressure. So are some “looks”: shocked, disappointed, surprised, or sneering expressions from your interviewers don’t necessarily register true feelings.

If you intend to study abroad and have claimed the appropriate language skills, expect to be addressed at least briefly in that language.
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Know The News

You must be current on national and international news, particularly if you hope to study overseas. Familiarity over many months with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or other reputable newspapers, and, for the British perspective, The Economist, is mandatory. Know what’s going on and what’s coming up in Washington, D.C. , London, and other world capitals. Know the names of your congressional delegates, your governor, your mayor. Be prepared to express an opinion on hot-button issues facing local, state, and federal governments. Be sure that you are registered to vote; males should have reflected on why they are or are not registered with the Selective Service.
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The committee chair will indicate when the interview is over. If asked whether you want to ask the committee anything, the answer is always no. Your exit should be smooth and unhurried but without delay. Just rise from your chair, smile, and thank the committee. You’re done.
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There may be a reception or other social gathering associated with the personal interview. Be present, on time, in the same sort of clothes you’ll wear for the interview. If alcohol is served, exercise restraint: it’s better not to drink at all, and your host won’t be offended if you don’t. You are not being scrutinized and rated by Miss Manners but polite, civilized social deportment is expected. Engage others in conversations about themselves. Respond freely and openly to questions about yourself: evasiveness now may haunt you in the interview. Sucking-up to committee members is totally unacceptable. So is bragging.
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Last Words

Finally: none of these many recommendations and suggestions makes the most vital point. The smartest advice ever given to scholarship candidates comes from –among others — Vanderbilt’s most recent Rhodes Scholarship winner. Asked during his debriefing what “got” the award for him, David Latimer said, “I was myself. Just myself.” Nobody can “program” you to win a scholarship. You win it by being yourself. Now go be it!
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