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The art of interviewing- Are you a 'can' or a 'cannot'.jpg
“I am doomed… This is a disaster… I really never expected this… What am I going to do?” This from Daniel, a prospective PhD student. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to cause such a negative response, especially as Daniel is a very strong candidate with impeccable credentials. My shock was further compounded when he went on to tell me that he had been invited to sit for an interview. Okay, now I was completely confused, especially in light of the fact that this type of invitation is usually cause for celebration; it means that the academic committee is giving serious consideration to your application and wants to know more about you. I couldn’t help but ask, “And this is a disaster because? What am I missing here? Talk to me!”

Shifting from a “cannot” to a “can”

Wow! The floodgates opened. He said, “You don’t understand… You don’t get it! I am no good at interviews. In fact, I ‘choke’ even on simple job interviews. This is not good. I thought I could bypass this requirement. Now what do I do?” I told him that I could teach him how to master the art of interviewing. He dismissed my offer by saying, “You can’t teach someone interviewing skills. It is something one can either do or cannot do. I am one of the cannots.” I shocked him into silence when I informed him gently and respectfully that I actually teach the art of interviewing in my Introduction to Communication class. I said, “I can take you from a “cannot” to a “can.” I promised to develop an interview preparation plan for him and we scheduled a follow-up meeting.

The “Three Plus One” strategy

At our next meeting I told Daniel that I had developed a “Three Plus One” strategy that would thoroughly prepare him for the PhD interview(s). The “Three Plus One” strategy, which I had “borrowed” from some of the interview techniquest that I use in my communication classes, is composed of:
  • The Pre-Interview stage
  • The Interview stage
  • The Post-Interview stage
  • And the Plus One, which is the Mock/Practice Interview stage
The plan includes review and discussion of the bulleted items in each of the first three stages and then application of lessons learned in the Mock Interview stage. Upon completion of the Mock Interview, Daniel would receive verbal feedback as well as a comprehensive written assessment of his performance.

Making your way through the different stages

Here’s how we did it:

STAGE 1: Pre-Interview
  • Research all of the website pages and any readily available print materials related to the university, program, and faculty. You need to be prepared during the interview to show your full knowledge of the special features offered: size of the program, national and/or international rankings, accreditations, TA offerings, scholarships, interdisciplinary opportunities, faculty research, scholarly conferences and publications, etc. You may want to reference some of this when you are answering interview questions. Remember you should avoid asking questions that might reveal to the committee that you did not take the time and effort to appropriately research the materials available.
  • Compile a list/script of questions that you believe may be asked during the interview and create talking points for your answers. However, do not write out the answers word for word as you want to sound spontaneous and natural rather than scripted and memorized.
  • Carefully consider what you wear to the interview. How we package ourselves impacts how we are perceived by others and affects how we feel about ourselves. Choose attire that empowers and emphasizes your confidence and credibility. This may vary depending on the program for which you are being interviewed. For example, for business programs, you may choose to look “corporate” and for MFA programs you may choose attire that represents your creative and artistic nature.
  • Conduct a real or virtual dry run in terms of travel to the interview. If possible, allow for traffic and other delays by planning to arrive at least a half-hour earlier than scheduled. This will allow you time to get a feel for the campus and, perhaps, even reference it during your interview. It may also serve as an additional talking point or question.
  • Practice positive self-talk and visualization which you can then revisit before the actual interview begins.
  • Practice some deep diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxing exercises to use before the start of the interview. Deep cleansing breaths really work.
  • Although you may not be asked for it, bring multiple copies of your CV/resume in case they are requested by committee members.
  • Review the statement of purpose that you submitted with your application to this school in case you are questioned on part or parts of it by individual committee members. You may even choose to reference and/or update something that you included in your statement.
  • Make sure that you perceive this experience as a wonderful opportunity to present yourself in person rather than an obstacle or challenge. A positive mindset is critical to your success.
Stage 2: The Interview
  • Keep in mind that the evaluation of you as a candidate begins the minute you step on campus. You would probably be surprised by how often I have heard members of the academic committee question the department secretary, receptionist, and/or current students to get a completely different perspective on a particular candidate. This is a very common practice in job interviews as well.
  • Before you enter the interview area, use some power-inducing nonverbal gestures to increase your confidence level. I suggest you visit and view Amy Cuddy’s video on the power of nonverbal.
  • Avoid one word answers even if the interviewer uses a close-ended question. Utilize the techniques of behavioral interviewing by providing specific examples or short narratives to exhibit your strengths. For example, if you are asked if you consider yourself a thorough researcher, you shouldn’t just say “yes,” but refer to what you have accomplished that clearly exhibits how thorough a researcher you are. Telling stories may well set you apart from other candidates and make you far more memorable.
  • Effective eye contact is critical in interviewing. If you are being interviewed by a committee, make sure that you make eye contact with each and every committee member. Eye contact will positively reinforce your passion, sincerity, and willingness to engage in academic discourse.
  • Monitor your posture and movement. Sit up straight and lean in ever so slightly as this will exhibit that you are fully engaged and deeply interested in the interview.
  • Avoid wringing your hands, tapping your feet, or crossing and uncrossing your legs. This will draw negative attention to your actions rather than to all of the wonderful things you would like to share.
  • Speak at a moderate rate and volume. The last thing you want is to make the interviewer uncomfortable with either a “too loud” voice, a “whisper soft voice,” or a “rapid fire” rate of speech.” Make every attempt to minimize anything that might disturb or distort the message.
  • It is more than okay to share your passion for the field of study and smile when appropriate. A pleasant manner and engaging personality always make a candidate more memorable.
  • Ask thought-provoking questions based on your research interests and the program offerings. Never ask a question that has an answer that is readily available online. It will send a very negative message (see note in the Pre-Interview stage, bullet #1). However, you can use the information from your web research as a point of departure. For example: “I noted on your website that you host several professional conferences on campus. Are graduate students encouraged to participate and/or present papers? If so, I would love to be involved. I participated in XYZ conference as an undergraduate and it was a valuable experience.”
  • Speak in your own voice, from your heart – your sincerity, honesty, and authenticity will shine through.
Stage 3: Post-Interview
  • Make sure that you write the names and contact information for each interviewer for follow-up thank-you notes.
  • Personalize each note so that it is clear that you really remember the interviewer by referencing something specific from the interview. Interviewers often compare notes so it wouldn’t serve you to write the exact same note to each interviewer. Make it personal. For example: “I really enjoyed our conversation about________ .”
  • Conduct a thorough self-assessment of your performance on the interview. Ask yourself specific questions and offer yourself constructive criticism, positive feedback, and suggestions for future interviews. Questions might include: What did I do well? How did I handle challenging questions? Which responses appeared to be received most positively? Why? What made those answers stand out over all others? In what way or ways might I improve? Be honest but don’t “beat yourself up.” Learn from the experience. On a personal note: Even after over 30 years as a public speaker and professor of public speaking I still, after every speech, evaluate and take notes for improvement on my next speech.
Plus One: The Mock Interview

After Daniel and I worked through each of the first 3 stages, I strongly suggested that he prepare to be interviewed by me. He was a little nervous but also very excited to try out many of the strategies and techniques that we had reviewed. We scheduled the mock interview for the following week so that he could fully prepare himself. I was pleased that “Mr. Cannot” was slowly transforming into “Mr. Can.”

How the mock interview helps

I interviewed Daniel for about 1 hour. It was just okay at the start. He appeared a little uncomfortable and somewhat anxious. It changed dramatically as soon as Daniel began to implement some of the techniques that we covered in the “Three Plus One Plan.” From that point on, his confidence level increased – he sat up straight, made wonderful eye contact, and even shared a memorable story about one of his research experiences. It was engaging, humorous, and spotlighted his passion for the field.

Wow, what a difference! My positive response to the story further encouraged him. His guard came down, and as such, he delivered an excellent interview. I even asked him a closed ended question to see how he would handle it. His answer was to tell me a story that was not only interesting, but showed me who he was. He also posed some exceptionally thoughtful questions about research opportunities with individual faculty members. When we were done he asked me how he did. I threw it right back at him, “How do you think you did?”

He laughed out loud and said, “It’s a first. I actually enjoyed the interview. Who knew that with the right preparation and mind set I could become one of the “cans”? I told him that I would follow-up with a comprehensive written review which would include a few constructive suggestions for him. He promised to compare it with his self-assessment. He thanked me and said that he was now looking forward to his “real” interview and that he would stay in touch.

I imagine you might like to know what happened on the “real” interview. Daniel probably said it best: “Disaster averted. Huge success.”

The best way to feel confident going into your interview is to be absolutely sure you’ve taken the right steps to prepare. A mock interview and feedback from an Accepted admissions expert can help you put your best foot forward on the day of your interview. Contact us today!

As a Dean of Graduate Admissions for over 10 years, Carol Drummer, signed off on over 4,500 graduate applications annually. She is a communication professor and author of "College Is Not 13th Grade-- An Easy to Read Guide for Parents of College Bound Students." Carol has helped clients get accepted to Ph.D. Psy.D, DOT, DPT, PA, MHA, MSW, and masters in Speech Language Pathology, Business Analytics, Accounting, Global Affairs, Counseling, Architecture, Design Engineering , Nutrition, Exercise Physiology to name a few. Want Carol to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!

Related Resources:
The Ultimate Guide to Medical School Interview Success, a free guide
Perfect Answers to MBA Interview Questions, a free guide
Prepare for Interviews with Positive Imagery

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