Successful Scholarship Interviews Start with Two Words

The feeling of disappointment is palpable, and I am comfortable with it.

Each year I travel the highways and backroads of North Carolina to share information with high school and community college students about, in my 100% unbiased (hah!) opinion, the greatest scholarship program in the country: the Goodnight Scholars Program at NC State University. Presentations do not get easier than this. Talking about a full-tuition scholarship backed by a supportive community, unparalleled professional development, and travel opportunities tend to generate more excitement than apathy from the audience.

Inevitably when discussing our selection process and highlighting the Finalist Interview Day at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on NC State’s Centennial Campus, the same question arises in some shape or form.

“What advice can you give us for the interview?”

Unbeknownst to the audience, they have lined themselves up in a tidy row of dissatisfaction, at least in the short-term until I elaborate on my initial advice.

“Be yourself!” I’ll respond.

The disappointment settles instantaneously. My professional credibility comes into question. If you listen hard enough, you can hear a disheartened groan mutter from underneath someone’s breath.

People tend to be intolerant of “be yourself,” especially in the context of seeking guidance for a moment as critical as a scholarship interview. Understandably so, we value the tangible and concrete while rejecting ambiguity. We can also be our own worst critics, so why would we want to be ourselves, warts and all, when we are being evaluated? Considering those two factors, saying “be yourself” should fall in the category of “worst advice ever.”

The request for you, the scholarship applicant, to ‘be yourself’ is a call for you to recognize your inherent talent and value despite any negative self-perception of your abilities and experiences.

The request for you, the scholarship applicant, to “be yourself” is a call for you to recognize your inherent talent and value despite any negative self-perception of your abilities and experiences. I see the mindset of “I’m not good enough” a lot in my work with the Goodnight Scholars Program, which is unsurprising since our community is comprised of students who come from varying degrees of educational inequality. Those who are products of North Carolina’s most under-resourced schools do not have the same access to AP courses or extracurricular activities like our students from the premier schools, and they are often susceptible to feelings of inadequacy when surrounded by other high-achievers.

Quality, not quantity, matters. Allow me to share an example. In the Goodnight Scholars Program, an affinity for STEM is essential. Our students from prominent high schools will talk about FIRST Robotics club competitions or hours spent at after-school lab sessions. Students from under-resourced high schools may only be able to express their love for STEM through a home project they started using a bunch of handed-down computer parts. Both populations fit the mission of our program, which is to provide financial support and professional development to students who love STEM. Our interviewers want to dive deep into this love, and that depth is where candidates should focus when preparing for their interview.

In my mind, there is a stark difference between being prepared for an interview and putting on a show for an interview. Preparation means you have taken time to reflect on your achievements, your failures, and your goals, and can turn them into thoughtful anecdotes about processes AND results. Emitting authenticity (read: be yourself) goes a long way in an interview, and you will find it easiest to do that when you are talking about the aspects of your life that excite you.

Emphasizing showmanship can put you in a position where most of your energy is dedicated to practicing style over substance. You may try to present yourself in a way that you think the interviewers want to see you. Maybe you fabricate your achievements or exaggerate aspects of your personality. A well-trained interviewer is going to sniff out your fallaciousness more often than not. Plus, if you feel compelled to be anything but yourself, are you really going to be happy if you are accepted, especially to a scholarship program that does not align with your true character?

The bulk of a scholarship interviewer’s questions are going to be about your life. Knowing this should light you up like 4th of July fireworks being shot out of the sun and landing right between your eyes. Why? Because those questions require you to be an expert in one thing: Yourself. And who is the foremost expert on you? Take a wild guess.

Embracing the “be yourself” mindset will provide the foundation for your interviewing success, opening up more preparation time with practice partners (remember: ask your teachers) for:

  • Controlling your anxiety (remember: breathe)
  • Improving your body language (remember: eye contact)
  • Adding depth to your personal stories (remember: the process is as important as the result).

And when the time comes and someone asks you for words of wisdom on how to be successful in a scholarship interview, you too can sport a wry smile and give them advice they do not want, but need, to hear.

Photography credit: Marc Hall/NC State