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I recently served on the scholarship committee for a small local organization. I wanted to provide some insight for students into what happens in that decision-making process, and how to succeed in the interview.
The most surprising thing to me was how competitive the competition was even for this small scholarship from a small specific organization. I could have justified giving the scholarship to any of six of the nine applicants. I was amazed at the level of grades, test scores, and extracurricular accomplishments of these students. It is hard not to take losing a scholarship competition personally, but it really, really isn’t’ personal. There were five of us on the committee, and we all advocated for different students at different times during the discussion.
First, a note on the application: Please have the smartest, most detail-oriented person you can find proofread your application. Misspelled words, bad grammar, and simple messiness distract from your accomplishments. Print out the application rather than hand writing it if you can. The more details you can add, the better. Especially for a scholarship where the judges may not be familiar with common school terms, it is best to over explain. If you were the president of ABC club, you need to explain what that stands for, what it does, and some clue about the amount of time and effort the activity requires. Read the criteria carefully and emphasize whatever you have that seems to fit.
If you are invited to an interview, you are being seriously considered for the award. It may be yours to lose. I actually changed my mind about who I thought should win based on the interviews; if they exist, they are important.
Here are some tips to help you have a successful interview:
1. Show up 10 minutes early; know how you are going to get there and where you are going to park, and leave yourself time to find the room.
2. Dress nicely, no shorts, jeans, etc. Brush your hair and freshen your makeup if you wear it. Interviewers always notice your shoes. Make sure they are appropriate, clean, and in good repair. Take fashion risks at your own peril.
3. When you come into the room, smile, shake everyone’s hand, and introduce yourself.
4. Do your absolute best to sit up straight and be still while you are being interviewed. If you are carrying anything, set it down beside you. It’s hard to know what to do with your hands. Folded in your lap is best if you aren’t gesturing. Do not sit on your hands, pick at your hands, or grip the side of the chair. Legs crossed or both feet flat on the floor is fine. Hold your head up and don’t slouch.
5. If you are being interviewed by more than one person at a time, be sure to make eye contact and engage with all of them. Focus on the person who has asked the question you are responding to at the time, without ignoring the others.
6. Don’t be afraid of silence. It is not your responsibility to fill every gap in the conversation. If you have finished answering a question and no one says anything, let it be. Give the interviewers a chance to absorb what you said and come up with the next question. When you are nervous, a ten second silence can seem like forever, but it isn’t. Not jumping to fill every pause shows your confidence and poise.
7. Be sure that you review your application so that you do not accidentally contradict yourself. You must be consistent.
8. If in answer to a question, you can think of a personal story that demonstrates your answer, by all means tell it. Interviewers are trying to get to know you, and relevant personal stories let them do that best. Don’t go on and on, be concise, yet complete.
9. Interviews require you to think on your feet. The best way to do that is to listen and focus very carefully to the questions, so that you are responding as exactly as possible. Answer thoroughly what you have been asked, and no more. Let the interviewer ask a follow up question if they are interested in knowing more. Again, a short silence is your friend.
10. If the scholarship is based at all on need, you WILL be asked about your financial situation. Come prepared to be open about that. Expect to be asked about the cost of colleges you are considering, whether you have been offered any other scholarships, and what resources you have. If you don’t know exactly, try to find out. The interviewer will understand if you haven’t gotten a complete financial aid package offer yet, but you should know how much is saved for your education, and what you have been offered from other sources so far. These questions may seem very personal, but if the scholarship is based on need, they are fair to ask.
11. You will probably be asked if you have any questions for the interviewer. Ask something relevant to the scholarship itself or the organization. You can think of this beforehand.
12. Be prepared to discuss any activity or aspect of your life that relates to the organization. If the scholarship is from the Irish Society, for example, be prepared to discuss how being Irish has affected your life and what it means to you. The scholarship will go to someone with a strong connection to the focus of the organization.
13. You will probably be asked about your accomplishments. If you have a story about how those helped you become a better person or overcome some adversity, work that in to the conversation. The interviewers would love to hear a tale about how you took control of a situation and solved a problem and learned something from that, especially if it relates to the organization’s goals.
14. If you have applied for a scholarship for, for example, red haired people, and you don’t get it, it may well be that your hair just isn’t red enough. That was the most important thing to that organization, despite your #1 class rank and perfect SAT scores. Brush it off and move on, you just weren’t right for this particular award.