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Want to nail a scholarship interview? Be confident and be honest

Do you know how many balls fit in school bus, or who coined the term ‘underdeveloped? As scholarship interviews get trickier, we help you prepare

education Updated: Oct 19, 2016 17:12 IST
Pankti Mehta Kadakia
(HT ILLUSTRATION: SIDDHANT JUMDE)

With his irate blogpost last week listing all the questions Google asked him in an unsolicited interview, computer engineer and tech entrepreneur Pierre Gauthier has sparked off another debate on interview processes. How tough is too tough? How do you prepare? Should you even try?

It’s not just quirky tech companies either. Here’s a sample of some of the questions being asked out there: How many golf balls can fit in a school bus? A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune — what happened? [He was playing Monopoly]. If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them, how would you choose? Who invented the word ‘underdeveloped’?

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While the first three were posed to candidates by Google and Dropbox, the last was bowled to Kunal Purohit, 27, during a scholarship interview.

Purohit had mentioned in his application essay for the Felix scholarship that he had reported on underdeveloped areas while working as a journalist. Asked who coined the term, he said he honestly didn’t know — and because his other answers on development theory were good enough, he got through.

There are three things to learn from his example: You will probably be bowled a googly; it’s just things are these days. Don’t bullshit. And be as prepared as you can be.

“You’re basically asking for someone’s money, so you need to do everything you can to make it clear that you are the best candidate; that you will make the best use of their funds,” says Natasha Chopra, managing director of education consultancy The Chopras. “Be honest, don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep — because the panel can see through you. And research, research, research before the interview.” DO AN HONEST SWOT ANALYSIS Your research should begin by exploring what course is really the best fit for you, and therefore what kind of scholarship.

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Sudhanshu Roy, 30, for instance, turned down Harvard Law School to go to NYU Law.

“I believe that my clear and well-thought-out answer on why the programme at NYU was right for me and my career helped me immensely when applying for funding,” he says.

Roy completed his Masters in International Legal Studies at NYU in May, with funding from both the Inlaks Foundation and New York University.

You must also evaluate your financial needs, and then identify the right-fit colleges or scholarships that potentially meet that need, adds Kimberly Dixit, a study abroad advisor and cofounder of overseas education consultancy The Red Pen.

Identify what the scholarship’s goals are, and what it demands.

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“Chevening, for instance, seeks leaders who will come back to India and make a difference,” says Chopra. If your goal is to settle abroad, then reevaluate your choices. “See what kind of people have received the scholarship in the past — it helps to know what they are doing now, so you can align your interests accordingly.”

“The prestigious Rhodes scholarship for Oxford University courses is now mired in controversy, as its founder, Cecil Rhodes, has been deemed racist by many protest groups. If you subscribe to their views, you are better off not applying for it,” Chopra adds.

The Fulbright-Nehru fellowship looks for candidates whose projects are important to India and the US and who have the ability to be good ‘cultural ambassadors’.

“The ideal exchange fellow here is one who both contributes important work in his or her field and encourages IndoUS networking during and after the fellowship,” says Diya Dutt, deputy director of the United States India Education Foundation (USIEF), the body that awards the fellowship.

Your choice of scholarship may also depend on how certain you are that you want to pursue a particular course. “For me, it was about the course more than the scholarship,” says Purohit. “Felix is special in the way that it focuses on three universities — Oxford, Reading and, of course, SOAS [the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, where Purohit is now doing a Masters in Development Studies]. So students who are sure about their choice of course are better off focusing on a specific scholarship.”

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Some scholarships are institutional, others are awarded by global funding bodies for certain universities, and still others focus on a particular stream. Know the nuances and ethos of the scholarships you are applying to, as well as the application processes, before you decide which is right for you.

For instance, while the Inlaks Foundation may conduct two rounds of interviews and the Felix and Chevening one each, the Commonwealth and Erasmus Mundus programme (if being funded by Erasmus Mundus itself) do not hold interviews. If you are applying to one that is without an interview, your writing skills must be very strong.

In such cases, you might want to start working on your application at least three months in advance.

Maitri Dore, 28, who is pursuing an MSc in Urban Studies via the Erasmus Mundus programme, started working on her application five months before the deadline. “I first created a broad skeleton of my personal statement and refined it differently for the different applications I was submitting,” she says. “Writing my statement of purpose was the main challenge for me, and when I got down to it, I was really glad I had started early. It helps to show your SOP to others and read theirs, to get critiques and hone it over time.” DON’T EXPECT EASY So you’ve done your research, submitted your application and been called in for an interview round.

Acknowledge straight up that the interview will likely be acute and intimidating — no matter how well-prepared you are.

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“The panel may not always look to make it comfortable for you,” says Neeti Daftari, 35, a child rights consultant who was offered all three scholarships she applied for in 2011 — Felix, Commonwealth and the Economic and Social Development Masters Scholarship and still found the interview round intense.

“In my case, the five-member Felix panel asked very detailed questions about social policy. They asked these questions very pointedly. And responses invited counter-questions,” she says, “so be very sure of what you are saying. Remember that the panel always comes prepared and they also want to examine your attitude.”

Daftari eventually took the Commonwealth scholarship for a Masters in social policy and development at the London School of Economics.

For Roy of NYU, the Inlaks involved two interview rounds.

“The hardest question I faced was in the final interview round. It came from a sitting chief justice of a high court about a judgment he had written a few years earlier,” he says. “I had worked on the case and had written a paper on it — he asked me whether I agreed with the judgment, which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. I did not agree with what he had written, took the plunge and critic is ed the judgment. I do not know how the learned judge felt about my answer, but I personally felt good expressing my opinion — and I got the grant.”

For Chevening scholar Reetika Subramanian, 26, the questions were perceptive, and anchored largely on the application form. She is currently pursuing an MPhil in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies at Cambridge University. “Since my course was relatively niche, it was challenging to prepare for the interview, where I had to connect my local experiences with larger, global debates. The questions weren’t difficult in the conventional sense, but with a high cut-off rate, my answers had to set me apart. I was asked about my leadership skills, my favourite leader, a British icon, but also what touristy things I looked forward to doing in the UK,” she says. “And with every answer, the three-member panel asked a related question.” (Deadlines for the Chevening, Felix and Charles Wallace scholarships are November 8, 2016, January 2017 and November 30, 2017 respectively)

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The author tweets at @panktimehta