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Sunday, June 8, 2014

How to ace your University Scholars Programme Interview

I occasionally get questions from JC students about how to ace the University Scholars Programme interview, and indeed yesterday I specifically had an hour-long conversation with a student about how to get into the USP at NUS. This post is dedicated to that student, WL, but also to all the students who want to know how to ace their interview to enter USP. 

How does one ace the USP interview?

First, let me start by sharing an instructive story

Some time ago I was interviewing students, along with a colleague. They came into the room, and as is the custom, we the interviewers are supposed to ask them questions and prod around for a bit, and the candidates are supposed to answer, in excellent English, as best as they can. 

A 20-year old Chinese student came into the room, dressed appropriately for the part of candidate in a serious interview, and then sat down. The first question we asked was: what subject would you like to read in university, and why? 

The candidate, amazingly, had no good answer to this one... 

Eventually it transpired that it was her mother who wanted her to go for this course. 

In other words, she wanted to enter university because her mother said so

To the following questions about where she saw herself in the next few years, and what did she want to do with her life, and what interested her, she had vague and unclear answers also. 

She replied, in respective order: (1) she wanted a good job (well, I'm sure most would agree with that, and only a rare person would want a bad job); (2) she wanted a good job (again, I'm sure of that); and (3) she had no interests other than joining university. 

In the end, both the other interviewer and I had to conduct a 10-minute long career counselling session out of the kindness and goodness of our hearts. 

The candidate, needless to say, did not get in. 

What do we learn from this simple and sadly true story?

I'll give you a moment to think about it before I give you a simple checklist. 

Think about it, really. 

Before you go for any interview, in particular university scholarship interviews - 

(1) You really need to think about what you're doing with your life and why. What's your life story? Please don't something because others have told you to do so - you will need some intrinsic motivation and some self-knowledge. 

(2) You must really think about whether you're a good fit at the course you're applying for, as well as the programme you are applying for. Are you a good fit? That means that you are someone who should be in that course and you fit right in. Can you cope, and will your survive the gauntlet?

(3) You really need to think and reflect about your life. Oh, I've said something like that already? :)

Now, for preparing for the interview, these would be major areas that you need to seriously consider. 

I'll ask you some further thinking questions and then you have to do your own thinking. 

Come up with your own responses and suggestions; tinker around with your answers for a bit. 

Note that these questions to follow are areas to consider, and these are not the exact questions you will get at the USP interview, or for that matter in any other real-life interview. These are thinking questions that you need to think through for yourself and prepare yourself for:

(1) What is it about the programme that really draws you? Do you really know the programme and what you are getting yourself into? In fact, in your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the programme?

(2) What are your strengths and your weaknesses, and do you have some major examples of each? Think about your various qualities and characteristics. 

(3) What are your academic interests? What really, really inspires and motivates you?

(4) What are your non-academic interests? What really, really inspires and motivates you? What are your hobbies and how are these interesting, helpful, useful, or exciting?

(5) What specifically do you hope to achieve in your years in university? Why?

(6) What do you want to achieve after university, and why? What career do you want, and how will the programme help you? These objectives will play a major role in understanding what you are all about. 

(7) Are there any questions that you want to ask the interviewer? What are they and why do you want to ask those questions?

If you can think through these points, you will find that you can ace the programme with a lot of ease. 

You would really have a good hard look at the USP website (here it is:, think a lot about yourself (academically and CCA-wise) and the course, read up a lot on your academic interests, read up a lot in general, and do a lot of "futures thinking". You might even do some chats with seniors, ask your parents or trusted senior advisers to give you a good assessment of yourself, and do some serious soul searching. You might even meditate and ponder on the questions above, and even prepare some specific questions and answers. 

These thoughts and actions, all considered, will put you in good stead to ace the interview. 

Why do I want to help good, able, motivated students get into USP? 

[Presumably if you have found your way to my blog post here, you're most likely a tech-savvy, motivated, intelligent, and inquisitive student, just the sort of person we would want in the programme.]

Well, I enjoyed my time at the USP very much; after all, I spent a good four years there, and made a lot of friends (and frenemies) there as well.

In fact, I enjoyed my experience there so much that I often attend alumni activities and go back to USP many times to make various small (and for the moment insignificant) contributions. Nonetheless, I do my part, and I do my best.

Hope this simple article helps you clarify your thinking. 

Good luck and all the best! Let me know how it goes :)

Anything that interests me! and in this case, something that interests you too :) Thank you for reading and cheers!