Today I had an interview prep class with a Chinese 10th grader whose English name is Max.
Max is an excellent student, so he should do well in his high school admissions interview, right? Actually, no. I don't think Max is going to do well in his interview, even though he's a great student.
Max has perfect grades, great study habits and organizational skills, and is heavily involved in leadership positions in school organizations. He's also friendly and outgoing and a star basketball player.
He would be welcome at any American high school. So why do I think he won't do well in his interview?
Because he's making the same mistake that other Chinese students often make while doing any public speaking, including interviewing.
The #1 mistake Chinese students make in interviews
It's not having bad English. Your English doesn't need to be perfect in an interview.
Chinese students prepare too much for interviews
I've seen this over and over - my Chinese interview prep clients prepare too much for their interviews.
Why is this a problem? Isn't preparing for everything, including interviews, good? Doesn't it help you succeed?
Well, yes, preparation is usually good. If you're taking a Calculus test or the TOEFL, or playing piano in the school orchestra, you should prepare as much as you can.
But in public speaking, sometimes too much preparation can make you sound over-prepared (i.e., like a robot).
If you over-prepare:
You sound like you're reading a speech from a piece of paper instead of having a conversation
You sound like your answers are memorized
Your voice is a monotone. All words sound the same.
This is exactly how a robot talks.
So instead of writing down your answers to common interview questions and then memorizing them word for word, what should you do?
How should you prepare for an interview?
Interview preparation should not be about memorization. We can see from your grades that you know how to memorize things.
The interview is about showing your personality. It's about having a conversation.
So here are the steps for proper interview prep:
Look at a question
Think about your answer
Make notes or write bullet points
Use words you already know, not words you have to look up in a dictionary
Don't write down your answer word for word. If you do this, you will end up memorizing it and you will sound like a robot. Make short notes only.
Don't use big words. This is a conversation, not the SAT. Use easy words because this is how most people speak. Using long complicated words will not make you sound smarter, it will make you sound like you memorized your answer.
Here is a bad interview answer
Interview question: What are your strengths academically?
"I am strong academically, specifically in economics and mathematics. When acquiring knowledge, it feels like I am a sponge. Knowledge acquisition makes me feel relaxed. I tend to breath more smoothly. Working with numbers and integration functions in math makes me calm and stimulates my rational and logical thinking abilities."
What is wrong with this answer?
1. It uses "fake" or "big" words
What exactly are the wrong words/phrases and what should you use instead?
"When acquiring knowledge" is not something a normal person would say in conversation. The only person who would talk like this is a scientist. You should say, "When learning" instead.
The word "sponge" is not one most English learners know. Do you speak at a C1 level or higher? If so, you can use this word but if not it will be obvious you looked it up in the dictionary before the interview and memorized it.
Only a scientist would say "knowledge acquisition" instead of "learning."
"I tend to" is not normal conversational speech. Say "I breathe more smoothly."
When a young person uses words like this, it does not make them sound smarter. It makes them sound like they worked too hard trying to sound smart.
I know this is hard to understand. Aren't interviews about trying to sound smart? Well, yes in an interview you want to sound smart, BUT you also want to sound natural. It's very hard for non-native English speakers to sound natural if they're using words they're not comfortable with.
2. It adds information that doesn't answer the question
The question didn't ask you if learning math makes you happy and relaxed. It asked you what subjects you were good at. You don't need to add details about being happy and relaxed or about "knowledge acquisition." Stick to the topic. You're interviewing for high school and you're a non-native speaker. Don't try to sound like you're the CEO of Apple.
Here is a better interview answer
Interview question: What are your strengths academically?
"I'm very good at academics, especially economics and mathematics. I love to learn about both of those subjects. I've always gotten excellent grades in both of them and I want to continue studying them in the future. I will probably do something with math for my career."
Here is an example of interview notes
Instead of writing down the entire answer to the question, including all of the words like "the" and "a," you should just write this:
Q: What are your strengths academically?
A: good at econ and math; excellent grades; math career
This will prevent you from memorizing the whole answer.
Perfect English doesn't equal a successful Interview
I know that Chinese students over-prepare for these interviews because they are worried about their English. In most subjects, memorization does help, but it doesn't in interviews.
Try to remember that your English doesn't need to be perfect for interviews.
Interviews aren't about proving how smart you are.
Interviews are the time to show that you are comfortable having a conversation, that you like other people, and that you are a nice person.
You do need to be able to answer the questions, but you don't need to sound perfect. Robots are perfect but no one wants a robot in their school.
What happened to Max?
During our work together I tried to get Max to sound more natural. We worked on shortening his answers, speaking more slowly, smiling more, and putting more variation into his words and sentences. Keep your fingers crossed for him!
I’m happy to say that after working with me, my clients have done well in their interviews and gotten into their first choice school.
If you’d like to work with me to prepare for your interview, email me at email@example.com to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or a full interview prep session.
Interview Genie is an American interview prep company specializing in interviews at American companies.