The recent boom in interest in STEM is a double edged sword for those wishing to attend. Coupled to the expanded job prospects is ferocious competition for each place at a prestigious university. Good academic performance is already de rigueur, and so a key place to stand out to potential universities is the interview. Here, we will go over preparations and techniques that will allow you to stand out in an interview situation:

Structure of a STEM interview

Unfortunately, the structure of STEM interviews is highly dependent upon the professor giving them, with many having their own personal styles of interview. As academia is supposedly about intellectual freedom, there has been limited standardisation as to what can be asked. Despite this, there are several common themes for questions, which we shall discuss here.

 

Competition for STEM courses can be high, with multiple candidates for each place.

Extremely common standard questions involve why in particular you wish to do that subject and why you want to attend that specific university. These questions are frequently used to open an interview, so it’s always wise to have previously prepared answers, as being caught flat footed at this point will suggest a lack of motivation or interest.

When talking about why you wish to attend a STEM course it is important to bear in mind the audience for whom you are telling your reasons. As interviews as typically given by academics, the people who are hearing your reasons have dedicated their lives and professional careers to that topic area. As a result, they will have developed an interest in this field for a very long time, and evidence of this in your own life is very useful. Any experience which you can share, such as an extracurricular STEM project, or work experience, will demonstrate that you have not just done the bare minimum of completing what has been given to you as assignments in schools.

Showing that you have taken initiative also helps, as the structure of teaching in a university is very different from a school environment. In a school, it is the responsibility of the teachers to ensure that a student learns to the correct standard. For example, if a school student does not complete their homework, a good teacher will chase them up on this and ensure that it is completed and they are not falling behind. In contrast to this, at university, students who do not show up to lectures or complete work on time get very little other than poor marks. The difference is that university is supposed to be a place where independent learning and adult responsibility is taught. Interviewers know that if a student has proven themselves to be capable of this independent spirit of learning, it will stand them in good stead for undergraduate life.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that although the tuition costs of a STEM degree are typically high, the cost of providing the course is also high. Many STEM courses require large laboratories and specialised equipment, in contrast to humanities subjects. Therefore anyone giving a STEM interview will be wary of accepting someone who could drop out, wasting a large investment on the part of the university. Demonstrating that you are independently enthused by the subjects will hopefully calm any doubts about your drive to finish the course.

STEM courses typically require large amounts of expensive equipment and teaching resources, meaning universities are loathe to gamble on a student which they do not think will complete a course

The final step of a STEM interview will usually be for the person giving the interview to ask if you have any further questions. Saying no at this stage makes it seem as though the candidate is not very interested in actually attending the course, so it is best to always have at least a few questions prepared. Having a question about the structure of the course will indicate that you are serious about wanting to attend. Failing that, asking about the research that is currently being undertaken at the University will prove that you have investigated the latest work of the department and could flatter the academic ego of the interviewer.

Preparation for the interview

During a STEM interview you must remember that if you are applying for a prestigious university, they will have applicants from around the world. This means that the interviewer will sometimes have only a hazy understanding of the standards that any applicant will have had to measure up to. Stemming from this, many interviewers will ask technical questions for subjects that should be well known to the interviewee. The message from this is to prepare for the interview as if preparing for an exam, as a section of the interview may be very similar in content to one. Make sure you are not caught out by assuming that your qualifications speak for themselves.

The other area of technical questions that are asked in STEM interviews are of a more difficult nature. Often, interviewers will try and test the critical thinking and analysis skills of candidates by posing a question that they will have not encountered or have never thought of before. Such questions can include “how many windows do you think are in New York City”, “Why did they used to make the mill chimneys so tall?” or “Why do sausages split lengthways, rather than around the circumference?”. The aim of these questions are to try and ascertain the thought processes of the potential student. STEM courses are not simply about learning equations and facts, and then being able to regurgitate them at will, but try to prepare graduates for their working lives in which they will be creating novel applications and processes.

The key here is to realise that getting the exact right answer is not the most important thing, rather it is to show how the problem can be analysed. As a first step, come up with some assumptions about the question and work from there, narrating your thought processes. The worst thing that can be done is to either immediately say “I don’t know”, or to remain silent whilst thinking. The first displays the wrong sort of attitude compared to what they are looking for, and the second requires the interviewer to be a mind reader, not something that is optimal when they are assessing the quality of your thought processes.

Although at first it may seem impossible to prepare for unexpected questions, in reality this is something which can also feature in your preparation. The best method to prepare for a STEM university interview is to stage your own mock interview. With the help of a relative or friend, you can go through the structure of the interview described in this article, with your trial interviewer researching challenging technical questions to pose to you beforehand.

Dos and Don’t checklist

When taking a STEM interview:

Do

      Research the University background

      Have pre-prepared reasons for why you wish to take the course

      Have pre-prepared reasons for why you wish to go to that university

      Read up on the subject outside areas taught in school

      Prepare questions to ask the interviewer

Don’t

      Have awkward long silences

      Say “I don’t know”

      Say you are doing the subject because your parents want you to

Conclusion

In conclusion, going for a STEM interview can be a nerve wracking task, but you should simply aim to show the interviewer your enthusiasm and competence. With the right preparation you should have all the right tools to succeed.