By Freeha Anjum

Interviews are a very important part of most application processes – a resume can tell you about a person’s background and experiences at a surface level, essays give you more context to how the person thinks and how they learn from their experiences, but interviews show who the person is in real-time: what they really enjoy and value, how they present themselves, and why they are or aren’t right for a certain position. But they’re hard – sometimes you never know what interviewers are really looking for in your answers.

Well, I’ve got good news: STEM Fellowship has gone behind the scenes for you, finding people from different STEM organizations who have conducted interviews for a variety of programs and positions, and asking them your most burning questions about the interview process – so get ready for the tips and answers you’ve been waiting to find out about STEM interviews!

“Can You Tell Me A Bit About Yourself?”

It’s always the first question asked, and can be the hardest one to answer. Should you talk about who you are academically, or outside of academics? How much information should you give? Does this question even matter? 

We asked interviewers about this question, and most of them admitted that the content of your answer doesn’t really matter. Rather, they are looking for how you answer: Are you confident in yourself? How are your presentation skills? What is your body language saying? In a gist, interviewers are looking for how you communicate, and they want someone who’s confident in themselves. With that said, the content of your answer does matter to some extent – interviewers don’t want you just re-listing your resume, instead, you should mention things about who you are outside of what they already know, and oftentimes mentioning activities or interests that directly relate to the position/organization you’re applying for (eg. if you’re applying for STEM Fellowship, mentioning some science or math extracurriculars) can boost your response. 

Out Of The Ordinary Questions

You’ve probably read about how to answer commonly asked interview questions, like “What are your weaknesses/strengths?”, “Why did you choose to apply?”, “What makes you the best candidate?” etc, but some questions are a bit different, and it’s hard to know exactly what interviewers are looking for in your answers. 

One common theme amongst interviewers is the “If you could be any _____, which would you be?” where the blank could be filled with absolutely anything – tree, vegetable, colour, person, etc. Interviewers explain that they want students who can think outside the box, and this question also aids in showing interviewers your thought process and how you respond to something unexpected. Similar to the “can you tell me a bit about yourself?” question, your actual choice doesn’t matter, but your reasoning behind the tree/food/colour/etc that you choose should show critical and unique thinking. 

Interviewers also love to throw some scenarios at you, related to the position you applied to, to test your problem solving skills and whether you are able to envision room for growth in the program. This is specific to certain types of STEM opportunities, of course, but is a very important question in the interview process. Interviewers are looking for not just your thought process, but how you work within a time limit, if you can come up with engaging ideas on your feet, and if you can think of unique responses. In group interviews, your teamwork skills can also be assessed by this question.

Red Flags 

There are some things that you can say or do that interviewers just don’t like. It may show them you don’t care about them, the organization, or yourself, which will hurt your chances of getting an acceptance immensely. Let’s take a look at some of these red flags:

  1. Sounding bored: Looking or sounding uninterested in interviews can show itself in many ways, including body language, tone, length of answers, etc. Although interviewers explain that they understand some students are shy, answering a very broad, heavy question with a very short answer doesn’t set well, and shows that you’re not as interested in the position as you should be.
  2. Not being prepared: Not knowing the name of the position you applied for, or what the program/position entails, can be a major red flag to your interviewer. It’s important to do your research on and around what you’ve applied to, so that you can avoid this embarrassing mistake.
  3. Not answering the question: Just like with any school assignment or application essay, you need to have a definitive answer to the question at hand. Interviewers make it clear that rambling on about something that doesn’t relate to the question can come off as disorganized, and it may start to seem like you don’t have a real answer at all. Similarly, answering “I don’t know” can be problematic – interviewers want you to have answers, and better yet, want you to be confident in your answers and able to think clearly. 
  4. Trash talking another opportunity: If you had a bad experience at another program/organization, try not to talk about it unless the question relates to your answer. In general, interviewers make it clear that talking badly about other organizations can make them skeptical of you – who’s to say you won’t trash talk them someday?
  5. Checking your phone, arriving late, rescheduling last minute, chewing gum/eating, etc: Small things here and there can show interviewers that you don’t care about them, or don’t care about the interview – so, in extension, it shows you might not care about the program/position, which is not something you want to convey at all. It’s important to note that interviewers are human, though, and understand that you are too, so if you do end up making these mistakes, don’t be afraid to apologize and/or explain the situation to recover from the incident.
Generic Answers – Avoid or Embrace?

Interviewers we spoke to have heard hundreds of responses to the questions they ask students, and among those there are some common responses that either go well, or they don’t. But what are these common answers, and which ones should we avoid?

The response from interviewers was that common answers often translate to impersonal answers on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you’re asked why a particular subject interests you, or why a program/position interests you, don’t just say “because I think ____ is cool and want to learn more about it.” Although this may be true, you should be able to expand on the answer as well, and mention why you personally find it interesting, or what you’d like to learn more about in particular and why. Similarly, if you’re asked “what is your weakness?” and you answer “I’m a perfectionist,” you should expand on what makes you a perfectionist – what does that mean for you in your daily life? How do you combat it? How is it also a strength that is specific to your circumstances? Besides this, interviewers claim they see no issue in giving a common answer. 

What’s with the notes?

You know when you’re in an interview, and you can see your interviewer frantically typing away at their laptop? Do you ever wonder what they must be writing about you? Well, of course you do! 

Truth be told, every interviewer takes notes differently. One thing’s for certain, though: they don’t write everything you’re saying, just the things that they find to be important. For some people, this means writing any noteworthy accomplishments you have, or how you present yourself, and to others this might be writing interesting things you say to ask further questions on, or just writing things that caught their eye about you. Interviewers who are really good multitaskers may even begin to write where they see you fitting into their program/organization during the interview. Rest assured that the notes are merely a way for interviewers to remember what you talked about in a nutshell and the impression you had, not to reject or accept you on the spot or fill out any particular rubric. Many of them claim that it helps remind them of how you did when they go back to evaluate your response.

Evaluating Your Response

So…What about after the interview is over? How do interviewers evaluate you and your responses? Do they immediately write “yes” or “no” for your acceptance right after, rank you on a scale of 1-10 and see who was ranked the highest at the end, or wait a week before going back and deciding based on instinct? Let’s see what interviewers had to say…

Similar to the way they take notes, each interviewer may evaluate your response differently. The interviewers we spoke to all made it clear that no question asked is worth more than the other, and instead a holistic view is considered when evaluating the candidate. Interviewers looked to see confidence, as mentioned earlier, but also a genuine interest in the program or position at hand. They want to see students who aren’t just in it for the resume, and many more competitive STEM opportunities look for how well you would do in their program/organization by evaluating your skills and experiences. Many interviewers also stated that they write some basic notes about whether or not they want to accept the candidate after each interview, and after all the interviews are over, go back and re-check who to take and who to leave. 

It was made clear by interviewers that there is no one thing that will make or break your application, rather, they take all aspects of the interview into account, so if you were late to your interview and stuttered for the first couple of minutes, but later had amazing answers to the questions asked and really build up your confidence, you still have a decent chance at receiving the position you applied to. 

Extra Advice

Lastly, we asked interviewers if they had any extra advice for students with interviews for competitive STEM opportunities, and the most overwhelmingly common response was to be yourself. Interviewers make it clear that they want you to stand out in the interview, and the best way to do that is to showcase your personality, rather than sounding robotic and inhuman. If you have been offered an interview for something, it means you have enough experience (and depending on the questions in the application, interest) to receive an offer, so be confident in yourself and don’t try to be a person you aren’t. With that said, some interviewers may be unwilling to have a shy member in their program/on their team, so although you should try to be yourself, you should also try your best to show some confidence if you don’t do that naturally. Remember that you have been selected for an interview for a reason, and it’s best to relax and try your best to show the interviewer who you are.

Final Things To Remember

All interviews are different – this article is just a general guide to answer some of those burning questions you had about interviews, but not all organizations follow the same recipe for evaluations. Although the information above is accurate for lots of STEM positions (especially for getting roles within a STEM organization), it will vary from person to person and place to place, so don’t take this as a definite answer. Remember to be confident in yourself and your answers, and if you’re introduced to an unexpected question, don’t be afraid to take some time to think about it. Good luck!


Sources will remain anonymous for confidentiality purposes. 


Published On: January 6th, 2021 / Categories: STEMpowerment /