‘Softer’ Ways to Ace the Interview

It’s over a quarter of a century since I went for an interview at Pembroke College Cambridge. It was a dark December day. The shadowy interview rooms were piled with hundreds of books and papers. The professors and fellows were serious and intense. The atmosphere was fusty – airless and heavily intellectual. Almost oppressive!

I was well prepared. I’d come from a top private school. I was drilled to within an inch of my life. But, even so, I found the experience daunting and joyless. I was terrified of making mistakes. I was desperate not to say anything stupid in front of those colossal brains.

Scroll forward to the present day and I am a 43-year-old coach and adviser to some of the world’s top business leaders. I’ve been a global TV and Radio correspondent, fortunate enough to broadcast to millions of people and interview presidents, prime ministers and global CEOs.

If I could fly back in time and give a pep talk to my 17-year-old self, what would I say? What advice would I give Mike back in 1992? How would I help him be a calmer, better version of himself?

One consoling thought might be that, however clever you are, the world is always more complicated than it seems. Mistrust anyone who thinks they’ve ‘solved’ it. Even the brightest individuals on the planet can act in unintelligent ways.

The best question is always not how much you know, but how much you are prepared to learn.

Give me a keen and hungry learner over a know-it-all, any day of the week. Rather than trying to find the cleverest answers to every question, real talent is about finding the next question. Ahead of an interview, you need to discover voracious and insatiable CURIOSITY. If you find it, you will be unstoppable as a student, and ultimately as a leader in whatever field you choose.

Many people will tell you that you need to develop the hard skills of analysis, problem-solving, accuracy, speed and organisation. Not to diminish any of those things, but faster progress may come with mastery of the soft skills: empathy, emotional intelligence and self-knowledge.

And I’ll let you in on a secret, the more senior you are, the more aware you become that ‘success’ isn’t usually about being brilliant. It’s much more about how you forge relationships…How you excite and energise other people. Nobody ever achieved anything significant completely by themselves. We all need coaches, mentors, colleagues and friends to realise our potential and understand our blind spots.

And usually we only discover our potential once we start unlocking the potential of others. So be generous. Help people. Be curious. Mentor younger students, siblings etc. By doing so, you will start to find your own path to greatness.

As human beings, we all have the capacity to do incredible things. But 99% of people let fear or comfort or limiting beliefs stop them from reaching their summit. They get stuck in foothills – either living ‘fearful’ or ‘comfortable’ lives. Don’t be one of them. Start now on your route to the summit.

This I believe, is the interview mindset. Ambitious. Determined. Curious. Not focused too much on giving the perfect answers to some interviewer’s prepared questions but creating an energised break-out mentality. The dream ‘interview’ is in fact much more of a super-charged ‘conversation’ where you and the interviewer are learning from each other, feeding off each other’s energy.

So here are my 5 top qualities that I think you need to ace your university admission or scholarship application interview:

1. Passion

What convinces is conviction. Nothing great has ever been achieved without enthusiasm. But you’ve got to live it. Don’t just say: “I’m passionate about X, Y, Z…” if it’s not authentic and genuine. Far better to find something that you love and go all out for it. Maybe, however, you don’t know yet what is your true passion and life’s purpose. That’s ok. Then, be passionate about finding it. Be passionate about the learning journey. Be passionate about curiosity. Go into the room as a passionate learner.

2. Listening

Listen to the questions carefully. Listen to what is being said and asked of you. Pause if you need to. Ask the interviewer what he or she means by a certain reference. Most people spend far too much time and effort focusing on what they are saying, and not nearly enough energy listening to others. If I was choosing a student for a programme or a hire for my business, the question I would ask is: “can this person listen?” Not just appear to listen. But listen deeply. With hunger and energy. With a deep desire to understand. Show that you care. And never make the mistake of starting to respond to the question before the interviewer is finished asking it. It is probably one of the rudest things you could do.

While listening, do try to maintain eye contact and sit with confidence i.e. back straight, hands on your laps or on the table in front of you or the side arms of the chair. Fiddling away or rolling your eyes while listening could also mean that you are really not interested in what is being asked. Have self confidence and a sense of presence in the current moment.

3. Smart Questioning

In some of the best interviews, the candidate is asking as many smart questions as the interviewer. It becomes a conversation. Not just at the end of the session – “have you got any questions for us?”– but right the way through. This doesn’t mean going into the room with a sheet of your own pre-written questions and shooting them relentlessly at your interviewer. It means listening hard and challenging yourself to probe. Being less defensive and more open and searching. Think of the interview not just as a test of your abilities, but as an opportunity for you to learn.


Stories are the most effective way we have as humans of conveying information and emotional content. If you are applying for a certain course, then think of a story that explains why you made the decision. Was it a conversation you had? A moment of clarity? Were you inspired by a teacher or mentor? Make your passion and curiosity into a story. Paint a picture of what happened. Who was there? How you felt? Anyone who can tell a personal and meaningful story instantly becomes a top 10% communicator. Having said that, do not make up a story if you don’t have one. You will get caught.

Also, remember that nobody likes listening to someone who is rattling away quickly as if they want to get out of the room as quickly as possible. Interviewers are humans, not aliens. Be confident and clear in your speech. Think before you start. Talk slowly, in different tones (not screaming of course) especially the areas that you would like to stress more upon due to the moment’s significance. Pause in between your response to see if they are getting it. Maintain eye contact with each of the interviewers and not just the one who asked the question. Carefully witness their quiet nods or smiles as these could mean you are in the right direction.

5. Humility

It’s ok not to know everything. It’s ok to have made mistakes. Failure is fine. In fact, it can be good to fail – if you learn from the experience and return more determined to succeed. When I was younger, I was scared, rigid of making mistakes, of being ‘found out’, of admitting ignorance. Now I know that all these things can be strengths and are vital soft skills to master. Nobody is perfect. Not university professors, global leaders, international CEOs or celebrities. They are all on their own journeys. The best act with humility. In the interview, show humility. But also, determination to learn and succeed.

The above 5 would be my mindset skills that I think you may want to adopt. Very similar advice, by the way, as I would give a business leader or a politician. Completely mastering these mindset skills takes a lifetime. But those who start to look inside themselves are making a great start.

So, get a piece of paper and scribble some answers to the following questions:

WHY am I really applying for this course? WHY does this matter to me? HOW can I tap into my deepest passion and curiosity? WHAT questions can I ask to unlock my intellectual energy?

Oh, and maybe this: will my 43-year-old-self look back and be proud of the start I’m making?

By Mike Sergeant, International Leadership Coach and former BBC Correspondent