Truman Finalist Interviews
I arrived a day and a half before the interview so that I could orient myself to the city and meet my fellow finalists at a Truman sponsored informal dinner, which I definitely recommend as we got to know each other as people rather than competitors. Former Truman scholars from the Denver area were present to answer questions and address specific concerns. They talked for awhile about what they are currently doing and I was really surprised to learn that most of them had postponed grad school to pursue other relevant experiences.
The night before the interview I could not sleep. I stayed with two other finalists in order to save money on my hotel room and I think that experience was invaluable. Though we could have psyched each other out we actually got each other talking about our interests and concerns and I think it was great preparation for the real interview. You won't try to be anything but yourself with your peers, you understand that they're impressive people and they feel the same way about you so you find it easier to be yourself and talk about your real passions.
The morning of the interview we had a light breakfast with the panel of judges. It was informal but nevertheless nerve racking. I was trying to meet everyone for at least a minute without sounding too forward or fake. It was my least favorite part of the entire experience.
Mid-morning we were given a schedule for the day's events and assigned interview times. Each interview went for 20 minutes with at least a five minute break between interviews. The time passed very slowly while I was waiting though I had several interesting conversations with other finalists. We talked about everything from favorite books and movies to policy proposals, knowing that anything was fair game in the interview.
I don't remember much about my own 20 minutes with the panel because I was so nervous. But here are the questions I do recall.
I can't remember any other questions; however, a few that came up for several other finalists:
I was prepared to end my interview by thanking the panel for their time and talking about how wise I think Socrates is for recognizing how little he really knew, but by the time I was done fielding questions (I swear that the panel chooses one judge to throw you off and one to really support you 100% and get you through, the rest are fairly neutral) anything I had prepared had left me. Instead I thanked the panel and just told them that at that moment I really felt honored, I felt so respected to be in that room with them. They really listened to and cared about all that I had to say, as did the other finalists. I told them how all of the finalists were inspirational and how I felt privileged just to be placed in the same league. And that was the most honest statement I feel I made all day.
I rode the Super Shuttle to what I thought was my hotel, the Downtown Courtyard Marriott. Instead it was the Courtyard Marriot-they are a few blocks away from each other. So I walked a few blocks in downtown Denver to find the hotel. It took me about 20 minutes to find it, but I finally did. It was located right across the street from my interview site, the Federal Reserve Bank of Colorado. If you interview in Denver, it's worth the extra expense to stay here.
I knew that the other finalists were meeting for dinner downtown, but my flight got in too late to attend. I watched some good ole reality television to distract me, and then after calling my parents and reading over my application one last time, I went to sleep.
In the morning, I got up early and went downstairs to read the newspaper. I walked across the street to the interview site. On my way across the street a young guy in a big black Stetson and a bright orange tie was walking beside me. I had a feeling that he was an regional finalist and said hello. He was very nice, very relaxed, and I was thankful that I had met someone so early who was not "over-the-top."
We went through the security check and followed signs to a large room with a few tables to sit around. Quite a few of the finalists were there, eating the light breakfast they had provided (fruit, pastries, etc.). Some of the interview panelists were present and we all began to mingle. This part of the day was very low-key. People were friendly and welcoming. Again, I was surprised to see little posturing, though I later found this to be the case only when the interviewers were not present. After about 10 or 15 minutes, the interview panelists came around and introduced themselves-generally with a handshake-and we went over the program for the day.
My interview was around 2 pm, the last interview of the day. Part of me was excited by the prospect, the other part quite worried. It was nice, however, to have time to get to know people without being distracted by when I was going to interview in the midst of the day. One of the finalists had brought UNO cards and we set up a game. We cheered each time a finalist went in for an interview and each time they came out.
There was quite a bit of posturing in the first few hours. People were testing each other and teasing out facts about each finalist's policy topic (no one had the same topic), etc. Quickly this subsided for most people. There were two individuals who were still stuck on debating each other and trying to psyche people out, but we all became quite annoyed by it and started to exclude them from conversations. They got the point. In general, we just went around in a circle asking questions about family, friends, hobbies, etc.
We went to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. We had a good lunch, good conversation, and took our time walking back. After everyone had gone, I waited patiently to be called. They came out to get me and I went in to the interview room. This a general overview of the questions asked. I have a hard time remembering what the order was.
By the end of the interview, I felt pretty confident in my answers. We were all waiting pretty anxiously to find out if there were going to be second interviews. We were told that no second interviews were being held and people pretty much jetted after that. I was concerned that there hadn't been the opportunity for a second interview, because inevitably you walk out of the interview remembering everything you didn't say and wish you had. We said our goodbyes and one of the finalists and I went back to the bar in my hotel. I had a coke, he had a beer, and we commiserated about how much we thought we totally failed the interview (ended up that we both became scholars).
I enjoyed meeting with these people so very much. It was an incredible experience and a wonderful opportunity. Just remember that the mocks are worth it and Willamette prepares you better than any other university.
Kansas City, 2003
I got into Kansas City the night before the interview. I shared a hotel room with another finalist, and since we'd both gotten in too late to attend the dinner hosted by a past Truman scholar, we went out to get some food on our own. Afterwards, we drove around and (eventually) located the courthouse we'd be interviewing at in the morning (this is something I really recommend doing if it's possible).
The next morning, we got up early and headed back to the courthouse. The informal breakfast session was cut kind of short; I didn't have a chance to meet all of the panelists. Louis Blair and the five other panelists each introduced themselves-some common themes in their introductions were that, no matter how they acted in the interviews, they were, in fact, very nice people, and that they were sure we'd all go on to accomplish great things, regardless of the outcome of the interviews today. Then we received the interview schedule.
I was slated to be the second-to-last person interviewed. While I waited, I looked back over my proposal, read the paper, and talked to the other finalists. (They were all, by the way, pretty friendly, funny, and supportive.) Several of us went out to lunch together, and we all listened to the stories of those coming back from interviews.
The set-up of the interviewing room was a little strange: the finalist sat on a low couch and faced a line of panelists in chairs. All of my mocks had been around big tables, so I felt slightly more exposed at first, but I actually liked it overall - the atmosphere was less intimidating and more at ease. However, some of the girls in knee-length skirts said that the set-up was a bit problematic for them-they had to re-cross their legs every time they faced a different panelist-so practice interviewing in every setting imaginable!
Because I was interviewed so late in the day, I don't think the energy from the panel was as great as it had been earlier. Other finalists said they found the panelists aggressive and curt, and that they really felt pushed on some questions. I didn't really experience that. The interviewers, while not exactly friendly, didn't attack me or pressure me like I had expected.
I was also a little surprised at the line of questioning in the interview. I'd prepared myself to be hit with a barrage of questions on all kinds of subjects, but they settled pretty quickly into questions about China (my application, although not my policy proposal, was centered around doing literacy work in rural China). Some of their questions-the ones I can remember-are as follows:
There are, of course, some things I would have liked to change about my interview. But most of it was pretty positive. Going in, I was warned to expect the unexpected, and that's probably the best advice I can pass on to you. Good luck!
Washington, D.C., 2001
I arrived in DC late in the afternoon the day before my interview. There was an optional dinner with the other finalists and a Truman Scholar. I was very happy to find that I already knew the scholar hosting the dinner. She'd graduated from Willamette the previous year. In fact, it had been her winning the Truman when I was a freshman that originally brought the scholarship to my attention and she encouraged me to apply for it.
At dinner I mostly talked to her and the other finalist from Alaska (the third finalist from Alaska didn't attend the dinner). She was really cool. We were both interested in international human rights and both had progressive/leftist views. She'd applied while studying abroad in Morocco and hadn't had mocks or any type of coaching. Her school didn't pay for the expenses of the trip, so she was staying with friends of friends at Georgetown (on top of major jet lag having flown in from Morocco). After dinner the three of us went out to coffee and the host scholar filled her in on some of the basics of the interview.
Next morning I walked the few blocks from the hotel to the Brookings Institute, where the interview was held. There were coffee and pastries in the room where we would be waiting for our interview. It was a chance to meet the interviewers in a less formal setting. I talked to Mary Tolar (Truman Foundation Deputy Executive Secretary), whom I knew from when she was at Willamette.
My panel consisted of five people. There was a retired U.S. Senator (and Willamette alumnus); two economists, one from the Fed. (Who, in a small world moment I bumped into the next day. He was going for a run on the strip as I was making my way to the Senate office buildings to tell Sen. Gordon Smith's staff that I support an end to the Cuban embargo.) The other was from the treasury dept., I believe, but spending a year teaching at the JFK School of Govt. There was a lawyer who'd just lost her job w/ the dept. of the interior thanks to the Bush II admin. (I was dreading the question that never came regarding my support for the Greens in the election). The CEO of the Marshall foundation rounded off the panel.
My interview was third, I think. I preferred this-I always like to get something like that out of the way if I can.
The Senator began with a question regarding my policy proposal, which advocated Jubilee 2000 type debt relief. He was interested in the "moral argument" I made, namely that people who had no hand in the decision to accrue a debt and did not benefit from it shouldn't be forced to repay it. (Generic scenario: A corrupt military dictatorship borrows the money and spends it on BMWs for its cronies. A democratic government comes to power and the very people who suffered under the dictatorship must pay for the debt it accrued.) He asked what standard we should use to discern which debt is legitimate and which isn't. For example, should we have to pay debt run-up by the federal Govt. to pay for the Vietnam War?
The economist from JFK chimed in with some technical questions, such as what we should do in Argentina. She asked about dollarization in Ecuador, where I studied abroad when they fully adopted the dollar. I said that many of them felt it represented a loss of culture and sovereignty because they had money in another language they couldn't read with another countries dead presidents. She asked me if that loss was real or just perceived, which I found to be a bizarre question. (How does one objectively measure such a thing? With a culture-o-meter?)
The senator then moved on to the socialism question. He said that he took my being a socialist to mean I supported the nationalization of major industry. He asked if I would nationalize steel. Then he asked about the airlines. He noted with great delight how I was so quick to say we should nationalize steel but not sure about the airlines. "Where do you draw the line?"
"If you were king?" He asked. At some point during this discussion of the others jumped in with a crack about efficiency (whatever that means), which was headed off by another question. The chair of the Marshall commented that I was "an anomaly" in our present day (this was because I didn't identify with the Blair-type labor party, but was more like the democratic socialists of years gone by.)
Those two topics ran up most of the interview time. The Marshall chair asked me if about what novel I'd most recently read. Somehow I took the question to be what book I'd most recently read, since that's what I'd gotten in mocks. (The moral of the story being listen to the question carefully. Even if it's like one you got in a mock, there could be important differences.)
The lawyer from the Departmentof the Interior asked me if I wanted to be an activist or an academic.