Youth Canada

Mastering Interview and Application Questions: The Art of Questioning the Question

18-09-2008 by Joshua Liu

 Mastering Interview and Application Questions: The Art of Questioning the Question

The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

A community leadership scholarship judge might ask you this question because they want to see whether you highly value taking initiative through servant leadership.

I hope it is clear that how you shape your answer is highly dependent on understanding why the scholarship judges are asking this particular question. They are asking you these specific questions for a reason, and the reasons for this will vary depending on the context of the question.

Figuring out the the purpose of both the individual questions and overall motivations of the judges will significantly improve your performance in the interview and application process.

What types of answers are they expecting?

It is important to be able to gauge what types of answer the judges are expecting, and to adjust your answer accordingly. For example, there are certain cases where there is a common answer that they almost always expect to get. However, standing out might be important in some situations, so you may intentionally choose an answer that separates you from the other applicants. For instance, a common question that I think many applicants sort of butcher is: “What is your biggest weakness?”

A lot of students have the fear that if they tell their weakness, it will hinder their success, so they end up saying something like “I’m a perfectionist” a lot of the time, because while it does have a bit of a negative connotation, it doesn’t sound so bad. However, I think this is an answer that a lot of committees and judges expect from the common applicant. So for a question like this, I personally never use the perfectionist answer.

On the other hand, there are cases where the judges are expecting a certain answer from ideal applicants. For example, if the judge is asking you to talk about an ethical dilemma you have been involved in, they are not looking for applicants who have a history of making unethical choices; because really, that’s a red flag right off the bat. So they are expecting you to pick a situation where you did the ethically correct thing, and in most cases, that’s the one you should talk about.

So make sure you consider what the judges expect the common applicant to answer, and whether it makes sense for your answer to reflect that, or sometimes, stray from it.

Who is evaluating my answer?

When I say who, I don’t mean the “medical school” or “scholarship organization”. I mean the exact individual person who is asking you the interview questions (this doesn’t really apply to applications, since you usually have no idea who is reading them. If you do, then I guess this will be relevant).
When I attended interviews for the University of Western Ontario’s National Scholarship in Grade 12, I was greeted by three professors. I had no idea who they were or what their academic backgrounds were, but I would say their ages ranged from 35-60 years old.

One of the questions I was asked was: “If you had one hour of free time, what would you do?”

I said something like: “I’d probably hang out with my friends and do something.”

Judges: “Like what?”

Me: “Umm… maybe see a concert or something.”

Judges: “Who would you see?”

Me: “I think I’d like to see Death Cab for Cutie…”

At this point I realized a few things:

1. They probably don’t know who Death Cab for Cutie was. (For those of you who don’t know, it’ s an indie rock band)
2. Since it has the word “Death” in the band name, they might think I listen to dark music about death. Which would be a bad thing.

So I continued with: “…have you heard of them?”

Judges: “Nope.”

Me: “Errr… what about Coldplay? Have you heard of Coldplay?”

Judges: “Oh yeah yeah, we know Coldplay.”

Me: “Right… yeah I’d like to see them!” (Phew)

That’s a pretty simple example, but it just goes to show the importance of recognizing the backgrounds and situations of your judges or interviewers, and how they might react to your answer. If they are part of an older generation, you might want to make sure the examples you use and refer to are things they can relate to. For example, few people from the older generations would know about Death Cab for Cutie, but most people have still heard about the band Coldplay at one point or another. I mean I honestly would love to see either band, but in order to form a connection with the judges, it helped to pick an equally good answer that they would understand and relate to.

Or if they come from a traditional generation, it might be better to stray away from behaviour that is acceptable now but may not have been years before. For example, while it might be okay to tell your 2nd year medical school interviewer how you got “owned” on a test yesterday (though I personally still wouldn’t do it), you’re better off telling your senior professor interviewer that your test yesterday was simply “difficult”.

It is also important to analyze their personalities and the moods they are in, and how that might affect their perception of you. If they are very talkative, then you will want to react by also being fairly talkative. If they are not as active speakers, you might want to make sure you don’t dominate the conversation so they always get their questions or words in.

Really, it’s all about adjusting to the dynamics of the situation with those specific interviewers. Just make sure you keep in mind how your specific interviewers or judges will react to your answers.

It Takes Practice

Like with any skill, figuring out both what the right questions to ask are and how to answer them takes practice. A good idea is to take some random interview or application questions, and just ask yourself those four questions I suggested and see if it improves how you would normally answer the question. It also helps to form a group of friends to do this with. I find that bouncing ideas off other people and seeing how they would approach the same question can give a lot of great insight I would never have considered on my own.

If you want to go one step further in utilizing this concept in other parts of your life, try picking random problems you encounter during the day or hear about, and see if you can use the method of questioning the question to come up with better solutions. I am sure you will find this technique helpful in many different situations, and not just in the interview room.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at

Image courtesy of user "alexanderdrachmann" at via Creative Commons License.