How to Nail the 400K Interview

Do you enjoy working with tomorrow’s leaders? I sure do!

One of my many volunteer efforts is working with students who have a desire to go to a Department of Defense United States Service Academy such as Navy, West Point, the Merchant Marine Academy and the Air Force Academy (Coast Guard is not a DOD Academy and doesn’t require a Congressional Nomination.) An education that has a value of over 400K and is paid back in 5+ years of military service.

A key part of this process is the Admissions Liaison Officer (ALO) interview AND the Congressional interview. I’ve sat in on over 300+ of these interviews and I’ve thought “with some tips and coaching, these students could have done much better in this interview.” We recently participated in a zoom panel with several of these students and their parents.

Besides being an ALO and Congressional Panelist, I’ve also mentored the three Kay sons who graduated from Navy, Air Force and West Point. Here are some ideas that can help you (or your favorite student) go from good to great in high level, pressure interviews. These ideas are based on work I’ve done professional in Toastmasters, in 2800+ media interviews and in being the interviewer on Congressional panels that interview as many as 50+ students in ONE DAY.

Please feel free to share this blog with the student or person you know has a high level interview coming up. It’s written directly to them!

Best Practices, Tips and Tricks

Keep in mind, this is the most important interview of your life thus far. It’s worth approximately 400K+ (the value of a Service Academy education). This is a high-level interview and these tips are not official USAFA policy, nor have they been endorsed by USAFA. These come from 25 years as a professional speaker & corporate media trainer.

They are also based on my experience as an ALO (USAFA Admissions Liaison Officer) and Congressional Panelist, having interviewed/assessed 300 student candidates.  Besides our kids who graduated from USNA, USAFA and USMA, our other civilian children who graduated from Stanford, Columbia, UTA, &  Moody Bible Institute. All of our kids had interviews involved in their education and all got substantial scholarships to graduate debt free from college.

  • Affirmation – Before the interview, practice some positive affirmations such as “I can do this” and “I’ve prepared for this” and “I’ve worked hard, this is going to be a great interview.” It doesn’t matter if you feel that way or not, just say it either out loud or in your mind. If you have a negative thought leading up to the interview,such as “I’m really nervous” or “I’m not looking forward to this interview” or even “I wish this were over.” Then stop. Reset your mindset and say the positive affirmations I mentioned at the beginning of this point. You could even create your own “Top Ten Affirmations” that you and your parents come up with to counter what I call “stinkin’ thinkin’” Your first three are already listed above.Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t—you’re right.”
  • Story Telling and Transparency – As you think through the answers to these questions, incorporate some of your own story that sets you apart. Are you first generation American—there’s a story there. Were you raised by a single parent? Did you have younger siblings to take care of? Did you help care for a family member who was ill or had special needs? Did you have a relative whose example inspired you to military service? Do you have a passion that motivates you such as going on mission trips, helping the homeless, fighting illiteracy or social injustice? Have your parents or mentor help you think through your story and learn to tell it in a way that will have an impact on the listeners.
  • Keep your answers to the ABC Model:

Accurate – Don’t tell anyone else’s story but your own, it will ring of insincerity. If you use numbers, make sure they are up to date. Don’t overstate your scenario. If you quote someone, then give attribution to that quote or story, you don’t want to pretend it’s your own.

Brief – You shouldn’t have an answer that lasts more than one minute. Otherwise, it

sounds like a monologue. But don’t give a “yes” or “no” answer either.  That’s too brief! A 30-45 second answer is ideal.

Clear – Even if you are using fewer words, you still want to be clear so that the panel understands what you are trying to communicate. Ask your parents if you really answered the question and ask them what they heard your answer to be. If they are hearing something different than what you are saying, then you need to rework the answer until you are clear.

  • Practice answering the questions and have your parents listen for the following:

Superfluous Words – parents count how many times they say filler words such as uh, um, ah or like. Work to eliminate these from your vocabulary with more practice. (Using filler words sends a subliminal message of a lack of confidence in what you are saying. )

The Robot – Don’t practice so much that you sound like a robot or like you are giving canned answers. This comes across awkward and/or disingenuous. You want to retain the element of spontaneity even if you have worked on some answers ahead of time.

The Timing – See above under the ABCs of answers (Brief). Parents can time your answers as you aim for a 30-45 second answer. This is just a suggestion and not a hardline rule. The best interviewees keep their answers long enough to answer the question but not so long that they sound like a run-on sentence.

Pacing – Are you talking too fast? This can come across as being nervous if you are a fast talker. The idea is to tell yourself to “slow down” as you are talking and then talk slower still. It “feels” strange to a fast talker, but it comes across as just the right pace. Unless you are from Texas (as I am), then you probably already talk slow enough.  

  • Take Your Time – If you don’t know the answer to a question asked, it’s ok to take a few seconds and compile your thoughts. Look to the side or look down briefly. I call this the “Ryan Seacrest Effect” where that emcee will put his fingers together, briefly look down, then look back up again. By breaking eye contact with the audience, his brain goes to a place where he remembers what he wants to say. It can also eliminate the “deer in the headlights” effect.
  • Complete Sentence – Take a breath, wait a few seconds, then start answering in a complete sentence. As you begin this way, an answer will likely come to you and you buy time in trying to come up with your answer. For example,  Question: What are your two greatest strengths? Answer: I would say that my greatest strength is…
  • Technical Issues – If this is a virtual call (zoom, skype, FaceTime) make sure you have good lighting (light should be BEHIND your computer/device shining on your face.) Check your sound, too. You may want to wear a headset or earbuds to cut down on feedback during the call. You can test these at www.zoom.us/test
  • Posture – Whether virtual or in person, you can improve your posture by sitting on the front half of your chair. Never sit fully back in the chair or you are more likely to slump. Sit up straight with shoulders back, but be comfortable as well. Too straight makes you stiff, too comfortable comes across as careless.
  • Appearance – You can wear a JROTC or CAP uniform (no Scouting Uniforms). It comes across as professional & shows what you look like in uniform.
  • Service Academy Interviews – Young men get a fresh (shorter) haircut, wear a dark suit, even if it is a virtual interview. White shirt, conservative tie. If it’s a new suit, make sure the thread stay holders are off the pleats in the back of the jacket. Just look at the pleats and if there are long threads there, holding the jacket in place, cut those out. Young ladies can wear a modest suit or dress (not a super short skirt). Neat hair (not trendy or brightly colored). Modest makeup (if you use it). Mid height heels (no higher than 3”). Nails should be plain or freshly painted (no peeling polish.) This is a professional look worthy of such a high-level interview.
  • Eye Contact – If in person, make eye contact with the interviewer that is consistent (but not so intense that it comes across as creepy.) If virtual, look for the camera and try to look into the camera.
  • More Information – For further research, I’ve created a three-part blog on how we helped the Kay brothers get into their respective service academies.

https://elliekay.com/wpress/2018/06/12/its-academy-time-usafa-usna-usma-part-1/

https://elliekay.com/wpress/2018/06/19/its-academy-time-usafa-usna-usma-part-2/

https://elliekay.com/wpress/2018/06/26/its-academy-time-usafa-usna-usma-part-3 /

Mock Interview Panel – Zoom/Skype/GoogleHangouts

WHY:  This is an opportunity to compile a group of people to interview the student. It simulates the pressure the student will feel at the Congressional Panel. If they can experience it once before it actually happens, it will give them greater confidence.

WHO:  Your parents, educators or JROTC Leaders can help get a group together. If you’re in Scouting, they could help put together a panel for you. About 3 to 5 people who join all at one time (probably virtually) to interview you. It will last about 20-30 minutes, depending on how verbose the interviewee and the panelists are during the interview and the feedback section.

WHEN:  Sometime before the ALO and Congressional Panel interviews. You can send out a doodle (organizer) to the panelists to get a date that works for everyone. www.doodle.com

HOW:  Let someone serve as the organizer (maybe a parent) who will send out copies of the questions provided in this document. The questions are numbered.  (Or even send this entire file so they know what to look for in the interview.)

  • The organizer will assign different questions (by number) to the different panelists ahead of time (dividing it up equally).
  • Everyone will join the call and the organizer will welcome everyone, then provide an order of who asks questions first, second, etc. Then the panelists take turns asking their questions and taking notes.
  • I suggest the organizer give a copy of all the questions to each of the panelists ahead of time so they can take appropriate notes.
  • Parents will count uhs, ums and filler words.
  • Each panelist can also add ONE question not on the file so that the student gets to answer extemporaneously (something they didn’t prepare ahead of time.)
  • NO feedback comments from panelists (other than questions) will be made DURING the interview. This is simulating a real interview.
  • At the end of all of the questions, the organizer will say “Thank you for coming today.” That marks the “end” of the formal interview. Next–the feedback session.
  • Then the panelists will take 2-3 minutes each to give feedback verbally. I suggest a “feedback sandwich.”  Say something encouraging first, then the “meat” of what needs to be improved, then something encouraging again. Please do not select panelists who are overly critical—this will not improve the student’s confidence. We are looking for constructive feedback, NOT constructive criticism and there is a difference. It’s the mindset of helping versus a mindset of being critical.
  • The panelists can scan and return their written feedback after the mock panel.

For the actual questions, you can email us at assistant@elliekay.com and ask for Mock Interview Questions.