Admission interview

Admission interview

An increasing number of MSc study programs at our university are incorporating an interview into the admission procedure. Tiina Immonen from the TRANSMED program was the pioneer at the University of Helsinki who ventured first into this territory. If you are invited to an interview at the University of Helsinki, you have already taken the biggest hurdle, which is the evaluation of your application. To be accepted, you have to make sure not to screw up the interview. You don't need to be stellar, but you need to meet expectations. The reason is that interviews are notoriously tricky to evaluate, and therefore, many programs use them primarily to screen for red flags.

Red flags
What do I mean by "red flags"? Red flags are unequivocally unacceptable things. Typically deemed unacceptable are, e.g. failing to grasp basic concepts of science, illusions of grandeur, and total inability to address the question at hand. For specific programs, there might also be more specific red flags. If you applied for an informatics programme and the requirement is basic knowledge of programming, I would not let you get away with not knowing the difference between a while-loop and a for-loop. For a life science programme, you should know molecular biology's central dogma (i.e., that DNA replicates and information flows from DNA to RNA to protein). Sometimes, if your written application is at the border of admission/rejection, a stellar interview can push you over the border! I am not a big fan of interviews because they rarely measure scientific aptitude but communication skills. Don't get me wrong: communication is an extremely valuable skill in science, but it is not enough.

What happens during the interview?
Since the interviews are structured, all applicants will get the same questions*. If you have been asked to present a scientific paper (pre-selected or one of your choice), you will have to be prepared to answer questions related to your presentation. These are my recommendations for the interview:

  1. (If you can), choose the publication you are presenting carefully! If you have been working on a project during your studies (thesis project, internship), choosing a publication closely related to the topic is a good idea. It may be a publication that you contributed to. After all, you know more about things you did than about things somebody else did.
  2. In the best of all worlds, the interview is conversational. If your answers come over scripted and rehearsed, that does not make a good impression. Don't talk too fast, and don't talk too much. The limits are fuzzy, but it is about the quality and not the quantity of content.
  3. Stick to the rules that have been given to you: time, number of slides, and type of publication (original versus review article). Make sure to have a link to the original article. I also recommend going for an established and respected journal and an Open Access publication instead of some obscure outlet.
  4. Avoid too much text but instead show what was done in a graphical way. Some journals make this easy for you since they require from the authors a graphical abstract, which might be a good starting point for a slide.
  5. A good headset and a stable internet connection help. We don't punish anybody for limitations that you cannot work around. To appreciate your knowledge and passion helps a lot if we are able to understand what you are saying. Therefore, try to make the audio channel quality as good as you can.

*All questions are the same for all applicants, but there might be exceptions: The interviewer might ask you something specifically related to your motivation letter. If you have been too talkative, we might be forced to skip questions because there is a maximum time allocated to each interview.