By the SMU Social Media Team
Singapore Management University (SMU) is well-known and well-regarded for its commitment to holistic admissions. That means the University assesses potential students not just on their academic results, but also their CCA records and personal statements. Once shortlisted, these candidates are invited for an admissions interview.
How should aspiring SMU students prepare for this admissions interview? In short: be yourself (although, for starters, you should be a meticulously punctual and appropriately groomed version of yourself). While that may not seem as easy as it sounds, it’s not an approach that you should overthink unduly either.
But first things first: What happens exactly during this admissions interview? Well, candidates are usually called in for small group interviews and may be asked to read an article within a stipulated time. They then participate in a discussion of the issues explored in said article, with the conversation facilitated by SMU faculty using the University’s signature interactive pedagogy.
As to whether there is a fixed set of questions during the interviews, Sum Yee Loong, Professor of Accounting (Practice) at SMU’s School of Accountancy, says that while “there are some common questions that I tend to ask”, there is “no specific list or format. Additional questions could also arise from the candidates’ profiles or interests.”
To ensure an equal playing field, the grouping of candidates is completely random, and different groups are not allowed to communicate with one another. In addition, the faculty facilitating the discussions do not know ahead of the interview the educational institutions that the candidates have recently graduated from, nor the nationalities of the candidates.
Dr Ma Kheng Min is a Senior Lecturer of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources and Director of Undergraduate Admissions for SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business. In the latter role, she designs the admissions system and sometimes conducts admissions interviews for the Bachelor of Business Management programme. What the faculty members are looking out for during this process, she says, are not students who can give “correct” answers. “We look for candidates who are good listeners, who can grasp ideas well and think on their feet.” That’s why her advice to interviewees is simple: “Have a good night’s sleep, because then your mind will be clear.”
“…you don’t win participation points just by opening your mouth…The key is to collaborate and build on others’ ideas.”
Some might think that such an interview format favours more outgoing personalities, and possibly shortchanges those who are more introverted. That is not the case, says Dr Ma. “Firstly, you don’t win participation points just by opening your mouth,” she asserts. Candidates who constantly fight for ‘airtime’ are a bad fit, Dr Ma says. “The key is to collaborate and build on others’ ideas. We are looking out for how well they work with other people.”
False bravado will also not get you anywhere. And those who try to ‘smoke’ through the discussion are liable to be penalised. “It’s better to be upfront about things you don’t know,” she adds. After all, that honesty is also a marker of confidence, which is a plus.
Prof Sum who has been conducting admissions interviews for nine years, and says that “confidence, a personal value system, and self-motivation” are some of the traits he looks for during the interview process. “You can discern those qualities through things like a firm handshake, making eye contact when answering questions, and the ability to admit uncertainty about topics they had not thought about deeply before.”
So, candidates who are more introverted have no reason to fear that their personalities will count against them. Says Dr Ma: “Some students are quieter, but they observe the discussion, and when they have a point, they bring it up, and they make a lot of sense. That tells us they are listening and thinking before they speak.” There have also been more reserved candidates who are candid about wanting to polish their speaking skills. “Then we know we can add value by helping them to grow during their time at SMU.”
That said, people who are terrified by this interactive style of learning need to be mentally prepared, she says. “You need to participate in order to learn. We are looking for an ability or willingness to thrive in our kind of learning environment. So they must at least be able to communicate and share new ideas.”
Student Darius Tan, for instance, first applied for a spot in SMU’s School of Law in 2016, but only gained acceptance on his second try the following year. His first interview in 2016 was “nerve-wracking”, he recalls. “My group was asked whether professional athletes taking muscle products such as protein powders were considered unethical. The person on my right had to argue that it was ethical, while the person on my left had to argue that it was not. I had to come down to a conclusion. I stammered a lot as I had to weigh and evaluate their arguments, but I could not think of anything more evaluative than my fellow interviewees’ arguments. I basically repeated their answers. I believe this was the reason I did not get in on my first try.”
For his second go, he applied for a scholarship, and the interview questions he encountered then turned out to be of a more personal nature. “Among others, I told them about my hobbies, life experiences and goals.” His advice for candidates: “Read widely, stay calm, think clearly, and don’t let your nerves affect you.”
“Stressing out only demoralises you. Being relaxed and confident will benefit you the most. Be open-minded.”
Fellow student Eunice Koo from SMU’s School of Social Sciences agrees. “Stressing out only demoralises you. Being relaxed and confident will benefit you the most. Be open-minded. Take this as a learning experience and remember to leave an impression!”
She had that in mind during her interview, when she was asked the ice-breaker question: What would your spirit animal be? “I knew I had to come up with a memorable answer that would stand out from the rest. I answered that my spirit animal would be the otter, because otters intertwine their feet with one another in order to stick together, and that reminded me of the close-knit relationships I have with my friends and family.”
Prof Sum agrees, recalling a particular interview that stood out for him: “This particular student was bubbling with energy, and was doing something most mundane but was able to look at the positive aspects and areas that he was actually benefitting from.”
But while being able to respond nimbly to unexpected questions is great, you should, of course, still do some basic homework. Draw some inspiration from Eunice’s sensible preparations: “I made sure I knew basic information about the course I was interested in, and prepared answers about why I was interested in this course. I also made sure to prepare answers about my hobbies and accomplishments, so that I would not enter the room completely unprepared. I would recommend writing out a list of interesting work experiences, hobbies or interesting books you’ve read, so that you can always fall back on these if you’re stressed during the interview.”
One final note for applicants attending interviews for the 2020 undergraduate admissions: With the current COVID-19 situation, there may be changes as to how the admissions interviews will be carried out. So remember to check your emails for the latest correspondences to avoid missing out on any key information.
For the latest updates on SMU’s undergraduate admissions interview arrangements, refer here: admissions.smu.edu.sg/admissions/important-dates