Elmira Kakabayeva, joint master's programme of the Graduate School of Urbanism HSE University Russia and Strelka Institute coordinator, on how to prepare for your admissions interview and pass it successfully.
The admissions process for Advanced Urban Design master’s programme is up and running. There are two stages that every candidate goes through. First stage — portfolio and thesis review, second stage — interview. On the surface, it all seems pretty straightforward: during the interview all you have to do is demonstrate motivation, clear understanding of the Programme and its aims, ability to formulate your opinion and of course your conversational skills. Elmira Kakabayeva — Strelka graduate and Programme coordinator — has interviewed dozens of candidates and noticed that despite the apparent simplicity of the second stage, many candidates make similar mistakes and, as a result, get rejected. Strelka Magazine asked Elmira Kakabayeva to make a list of 10 rules that will help you hit the nail on the head and pass your interview.
The maximum number of points you can be awarded for your interview is 30. Ability to support your thoughts with arguments, motivation, interest in the Programme, fluent English, erudition and readiness to collaborate will not go unnoticed.
If you think you do not need to prepare, think twice. Study the Programme details on the website beforehand. During the interview you should not ask general questions that are already answered online. A quick study of your interviewer’s work, including research and other publications, will also be helpful. Usually interviewers are either module curators or academic supervisors.
Do not ignore the required reading list. Every year, before the application period starts, Strelka updates the list of articles and books that candidates are required to read. It does not necessarily mean that you will have to talk about them during the interview, but they will help you to outline key themes for discussion. After all, you will meet total strangers and articles on particular topics will be among the things you have in common. If you disagree with something that you have read, do not hesitate to criticise and challenge it. By the way, you will find the required reading list for this year’s admissions interviews at the end of this article.
Rehearse your introduction. At the beginning of the interview you will be asked to introduce yourself. Keep in mind, that the interviewer has already studied your application and portfolio, so, on the one hand, you should limit your narrative and include only the most relevant information, on the other hand, do not overdo it — the interviewers cannot memorise every important detail. Do not start with your childhood — focus on your academic and professional record. By the way, the points you receive do not depend on the number of projects you have been involved in. Win the hearts of your interviewers with quality, not quantity.
Get your motivation straight. One of the first and most important questions is ‘Why are you applying for this programme?’. Try to establish it for yourself before the interview. Think about what you will gain after two years of study and how you are going to apply this knowledge. Explain what attracted you the most in the Programme. Answering with ‘I just liked the Programme’ or citing the Programme description with phrases like ‘Your Programme is aimed at those who want to become urban designers — I’m one of them’ will not suffice.
Formulate your questions in advance. It is standard practice for admissions board members to enquire at some point during the interview whether you have any questions. Some amount of preparation will save you from asking the obvious, while a good question will help you better understand the Programme, as well as produce a good impression.
Do not be too wordy. Standard interview duration is 20 minutes.It is very likely that you are neither the first nor the last candidate that the board is interviewing today. Be precise in your arguments, and if you think that you might get carried away, prepare a draft structure for your answers.
Relax. It is pointless to say ‘Don’t be nervous’, but bear in mind that this interview is a mutual process, not a questioning and definitely not an exam. You are meeting new people, so try to be open and smile — this will set the right tone for you and for the board. It is in your own interest to demonstrate communication skills: most of your work at the Advanced Urban Design programme will be teamwork. The board will expect you to be able to formulate your thoughts clearly, moderate a conversation and listen to others.
Demonstrate your erudition, but in a smart way. Show your knowledge and intellectual ability. The board wants to know how you think, what you read and what your interests are, as well as whether you are capable of critical thinking and conceptualisation. But be careful when using specific terminology and elaborately formulated statements, especially if you are not prepared to explain their meaning.
Do not fear the tricky questions. Because they are inevitable. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. All you need to do is form your own opinion, often right on the spot. Do not be afraid to improvise.
Do not be late. This may seem like the easiest rule, but not everyone follows it. If you have any questions concerning the organisational side of the interview, ask them in advance. Especially if you live abroad and in a different time zone. Your punctuality also demonstrates your motivation.
If you decide to apply for the Programme, here is a list of articles worth reading before the interview.
Rem Koolhaas "The Generic City", 1994 (published in the book S, M, L, XL, 1995) Pier Vittorio Aureli, Martino Tattara "Production/reproduction: Housing Beyond the Family", Harvard Design Magazine #41, 2015