Part Two: NSLI-Y Interview

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After your semifinalist notification, the interview is one of the most important and most exciting components of the journey to being a NSLI-Y finalist! In this post, I wanted to talk about what I did to prepare for my interview, how the actual interview went, and give some tips about the overall process. (Warning: this is a VERY long post.)


I received my semifinalist notification in the afternoon on December 1st. It was the last period of the day, and I was absentmindedly checking my email; I knew that semifinalist notifications would come out at the beginning of December, but I never expected to see mine on the first day. When I got my notification, I wanted to scream! Luckily, we only had 40 minutes of school left, so I was able to keep my composure until then!


To prepare for the “big day” I scoured a ton of NSLI-Y blogs for interview tips, and most importantly, interview questions that past participants have mentioned. I compiled the questions into one big list, and started preparing. One thing that really helped me prepare was to do mock interviews with another person, in my case, my mom. About once a week, while doing the laundry, my mom would ask me questions from the list (or sometimes come up with her own trickier questions), and I would practice responding to them. It was casual, but it helped to have the input of another person. As I answered each question, I also thought of a few real examples from my own life, or personal experiences that I could reference, which would strengthen my stance. A lot of the ideas that I drew from had to do with my previous language knowledge and learning, and how I would apply those skills to my NSLI-Y studies, as well as my experiences interacting with people from different cultures and backgrounds, such as my refugee friends, etc. To help you prepare, here is the link from where I got most of my sample interview questions. I have heard from some people that NSLI-Y uses similar questions each year, but personally a lot of my questions were different from the list. Nevertheless, they are still trying to evaluate the same qualities.

My Interview:

My interview was on Saturday, January 14th, in a library in Austin. When I arrived there, there was another semifinalist for Korean Summer and a Hindi Summer alumna. It was really nice to talk to them, especially the alumna, since she gave me a lot of insight about her experience, and as a fluent Hindi speaker and Indian American, we had a lot to talk about! I didn’t realize it at the time, but just that casual conversation made me at ease for my interview.

Prior to my interview, the three interviewers had split up into two different rooms, so I expected mine would go the same way. It wasn’t until they called me in that I realized that I would be interviewed by all three of them. That made me a bit nervous, but they were so nice and made me feel so comfortable, that I was really able to be myself. There was one main interviewer, who was a YES Abroad alum who was going to the University of Chicago. All three were really personable, and they were genuinely interested in what I had to say.

The main interviewer started the session off by asking me some very basic questions like which program I applied to, etc. Then she asked me who wanted me to apply to NSLI-Y. The question threw me off for a second, until I realized that they were trying to make sure that I wasn’t applying under parental pressure. I answered by saying that this was definitely a decision of my own, and although my parents were supportive, my mother was a little worried about me going abroad for the summer. I added that she was currently speaking to the alum outside, and last I heard (before being called for my interview), she seemed more positive about it.

After the basics, we went on to talk about more difficult questions. Here are the ones that I can remember:

  • Why Arabic?
    • I connected my interest for Arabic with my career goals, and how I wanted to go into diplomacy or foreign affairs. I also talked about how I was fascinated by the linguistic connections between Arabic, Hindi, and Romance languages, and how I wanted to know more. At this, they asked me if I had any prior knowledge, to which I said that I could read the script, and had done a bit of research about the linguistics of Arabic and Spanish specifically.
  • Why do you think NSLI-Y is important?
    • I talked about how I believed that immersion was the best way to learn a language, and how the rigorous immersion experience that NSLI-Y will give me would result in a really strong foundation in Arabic which no textbook or solely classroom-based program could provide. I connected my theoretical response with my personal experience of speaking Hindi, and how I saw a notable improvement in my accent with my trips to India.
  • Describe your ideal host family:
    • I said that for me, an idea host family would be someone who would push me to use my Arabic, and correct and guide me as I learn the language. I said that I would want a family that would really encourage me to practice the target language, and not hesitate to give me input on my accent, grammar, etc. My interviewer then presented me with the situation of a family who was eager to practice English with their American exchange student. To this, I responded by saying that I would make a compromise with my host family, so that we both would be able to benefit. I would really appreciate my family’s enthusiasm to practice their English, and would hope that they would support me as I learnt Arabic.
  • Besides the language and culture, what are a few things you would want gain from this program?
    • For this, I talked about how developing myself as a linguist, and continuing to analyze linguistic connections between Arabic and other languages was one of my goals abroad. I also talked about how I would cherish the opportunity to embrace a different way of life, in a family and home very different from my own. Finally, I talked about how, in school, my peers don’t generally share the same passion for language study and international affairs, and it would be really nice to get to know like-minded people with whom I could relate to on the level of my interests.
  • What are your extracurriculars?
    • I hadn’t intended to spend a lot of time talking about this, but it was actually where my interview took an interesting turn. As I was talking about one of my extracurriculars, dance, I told my interviewers about my upcoming  production, “Displaced”, which depicted the refugee crisis through Indian classical dance. My interview was on the 14th, which happened to be exactly a week before the day of the production, so I invited my interviewers to the event. While they couldn’t make it, they asked me so many questions about it (more like a conversation and not an interview), and we spent a really long time talking about how I got involved with refugees, the scope of my production, and my inspirations. It was really exciting for me to see that my interviewers were so excited about this, and they wanted to know more. In fact, in the entire 30 minute interview, this was probably the topic we talked the most about!

Overall, I left the interview room feeling happy and confident, and I felt good as I walked out. While, later, I did have some second thoughts as I felt I should have spent more time talking about my previous foreign language study and less about my production, after some consideration, I realized that it just went to prove that I was interested and committed in pursuing something with dedication, qualities that I think NSLI-Y values.


Now for some basic tips. Everyone has a really unique interview experience, but here are some personal tips based on what I’ve learnt:

  • Know what NSLI-Y looks for.
    • In addition to gauging your interest, a lot of the questions in the interview try to assess if you have the qualities that NSLI-Y regards as most necessary for thriving overseas: maturity, flexibility, cultural sensitivity, etc. Make sure you keep this in mind.
  • Prepare with another person.
    • Your friend, your sibling, your parent- anyone who you think can really give you feedback on what you say, and can help you get that authentic interview experience.
  • Brainstorm some personal experiences.
    • It’s really important to have real anecdotes or stories that you can use to answer the different questions that are posed to you. Just like your NSLI-Y essay, examples form the basis of a convincing stance. You might find that adding an example makes your answer feel more genuine and brings out your personality to the interviewer.
  • Know what you want from NSLI-Y.
    • Be sure to reevaluate what you expect from the program, why you want to study a certain language, and why you think this program is for you, considering academic and career goals. It will really help you justify a lot of the questions.
  • Have a clear idea of yourself.
    • Like I said for your personal essays in my previous post, come up with a set of qualities that you want to convey, and try to let your answers create that character for you. Remember, the interviewer can’t make any decisions, but they are the only link between you and NSLI-Y. Make sure they see what kind of person you are.
  • Present yourself well.
    • Dress presentably, and try to speak smoothly. Keep in mind, however, that the only thing that NSLI-Y evaluators will see are your interviewer’s notes. That means that if you ever stammer or mess up, it is really not a big deal, as long as it’s not a consistent issue. Try to speak professionally, but if something doesn’t sound as eloquent as you wanted it to, don’t overstress.
  • Think about your answers.
    • Don’t memorize things prior to your interview or try to deliver your answers right away. Be natural and take time to collect your thoughts. It is OK to ask your interviewer to repeat/rephrase a question, or give you some time to think. In the end, what matters is that you can come up with a good, honest answer.
  • Your interviewers are resources.
    • Your interviewers are amazing sources of information. Chances are, they have studied abroad before, and they are more than happy to give you tips and answer questions. In the last few minutes of the interview, I asked them some questions such as how they maintained their language skills after studying abroad, and what tips they had for learning a new language as a complete beginner.

I really hope this extensive post will be of use to you. Just be honest, have fun, and let them really see who you are. Good luck!

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