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While offering an answer to another question on this site (this one if you're interested), I was reminded of a particularly challenging experience that occurred during my interview process that might generalize to others.

I went to a decently well-known and respected undergraduate university, and while I was interviewing for a PhD position at various schools, at least one of my interviewers usually asked me how I could help his son/daughter/nephew, etc. get into my undergraduate university. This was not at the end of the interview when all other questions (both his and mine) were answered, but rather it was at the very beginning of the interview (e.g. "Oh, I see you went to university X. My [insert familial relationship] is applying there this year/next year. How can s/he get in?")

Not knowing if I was in a position to decline to comment, I gave some brief, generic suggestions and then tried to steer the interview back to my own application and admissions.

I can see this possibly happening in many scenarios, from graduate admissions (like my own experience) to possibly postdoc or faculty job interviews. Has anyone else faced this sort of situation before (off-topic questions that while not "illegal" are somewhat uncomfortable to answer), and any suggestions on how to diplomatically handle it?

  • Perhaps something along the lines of "I'll be more than happy to discuss this further with you if/when I am accepted/hired here. As I was saying, ...". – Mad Jack Jan 14 '15 at 0:08
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    I would be put off, not only by the interviewer's bad manners, but also by his/her lack of understanding of how academia works. Surely he/she knows that undergraduates have no inside information, let alone influence, concerning admissions? If you do pursue a PhD here, please do not ask this person for any help navigating the academic job market. – Anonymous Jan 14 '15 at 2:50
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    That said, maybe the question was meant in jest? In any case, I think shrugging, smiling, and saying something like "I don't know. I wish him/her the best of luck!" is a good answer. – Anonymous Jan 14 '15 at 2:52
  • @Anonymous I really think your comment above is a good answer (not just a comment). – scaaahu Jan 14 '15 at 5:33
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Such a question at the start of an interview sounds to me like a poor "warmup" question - meant to be an easy lowball, and failing miserably. As such I think a light answer is all that would be expected - they are not asking for help, but thinking this is one you could easily answer. Your reply should demonstrate you can think on your feet, without appearing to put the interviewer down and without really engaging in an answer. For example

I met such a variety of people there that I really can't tell you what they had in common - I guess you would have to ask the admissions office

That's probably quite truthful, while being completely evasive. And then you can move on.

  • I don't think the question was meant to be an easy lowball, just unprofessional. – Kimball Jan 14 '15 at 5:06
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    Sure, definitely an improvement. – ff524 Jan 14 '15 at 5:47
  • @Kimball Regardless of whether it was mean to be an easy lowball, treating it as one may be the best strategy. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 30 '16 at 21:19
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Well, if I am on that situation, I would first try to think positively instead of realizing that it's an off-topic question. Maybe they are asking that to know how competitive the university is and hence, how competitive I am. By having a positive mind, I think we can answer the question in a quite diplomatic manner, such as explaining approximately how many students get into the university each year (particularly in our class) and telling them how we could get into that university (for instance our high school grades or our SAT score, etc.).

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Is it possible to reframe the question, a bit akin to ak001, make it about what got you into that university. "I don't know your [...]. When I applied, I ..." and then highlight the strengths (diplomatically and without bragging).

In any case, I wouldn't take that question too seriously. Could simply have been poor impulse-control (perhaps the person had had a stressful day so far) and s/he did not think too deeply about what s/he was saying.

  • I like this - turn it into an opportunity to talk about your strengths (which presumably contributed to your getting into X). – Floris Feb 23 '15 at 20:50

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