How to ace the much-dreaded SMU admission interviews?

Discover a different U! This is the slogan you will see when you visit SMU Open House. Compared to the other universities in Singapore, SMU promotes a more interactive learning environment: no lecture hall, no tutorial room, but seminar rooms with table layout that is conducive for discussion. Yes, basically you need to talk more as a student in SMU. And the talking starts even before you get admitted, because everyone applying for SMU has to go through an interview.

But don’t panic. The big picture here is since everyone has to go through an interview and SMU has to accept a few thousand students into its cohort, it won’t be super-competitive, except for the law degree. (Those who told you it’s dog-eat-dog kind of process probably just want to impress you with how good they are to pass the interview.) And your interview score is just one component of assessment. Don’t forget your grades, which are definitely more important. And your teacher’s reference letter, which will also be taken into account.

SMU interview guide

So take a breath and let’s look at some common interview questions to see what we mean by that. The questions can be generally divided into 4 types: personal experiences questions, SMU-related questions, brainteasers and current affairs.

Tell me your greatest achievement in your high school.

This question is very likely to be asked, but surprisingly many students are still caught on the spot. Stay away from stories like getting an A for your paper or class project. Say something less academic. Think about your CCA. Were you a regular volunteer at an organisation where you contributed a lot? Did you manage to encourage your teammate in a competition so everyone stayed motivated?

 Regardless of your experiences, you need to give one specific example where you achieved. The interviewer is much less interested in knowing what you got in the end. A medal or a certificate? It doesn’t matter that much. They are much more interested in the process. It must be a process where you overcame some kind of difficulty or odds. You must have displayed good qualities such as perseverance, teamwork, creativity and so on.

 Tell me your greatest failure in your life.

Again, an equally common question during SMU interview. It’s not easy or pleasant to talk about failure. But if you are being sincere in giving your answer, no one will fault you for having failed. The choice of example is important. Give an example where you truly failed, i.e. you must have been disappointed.

 “On the day of presentation, we discovered there was a typo on the slide. I feel given more time, we could do a better one.” We are not sure if this is a failure or an imperfection.

 Again, the interviewers are more interested in learning what you learnt from your failure and how you pulled yourself together, less about what specifically you failed on. So they want to know you through the event, not the other way round.

What do you do outside school?

This question is asking your interest, hobbies or literally, things that you do while you are not in school. You may talk about your CCA, but that’s less ideal since it’s still “in school”. You want them to know a different side of you.

 Believe me, everyone is interesting. You don’t have to climb the Mount Everest outside school. You don’t need to impress your interviewers. Just be yourself and be passionate about your outside-school happenings. Volunteering, cycling, taking care of a younger sibling and so on. But you may want to avoid things that will be considered “not so nice”, say playing computer games. But again, nothing is for sure. You can talk about it if you take it as a positive recreational activity or even learning tool, while not being addicted to it.

 There are more personal experiences questions. “Tell me about a time when you didn’t feel confident.” “How did you solve conflicts in the past.” “What kind of leader are you in school.” “Your strengths and weaknesses”. But they are basically variations of each other. Take some time to note down the things you have done or experienced in the past few years and have a “story bank” ready to answer the questions.

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 Why do you want to study this major?

This is a standard question for admission interview. But still many students don’t prepare adequately for this important question. Their answers tend to be short, uninteresting and unconvincing. There are a few things you can include in a good answer.

 You may be really very interested in the major. Then just tell your story. What was the moment of inspiration that got you interested? It could be a research project, or it could be a conversation with a teacher. Alternatively, you may not have such an epiphany, but it was rather a continuous process of exploration that made you interested in the major. Then it could be something related to your family, your part-time work experience, the books you read or  the TV you watched.

 However let’s be honest, many of you wouldn’t be that passionate about the major of your choice. You are just fine with it; it looks interesting or promising or your parents recommend the major to you. But still, you need to show interest. One good way is to read up the news surrounding the field you are studying. If it’s information system, talk about the recent trend in big data. If it’s political science, talk about the development in local elections. Your knowledge of the relevant news is a sufficient proof of your interest in the field.

 Why SMU?

They like to ask this question especially when the degree program you are applying to is also available in the other universities. And it’s such a valid question right? Really, why SMU, not the others?

 Don’t say I choose SMU because it’s near to my house, or you guys have lower admission cut-off point (if that’s the case), or I want to get the scholarship from the university. Even though they may be part of the true reasons of you applying, just keep them to yourself.

 You should understand why they are asking this question. The question should be interpreted as “What do you understand about SMU.” Hence it is to test how much research you have done on the university.

 Spend a few hours browsing through their website, read their admission blogs and discussion in student forums. Note down a few specific examples where SMU is different. You can talk about its learning pedagogue, which 99% of your peers will mention too. Go deeper than that. Talk about some special programs they have, or a famous professor you admire for example. As long as they know you are serious enough to do your own research on SMU, you score an A for this question.

 How many text messages are being sent every morning?

Or how many Starbucks are there in Singapore? How many basketballs this room can be filled?

 Such question ask you for a specific number. Your first reaction would be “how would I know?”

 You are right. You wouldn’t know. Your interviewers also wouldn’t know. But they want to know your process of analysing the question.

 It is a process of guesstimation, guess based on intelligent estimation. The trick is to make reasonable assumptions. Let’s use the text message question. Start with the whole universe, which is the 5 million people. Out of that, lets assume only those in the age of 15 to 60 send text messages on a regular basis. That gives us a population of around 4 million. Assuming each one of them has a handphone, so we have 4 million handphone can can potentially send out messages. The population can be segmented further by those who are studying in pre-U institutions and those who are above that. They differ significantly by the number of messages they send out. Let’s assume a typical high school student sends out 2 messages a morning, while an adult sends 8. Impute that number to the population, and you will get your answer.

 The correctness of the answer doesn’t matter at all. It’s how good your assumptions are and how confident you present your answer.


 What do you think of the education system in Singapore?

You will usually be asked for your opinions on current affairs and social issues. They may just ask you a question directly or have a discussion with you based on the article you gave to you to read beforehand. The issue can be anything of interest for discussion with a high-school student.

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 “Do you think our education system has put too much focus on paper-chasing?” “Should we put more resources to help the poor people in Singapore?” When discussing such issues, remember there is no right or wrong answer. But you need to have an answer. Ideally your answer should be balanced, containing two sides of the same coin. You need to talk about the good things of our education system, and also the areas for improvement. You may think the good things outweigh the bad things, or the other way round, and take a stand based on your comparison. You may want to go one step further, by giving your own suggestion. How to improve the education system? From which country can we learn?

 As a reminder, you may want to keep reading the newspapers in the month leading up to the interview, and familiarize yourself with the discussions going on. Try the Forum page for more sophisticated opinions.

 There are definitely more questions that interviewers can ask you. But they all fall into the three categories we just went through. Use this guide as a quick starting point to prepare, and we are sure you will ace your interview with SMU.