You’ve listened to endless presentations, done your research, talked to counselors and older siblings, and debated with friends for hours. You picked your top three programs, applied, and waited anxiously to hear back from each. Finally, it’s time for the last step: the interview and Bechina.
You’ve likely already had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with a staff member at each program. That should have given you at least a limited sense of the “feel” of the program and the personality of (one of) the Rebbeim. The interview is the program’s chance to get a deeper sense of who you are, what you’re looking to get out of your year, and whether your skills and motivation level match with what they have to offer. Keeping these three goals in mind will help you set yourself up for the best interview possible.
One Rebbe described his approach to interviewing as just having fun. A relaxed, flowing conversation allows you to open up and speak comfortably, rather than be handicapped by nerves. Expect a few questions about your family, past summer plans, hobbies, favorite Jewish and secular subjects, and similar topics. Don’t make the person interviewing you have to dig around until he hits on something to talk about; think in advance and try to come with highlights or stories that highlight your personality or something about yourself.
Try to think about what makes you unique; no program can accept every applicant, so try to work in something about yourself that sets you apart from your peers. If you feel like you’re a great fit for a specific program, highlight some of the things you’ve done which demonstrate that. For example, a student applying to a learning-heavy program would do well if he could say he’s been working through something like Shas Mishnayos, Tanach, or Mishneh Torah on his own time. A student applying to a program which highlights a connection to Israel, on the other hand, would talk about his Israel advocacy or involvement in Israel-focused school clubs or summer programs.
A small but important point about presenting yourself is that your first impression speaks volumes. Dress as if you’re a serious, mature young adult and Ben Torah; even if you’re “Zooming” into your interview from your bedroom, think about what’s behind you and how that’ll look onscreen.
Different programs are built to offer very different experiences. If it’s possible to speak this way, they have different pictures of what a “model Talmid” looks like coming out of their program. Some Yeshivos present a learning-only model, others incorporate more Chessed, while another program ensures a solid exposure to the history and sites of Eretz Yisrael. Part of the interview is for the Yeshiva to get a sense if their goals match up with your goals.
The softball question will be, “What are you looking to gain from your year or years in Israel?” Whatever you answer (and I really hope it’s not the first time you’re thinking about it), be ready to continue that conversation. For example, if you respond that you’re looking to deepen your connection to Israel, you’ll want to also think about different ways you, your family, and your school connected with Israel growing up, and whether you’re planning on or considering Aliya at some point in the near future. If you explain that you’re looking to build a lifelong relationship with Torah learning, take some time to consider why that matters to you (above the fact that it’s a Mitzva) and whether you’ve started working towards that goal already in high school – and if not, why not?
The last, and generally the most nerve-wracking, part of the interview is the skills evaluation. It doesn’t do you any favors to get accepted to a program which is geared towards students with a totally different skill set than yours; no matter how prestigious the name might be, if it’s not where you’re at and you’re not looking to work to get there, don’t try to get in! That being said, most programs are not only looking for skills – they’re also looking for motivation. Someone who is self-motivated (and can demonstrate that with examples from the past couple of years) but doesn’t have the strongest learning skills will do much better long-term than someone who is technically stronger but less interested in growing.
To do well on this part, start by preparing whatever piece of Gemara you’ll be reading for the evaluation. Whoever is doing the interview knows that you prepared it – he doesn’t expect you to open up a Shas at random and do your best off the cuff. Therefore, there is literally no excuse to not read the piece fluently. The words should flow, you should know where the question ends and the answer begins, look over any Pesukim quoted so you know what they’re talking about – you should be prepared enough that you could read your piece in your sleep. Again, that’s not misrepresenting yourself as more skilled than you are, as the assumption is you’ve prepared this piece. The Rebbe conducting the interview may probe with some deeper, more conceptual questions – he’s looking to gauge your experience with Gemara-type thinking and creativity, so give it your best shot. At the same time, a little humility goes a long way when giving your answers – confidence is good, overconfidence is not.
There’s a good chance you’ll be asked to read a small piece that you didn’t prepare, as well, which gives the interviewer a chance at seeing your actual skills up close. The only way to prepare for that is to take your Gemara classes seriously; even if you haven’t really been applying yourself until now, it’s never too late to start.
A solid interview gives you the best chance at getting that acceptance email a few weeks down the line. By preparing in advance to talk about who you are, what you’re looking to gain, and where you’re holding in terms of skills and motivation, you’ll feel comfortable and confident throughout the whole conversation. The hope is that both you and the interviewer walk away smiling, having enjoyed the opportunity to talk and learn together.
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