• Mark Efinger

Developing Your Personal Story...Part II

Developing Your Personal Story

For the interview

By Mark Efinger

Part II, continued from Last week’s article.

Steering the Open-ended Question

The second most common first question college or independent school interviewers use is, “So, tell me why you want to go. . . (fill in the name of the school).” If you have developed and practiced an answer to the first question we addressed last week, “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”, are you sunk? No, not at all. The secret is to recognize that the first volley in nearly every interview is an open-ended invitation. It is the opportunity to present an introduction to you: your most effective Personal Success Story, and how this is relevant to the program for which you are applying. The Interviewer is giving you the ball and letting you run with it.

A clarifying question, or simple re-direction will allow you to tell the success story you have planned and practiced. For example, if the interviewer begins with, “Why do you want to come to our school?”, your interview rehearsals should have helped you to become comfortable redirecting. There are many ways to steer this conversation and you will get better at it, if you practice. One simple strategy would be to say, “My background has made me very _____________. (Fill in with the theme of your personal story – further discussed in next week’s installment.) And from what I know of your program, _____________ is a key factor to success here. Let me explain how that came about, OK?” Since the interviewer is just trying to get the conversation going, there will not likely be any objection.

Now you have the right to launch into your planned achievements, provided you focus on how each demonstrates the quality you mentioned above. At the end of this personal story, come back to the interviewers original question. You would wrap up your personal story with, “And so when I was researching your website, I noticed, this ___________ quality of mine, would be rewarding. And that’s why I’m thrilled to be here with you today.” Experience using these strategies during rehearsals with a good coach will help you to get comfortable while steering the conversation.

Mining your past to serve your future

Your theme, however, is not the first thing you need to determine when you are developing the story. As stated in the first installment of this blog, you should first concentrate on your most relevant achievements. Many people have trouble with this. We tend to be painfully aware of our shortcomings or the things we have not done, rather than those we have. Our lessons in the social graces have taught us not to blow our own horns. Modesty and humility make us discount experiences that have taught us valuable lessons and created profitable habits. Try brainstorming around what you have done. Worksheets can be very helpful here. Discussions with a mentor or coach will help you recover the experiences that have made you who you are and an attractive candidate to the right programs. Presenting these experiences with optimal language will make you the best candidate. Once you have a list of about ten achievements you are ready to select the best ones for your personal story.


The achievements that can be expressed in the following format will have added relevance:

A problem identified, or a goal set. Lead you to analyze, plan and determine skills you needed to acquire. Then you researched opportunities to gain these skills. You practiced or worked at it for a considerable time. Only then, achieved success.

The acceptable variations of this formula will all show how you have systematically and consciously prevailed while gaining useful habits and profitable skills. If an achievement you have chosen cannot be described in these, or similar terms, keep thinking of different examples that can. Pick the most exciting and defining achievements in your life, but be sure the last one you choose for this story seems to lead naturally to something specific about this college, school or even a particular program. Each achievement should begin with a recognition about your life. You discovered a team you wanted to join, or realized that you were interested in a subject, or sought a particular position. You set a goal. You then analyzed and identified the requirements or skills necessary to make the team, or win the position. Then, you began to prepare. Your preparation was relentless. You hit the gym developing a workout schedule that you followed for a year. You identified a need for an app and taught yourself to code. You took a course in woodworking. You hung a basketball hoop on the garage and started practicing your shot. You spent 10 hours a week sketching buildings and researching architecture in your city. And then, by working your plan, finally, you achieved the goal. This achievement, eventually, lead to the next, which eventually brought you here to XYZ college, where you hope to continue to explore and learn in this vein.


For Part 1 of “Developing Your Personal Story”, click on On this website Mark Efinger, the Founder and President of The Interview Skill Coaching Academy, publishes weekly blogs focused on Interview Skills. “Developing Your Personal Story” is only one of the major tasks necessary to appropriately prepare for any interview.