Practice makes perfect: 29 practice exchange student interview questions and answers

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Since I wrote it in late 2016, my article giving advice on student exchange interviews has become the most popular page on this website.

At the time of writing this article, about 200 people per week – roughly 10,000 per year – are logging on to get my advice on how to outperform the competition in their student exchange interviews. (November 2018 update: the number is now 300 per week, or ~15,000 per year).

This post aims to help those people even more, by giving 29 practice questions and answers of a kind that could be used in a student exchange interview.

Bolzano - Exchange Student Tips
Bolzano, Italy (Photo: Jim Hedd/Flickr)

Short disclaimer

Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee that the selection panel which interviews you will ask any of the questions which follow. Indeed, they might ask you a totally different bunch of questions.

What I can say is that these are the type of questions which a selection panel will probably ask you. Working your way through these questions will help you to think about the general topics which you’ll talk about in your interview.

How to use this page

I’ve set this page up in a kind of question and answer format. The questions are given in bold text. My notes about how to answer are below each question in normal text.

To train up for your interview, I suggest that you do the following:

Begin by finding a quiet and private space where you can talk aloud.

Then, interview yourself. First, read out each question to yourself aloud. Then, close your laptop or put down your phone and answer the question out loud, as you would in an interview.

Answer all of the questions. Talk in complete sentences and answer each question as fulsomely as possible. Answering all of the questions should take you at least a couple of hours. By the time you’ve answered all 29 questions, you should be exhausted.

Is interviewing yourself in this way kooky? Sure. However, for whatever reason, you usually perform better in an interview if you’ve previously answered the questions the panel is asking you. Interviewing yourself should make you more confident and relaxed going into the interview. Try it.

Here we go:

Ice breakers

  1. Why are you interested in going on exchange?

Purpose: Mainly an ice-breaker to get you talking and ease your nerves, but could also be probing to ensure that you aren’t applying on a whim or under pressure from your parents.

Response: Be truthful and upfront about your reasons for applying.

Your background

  1. Please tell us about yourself.

Purpose: Ice-breaker and to get to know whether you’re the type of person whom the panel thinks would make a good exchange student

Response: Talk about your family, your school, and likes and dislikes. But don’t ramble – one or two minutes total should be fine.

  1. Have you lived overseas previously?

Purpose: Living overseas can be difficult due to homesickness, culture shock, feelings of isolation and so on. If you’ve already done it and lived to tell the tale, you most likely can do it again.

Response: If you’ve done it, tell the panel about it. It’s OK to admit that you were a bit homesick or had culture shock, provided that you explain and emphasise how you overcame those challenges.

  1. What is the longest period you’ve previously spent apart from your biological family? Did you suffer from any homesickness?

Purpose: Similar to question 3, the purpose of this question is to determine whether you can deal with being away from your family for extended periods.

Response: Again, if you’ve done it and had some homesickness, it’s OK to admit this, provided you can also talk about your strategies for dealing with the homesickness.

  1. What do you hope to get out of being an exchange student?

Purpose: Again, to determine whether you’re applying to go on exchange for good, positive reasons, and whether you’ve thought about the pluses and minuses of being on exchange.

Response: You most likely have a number of motivating factors, but try to focus on the ones which accord with the aims of the exchange program.

  1. Do you think you’d make a good exchange student? If so, why?

Purpose: To test your self-awareness and to give you an opportunity to “sell yourself” a bit, by talking about some of your positive attributes

Response: Generally, exchange organisations are looking for students who are resilient, motivated and willing to assimilate, so try to think of some situations in which you’ve demonstrated those qualities. Although you should talk about your positive qualities and why they’d make you a good candidate to go on exchange, be sure also to mention a new situation which you found difficult or which tested you, and what you did to overcome those difficulties.

Your attributes

  1. What are your greatest achievements? Please tell us about one.

Purpose: To find out some of your good qualities and what you’ve achieved in the past. Arguably, someone who has overcome a lot of challenges or achieved great things previously is more likely to be a successful exchange student

Response: If possible, try to think of an example in which you overcame a significant obstacle or really had to persevere and work hard to get an outcome, rather than something that you achieved because of natural talent. For example, being picked to play on the school football team is impressive, but a selection panel will likely be more impressed by the story about how you had a significant injury and had to really work hard to re-habilitate yourself, regain your fitness and be back on the team.

  1. What do you rate as your greatest personal strengths and weaknesses?

Purpose: To enable you to sell yourself, but also (more importantly) to let the panel see how self-aware and honest you are

Response: Don’t go too hard on your strengths, or you may come across as arrogant. Mention one or two of your weaknesses (to show that you’re aware of them) and what strategies you employ to overcome them. For example, say “I can sometimes be a bit shy around people I don’t know very well, but I make a really big effort to approach people and try to get to know them”.

  1. As an exchange student, you’d be an ambassador for your home country. Do you think you’d be a good ambassador for your home country? If yes, why?

Purpose: The “diplomacy” aspect of student exchange is very important. The panel wants to make sure that you’re aware of this aspect, and will be interested in hearing about any relevant previous experience.

Response: If you’ve previously lived overseas or had any “official” or representative role (school captain, sports team captain) mention this here.

  1. Have you ever broken the law? If yes, please give details.

Purpose: Breaking the laws of another country can have serious consequences, including imprisonment and (in the case of narcotics offenses in some countries) capital punishment. Exchange programs like to know that the people they are sending abroad are law-abiding.

Response: Answer honestly. If you have broken the law previously, be sure to talk about how regretful you are and how you’ve learned from the experience.

Background knowledge

  1. What can you tell us about Rotary/AFS/the exchange organisation you’re applying for?

Purpose: To check whether you’ve done your homework and how motivated and interested you are to go on exchange with the relevant exchange organisation

Response: Mention a few key facts

  1. What is the capital of your intended host country?

Purpose: To find out your level of interest in your intended host country, as well as the depth of your general knowledge, overall.

  1. What is the name of the currency of your intended host country?

Purpose: As above

  1. Who is the governor of your state and the mayor of your home town?

Purpose: To find out the depth of your general knowledge and how interested you are in current / civic affairs

  1. Name three big companies who are headquartered in your home country and/or your local area.

Purpose: To find out the depth of your general knowledge about your home country and/or town. People overseas can often ask questions about the economic or social aspects of your home country; exchange organisations like to know that the people they are sponsoring to go on exchange have at least some knowledge of these issues.

Resilience and judgement

  1. Exchange students usually encounter a range of situations which test their resilience. Please share an example of where you were in a difficult situation. What did you do to cope with the situation and/or get out of it?

Purpose: To enable you to demonstrate your ability to come with, and overcome, adversity

Response: If possible, give an example about a situation where you couldn’t fall back on your family or close friends, to demonstrate you’re capable of overcoming adversity by yourself (as will be the case when you’re on exchange)

  1. If you had a problem with your host family, what could you do to resolve it?

Purpose: To test the appropriateness of your judgement and your ability to solve problems appropriately

Response: If it were a small, day-to-day matter (for example, a host sibling taking your things without asking), you could raise the issue with your host parent or with the sibling directly. If it were a bigger issue (for example, your host family breaking the law), you would need to talk to someone in your exchange organisation.

  1. What would you do if a teacher at school in your host country asked you to do something that you didn’t feel comfortable doing?

Purpose: Again, to check that you are able to act appropriately in a difficult situation, and understand the role that your host family will play

Response: Your first port of call in relation to school issues is your host family – mention that you would talk to your host parents first

  1. What would you do if your host brother or sister showed a romantic interest in you? Assume that you find him or her very attractive.

Purpose: To check your judgement in a difficult situation

Response: The best rule is never to have a romantic relationship with a host sibling until your exchange is over. The reason is that if the relationship goes bad, you will be living together with your ex boy- or girlfriend and his or her parents – who will never be on your side. Can you say “awkward”? So, you will always have to say no to any such attention from your host siblings.

  1. Assume that cannabis had been decriminalised in your intended host country. If your host brother offered to share a joint with you, would you agree?

Purpose: To check your judgement in respect of behaviour which is not illegal, but which may not be a good idea

Response: Just say no. Even if consuming cannabis is not illegal, you are more likely to have impaired judgement and act dangerously or in an offensive way if you are under the influence.

School life

  1. Have you had any leadership roles at your current school?
  2. Are you involved in any co-curricular activities at school – for example, sport, band or debate club?
  3. What is your GPA/what are your grades like?
  4. What are your plans for life after school?

Purpose: These are all questions designed to find out information about your background and your suitability to be an exchange student. Generally, the more you can show that you are a diligent, good-citizen student who works hard, the more attractive you will be as a candidate.

Choice of host country

  1. Why are you interested in doing an exchange in your chosen country?

Purpose: To test your motivation for going to a particular country. Are there certain drivers or “pull factors” which make you interested in your first-choice country (for example, an interest in a particular language or part of that country’s culture)?

Response: Be honest. An exchange organisation may be slightly suspicious of a student who can’t say why he or she is interested in living in a particular country, so try to think of at least a couple of things which interest you about your intended host country

  1. Would you be willing to go to another country if you didn’t get an offer from this exchange organisation for your chosen country?

Purpose: Competition for certain countries (such as Spain and Germany) is typically very high. The purpose of this question is seeing whether you’d be open to going to another country if you don’t get your first choice.

Response: Be honest. If you have your heart set on going to Spain, don’t say that you’d be willing to go to Mexico – odds are that you’ll get sent to Mexico. It’s OK to say that you want to go to Spain, and if you aren’t offered Spain, you’ll try again with another organsation.

  1. Are you willing to learn the language which is spoken in your chosen host country? Have you already taken any steps to learn that language?

Purpose: Learning the language of your host country is a huge part of going on exchange. Every exchange organisation will want you to learn the language, and learn it well. Any steps you’ve already taken to learn a language should work in your favour.

Response: You need to confirm that you are willing to learn the language spoken in your host country, and that you will work hard at it.

  1. Would you have any problem with being placed in a small, isolated town in your host country, in a rural or remote area?

Purpose: Many people going on exchange imagine themselves going to, and living in, big cities. They imagine living in Los Angeles or New York in America, London in the UK, and Sydney in Australia. The truth is that you are more likely to be placed in a small town, which may be in a rural or isolated location. You need to understand and accept this before you progress too far through the application process.

Response: You need to confirm that you wouldn’t have any problems with this scenario.

  1. Do you have any plans to travel whilst you’re on exchange?

Purpose: Many intending exchange students believe that their times on exchange will be an opportunity to undertake a lot of independent travel. However, most high-school exchange students aren’t able to travel much at all. This is a bit of a trick question.

Response: You need to reply that you aren’t going overseas with the purpose of doing a lot of travel, but that if you have the opportunity to travel with your host family, it would be a nice bonus.

I wish you every success in your interview.

Kind regards,

Matt

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