The moment I heard the first question, I was stumped. There and then, I knew that I had blown my chances at The Interview.

That afternoon, which ironically and ominously happened to be April Fool’s Day as well, I headed down to the Ministry of Education (MOE) lugging a mixed bag of feelings. Before leaving the school where I taught English, I donned my neck-tie, struggling vainly to get the knot right. (After five tries, it was still not right.) Thereafter, I slicked back my hair with tap water in the washroom, combing it in place. First impressions counted, I knew. Glancing in the mirror, I scrutinised my appearance to ensure that I looked neat and proper. My earlier classes and meetings had drained me initially, but the sense of anticipation soon refreshed my spirits. An interview was scheduled with a panel of senior MOE officials. At stake for me was a brilliant career advancement opportunity: becoming a Vice-Principal.

The Interview had come as a surprise. After all, I had barely kept the seat of a department head warm for three months. Mock interview, check. Possible questions and answers, check. Now that I had prepared myself, I left the outcome to fate. April Fool’s Day soon arrived.

The elevator gave me a cold and sterile impression, but did its job and sent me up the tower. I stepped out into a reception area where I registered my name, took a seat, and awaited my turn. So far, so good. Being early was reassuring. No point thinking about The Interview. I chatted briefly with other interviewees, more out of courtesy than interest. But it was through polite talk that I discovered that I was the second last interviewee. I wondered if, among the candidates, I had been ranked lower beforehand. Fragments of laughter and conversation filtered through the door of the interview room into my ears. The candidate in there must be faring well. And of course I could not stop thinking about my performance. I did not want to be tongue-tied, and make myself look foolish. As the clock ticked the minutes laboriously, eventually, only the final candidate and I were left in the room. Knowing that I would be next quickened my heartbeat. My brain started swirling too.

At last, I knocked on the door, entered the room, and met my interviewers: two ladies and two gentlemen (if my memory serves me correctly). I recognised them by their placards on the table, instinctively taking note of the pecking order in the hierarchy. Following protocol, I greeted them before sitting down, mind gearing up for the first salvo. And – it was immediate.

“Why haven’t you attended MLS?” The blunt question was fired by the most important member of the panel. MLS?! I was speechless, my mind momentarily blank. What did that acronym even mean? Getting stuck at the very opening question is a nightmare for every interviewee. Rather than fumbling for a response, I decided to ask for clarification. No point hiding my ignorance. I scanned the expressions of my interviewers, and found them none too encouraging. The failure of The Interview was a foregone conclusion; I accepted it. So what would I do next?

“Don’t make it any worse!” a voice in my head ordered me. “Salvage what you can of the situation. Save your dignity! Maybe you’ll get another chance.” Flinging my disappointment out of the way, I regained some semblance of emotional stability. I answered the subsequent questions to the best of my ability, thanked the panel for the opportunity to be interviewed, and then it was all over. It was time for a post-mortem on The Interview, quite literally dead in the water. My disaster was horrifyingly truncated, compared to the interviews of previous candidates. Enthusiasm was lacking, enthusiasm which seemed to pour out of the room during the other interviews, further cementing my notion that I had scuttled my session. So be it, because life carries on. Still, there was a slight aftertaste of sourness, which made the evening seem moody, even dreary. I left the building, drifting in a daze through the humdrum buzz of traffic.

As expected, I was unsuccessful. My principal shared the verdict with me about a week later. “Not enough experience,” he pointed out, citing feedback from the interview report. A few good qualities were mentioned, from which I derived some consolation. I took everything in good stride.

Life has a way of making up for lost opportunities. About a year later – sooner than I would have thought – I was called up for another interview. This time, I was much better prepared. You can guess how this interview went (it’s not exactly a mystery!) This time, I was well-acquainted with the environment. I knew what to expect. I knew the format of the questions.

The lesson? Preparation and experience matter.

Let’s get real. We live in a world of ruthless selection. All of us, as we make our way through the career of our choice, are in turn the subjects of choices made by those who have the power to decide our path through life. All organisations hold interviews to select the fittest members, sieving through the wannabes and ferreting out the very best candidates.

This is how I see it: an interview is analogous to a match-making session. It allows an organisation to determine whether someone is a good match for a position. So don’t show up with nothing but hopes and good intentions; you won’t get very far. The classic formula for success – usually some permutation of looking good, speaking well and, by all means, impressing the interviewer with wit, knowledge and charisma – has stayed the same throughout the generations. Give yourself as much as practice and experience as possible. And if you hit a snag? Don’t give up. I didn’t.

This column is written by Sherman Tseng, our Director of Teaching and Curriculum. He will be conducting our Academic Admissions Prep workshop for Direct School Admissions (DSA) this March holidays, which will guide students through the interview process and help them craft their personal statement. Click here to find out more!