How to pass the Mandela Washington Fellowship Interview

Ogunbowale Olugbenga
7 min readJan 12, 2020


Sbukeli, Rooney & myself (L-R)

At my 4th attempt, and 2nd interview, I was selected as 1 of 55 outstanding young leaders out of 11,000 applicants from Nigeria and as part of 700 Africans out of 55,000.

I prepared for my semi-final interview like my life depended on it. I read every interview guide I could find (from the official YALI website & from fellows like Adepeju Jaiyeoba & Adebayo Alonge), put all of it into a Microsoft word document (that was nearly 80 pages long) and summarized it into 4 pages. Here is an updated, segmented version of the very principles that helped me scale through the interview & changed my life forever.

Before the interview

· Re-read your application

In my interview, more than 70% of the questions were directly related to my application. Review your application multiple times prior to your interview so that you can be confident and articulate when discussing your responses.


· Anticipate questions

Critically examine your application. Identify areas that may be unclear or require a bit of explanation. Prepare answers but do not cram your answers. Be prepared to explain why you chose your selected program track. Get ready with your elevator pitch (Who are you? Tell us a little more about what you do?).


· Get your punch lines ready

In the work you do, if you haven’t already, you need to have some punchy lines that helps not only to drive home your point but also to drive commendation and applauses your way. Spray your punch lines across your answers.

I was pitching the digital skills training part of and my punch lines were:

· What is economic advancement for a nation without progress for its youth?

· There is a huge skills gap between theoretical skills attained in school and practical skills sought by employers, our work in digital skills is helping youths bridge that gap.

· Nigeria’s greatest resource is not oil, it’s not gold, and it’s her youth. This is why investing in youth is a smart investment.

· In a digital economy, the currency of economic growth is digital skills.

· Our work emphasizes that digital skills is as important as a degree.

The goal is to leave your reviewers excited about your leadership skills & ruminating on your deep quotes.


· Get your clothes in shape:

At least 1 week to the interview and at worst, 48 hours to the interview, get your clothes ironed, starched and ready for the bid occasion. Don’t expect power supply one day to the interview or on the day of the interview. Plan ahead. You cannot afford to arrive like a thief in the night, with rumpled clothes and dust all over.


· Practice

Do practice interviews with your respected friends or colleagues who are familiar with your work and those who are not familiar with your work. You need both perspectives. You may try video calls or speaking to your mirror.


· Book a Hotel

If your interview venue (usually the US Embassy, consulate or American Corner) is far from your location, book a Hotel very close to the venue. I know the usual temptation is to stay with a friend of family member near the venue but if you can afford it, book a hotel or guest house. This affords you the opportunity to focus on the task at hand with minimal distractions. No unnecessary gist, no prolonged dinner. This is exactly what I did in 2019. And I arrived at the consulate ready to roll.

During the interview

· Be on time: nothing signals ‘unserious’ like arriving late for the interview. Fire your excuses and deliver results.

· Wear business attire: I arrived like James Bond with a suit screaming ‘success’ and a shiny shoe to match. The first interviewer even told me I looked nice. That certainly helped my confidence.

· Greet: Greet each person on the selection panel when you enter the interview room and thank each person when you leave.

· Remember the names

At the beginning of the interview, the panelists are likely to introduce themselves by stating their names. Ensure you remember their names so that you can use it whenever the need arises in the course of the interview.

Body Language

· Judge the mood and facial expressions of your interviewers

As you make progress in your interview, remember to look intently at your interviewers and judge their mood as you respond to questions. If you see an interviewer nod perhaps in agreement as you respond to a question, relax your facial muscles and add a smile before pushing your smile to the next panelist. If you find that they are looking bored, perhaps you have spent too much time responding to the question asked. Many times people are a reflection of the emotions we give.


· Watch your own facial expressions

You can’t be talking about high infant mortality rate and be smiling. Your emotions must match what you are pitching. Remember that one of the things that will be judged is also how passionate you are about your work. When appropriate, smile and generally be happy.


· Be natural, show passion & enthusiasm for your work

Be relaxed and answer the questions comfortably, each time taking a deep breath and sitting upright. You don’t want to sound like you are under pressure or lying. Your goal is to speak confidently & effortlessly.


· Posture

Hold an upright, but not wooden posture. Your body language should indicate engagement, confidence and composure.


· No fidgeting

Beware of nervous habits like fixing your hair, constant smiling, fumbling with your fingers or jewelry, and mumbling or raising your voice.


· Maintain eye contact

Engage everyone on the selection panel, not just the person asking a question. When asked a question, respond directly to the person who asked the question while also taking intermittent glances around the other panelist to be sure they are listening and following.


Respond Thoughtfully to Questions

· Answer the question you have been asked

The key to a successful interview is to answer the question asked, not the question you want to hear or are best prepared for. Be sure to listen to the interviewer carefully in order to hear the full question. Answer the question directly and fully.


· Listen carefully to each question and take time to consider your response so that you can respond both briefly and fully.

It is better to pause to think before you answer than to rush into a poorly thought out response. Avoid saying “That’s a good question” as a way to gain time to think. I know you have done so many amazing things and you really desperately want to share everything with the panel badly so they know you are a good fit for the program. Please resist the urge to ramble!


· Start with why

For every question you are asked, always do a quick dissection of it in your mind by asking yourself ‘why could the interviewer be possibly asking this question and how does it intersect with the program you are being considered for’. As you are thinking about that, let your mind also begin to construct extremely sharp responses to the question so that you leave them in doubt that you are the right person for the fellowship.


· Stunned? Buy some time

If a question stuns you, there are a few tricks to buy a few seconds to think about it. You can take some time to smile, you can ask that the question be repeated while you think or you can simply start by saying ‘that is a very good question’


· Be clear

Interviews are about creating positive lasting impression in the minds of the judges. Let them like not only the work you do but also your person and personality.

Chances are you aren’t the only one in your cause being interviewed. The difference will be in not only how you responded to the questions asked but also how you personally connected with them. Being clear helps in the creation of this personal connection as the interviewers won’t have to spend a lot of time trying to wade through a lot of irrelevant words before seeking out their answers. Aim to be so clear that by the time you are done, the judges know exactly what you are doing and can do a short pitch of your work.


· Be honest

If you do not know the answer to a particular question, admit that you do not know. Be truthful.


· Keep it simple

You do not have to keep talking especially when you have nothing more to say. Always be on the alert that you do not veer off from the conversation.


· Don’t be modest

Present your organization highly and project the impact that your work does to the community. Also indicate clearly why being selected as a fellow will amplify your activities and hence create more positive impact in the community. Know what you are doing and how it applies to the big picture.


· Share impact figures

Remember that the Mandela Washington Fellowship is for proven leaders. If you have excellent impact figures, no matter the question asked, ensure you never miss out on an opportunity to share them.

For example, if asked ‘tell us why your work is important’, don’t just get fixated on the problem and running some statistics around it, ensure you end it with some impact figures e.g because of our work, more than 300 youths have secured employment.


· Be consistent with your story

No matter the question thrown at you, be sure to tailor your answer towards the specific project you wrote about in your application. Do not start talking about another project not captured in your application or not consistent with your track.

You can read all about my experience as a 2019 fellow in America here.

You can learn more about me here.

I look forward to welcoming you into the MWF family.

Go succeed!