Testing Applicants Before an Interview

Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) teaches essential critical thinking and communications skills even before they're applicants a part of the program.

Whenever an applicant to Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) is invited to interview for the program, they are met with a seemingly simple task. Before the interview, applicants are asked to address their three biggest accomplishments, a scientific or technical topic that they know well, and the potential for a recent biotechnology breakthrough.

Sound simple?

In fact, it can be a little more challenging than you would think, said Igor Kourkine, associate director and director of admissions for MBP.

"Despite the clear instructions," Kourkine said, "only a small fraction of the applicants do well on this assignment." 

You might be wondering how that could be. The fact is that although the questions are straightforward, the answers do require some thought. For example, instead of simply asking for an applicant's most important accomplishments, the exact question tasks students with formulating the questions according to the Google formula. The key to that formula is for an individual to frame their strengths in this way: "I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z."

"With the Google formula, they struggle to find a comparison or benchmark, or they don't reflect on what made them successful in accomplishing something, "Kourkine said.

For the scientific or technical topic, students are asked to frame their work according to the Minto Pyramid Principle, which essentially features a main statement followed by supporting reasons for that statement. As for the biotech breakthrough, applicants are asked to focus on how the breakthrough can impact society in the future.

When he asks applicants what they thought of the assignment, Kourkine said the answers are pretty consistent. 

"Applicants often comment on how the assignment was unusual or unexpected," he said. "Interestingly, when I ask applicants about the purpose of the assignment, they immediately think that it is to check their critical thinking skills, which is impossible in such a short assignment."

The reality is that this assignment serves multiple purposes, including:

  • allowing MBP to check if applicants can follow instructions
  • helping applicants learn useful tips on how to write resumes and paragraphs (this is a big reason for the assignment)
  • nudging them to learn more about the biotech industry
  • providing the opportunity to discuss critical and creative thinking with Kourkine during the interview since those are big themes within MBP.  

MBP places a large emphasis on communications and critical thinking capabilities. Learn more about each of them in this post about "Learning to Articulate Research's Significance" or this one on "The Critical Thinking Toolkit." To learn more about MBP, visit the MBP admissions page on our website.

McCormick News Article