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Articles / Applying to College / College Interview Advice for Quiet Daughter

College Interview Advice for Quiet Daughter

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | May 21, 2009

Question: My daughter has fallen in love with College XYZ and will have an evaluative interview later this summer. She is a bright girl and she does well meeting someone for the first time, but honestly she feels she lacks "Wow" power. She is quiet but not shy. It's a shame that you almost feel you need to make a lasting impression for these evaluative meetings. Should she role play and rehearse for this interview or just be herself? Any other tips for preparing for the interview would be appreciated.

Below you'll find some generic interview tips that I give to my college counseling advisees. Your daughter may feel more confident about her interview if she reviews them beforehand. Above all, assure her that it's pretty hard to screw up a college interview. Of course, some students get flummoxed and may not show off their best side, but only rarely is an interview a real deal breaker. In fact, the more selective the college, the less important the interview usually is. That's not gospel truth across the board, but overall it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. So if your daughter's dream college is one of those hyper-selective places like an Ivy, then it's almost impossible for her to torpedo her chances with a so-so interview.

When she reads through the advice, below, she'll see that the most important thing she needs to think about ahead of time is "Why College XYZ?" She may not be asked this, but she should certainly expect to be. When responding, she should make sure that her answers truly reflect what she likes about the school. It's a good time for her to let her academic passions shine through (e.g., by citing specific courses, professors, or facilities that genuinely appeal to her). The more specific she can be, the better. Also, if she already knows a student who goes to this college and likes it, it's good to say so and to even name names.

If your daughter is nervous when the interview begins, it's perfectly acceptable for her to say so. Confessing nervousness may actually make her less nervous, and it will make the interviewer more comfortable, too.

To help your daughter find that "Wow" factor, do a little bit of what my College Confidential partner Dave Berry calls "Achievement Dentistry." In other words, dig deep and determine what your daughter does that's really different or which truly excites her. Don't think along the usual application-fodder lines (e.g., Spanish club, debate society, etc.) And she doesn't need to have written a prize-winning novel or cured cancer either. Students often have quirky interests or atypical hobbies that they don't think are admissions interview material but often are, and interviewers like to hear about them.

Among the tips below you'll find some common interview questions. It wouldn't hurt to do a brief mock interview with your daughter and let her practice responding to them. She'll still "be herself," but this will give her a chance to try out her ideas in a comfortable environment. Ideally, in fact, you'd ask another adult she knows (neighbor, family friend, etc.) to play the part of the interviewer, which gives the dry run a more realistic feeling than if it's just her talking with Dad. She might also want to schedule an interview at another college that interests her prior to her session at College XYZ to help to get the kinks out.

If your daughter does well when at first meetings, she should be fine at her interviews ... and she might even have fun. She doesn't have to worry about making a "lasting impression" either. She simply should sound interested in the college she's visiting and, hopefully, about the world beyond it, too.

Good luck to all of you as you enter the admissions maze. Scroll down to see the interview tips.


While most colleges no longer require interviews, many “strongly recommend them." Certainly, having an interview is a good way to show admission committees that you are indeed interested. For those who can't get to campus, there are often interviews offered near your home. Check college Web sites or call the office of admission for details.

However, if you are compulsively shy and feel that an interview could actually hurt you, there are other ways to highlight your interest in your target schools, and an interview may not be the best bet.

In general, the more competitive a college is, the less the interview “counts." However, even at the pickiest places, a really super session (or a totally awful one) can sway admission decisions.

At the end of an interview, the interviewer will write a report. At some colleges, this will include a letter or numerical grade; at others, only comments. Keep in mind that most candidates receive some sort of a “B." In other words, the interviewer indicates that the session was fine, but probably nothing about it will impact the admission outcome for better or for worse.

Sometimes, when an interview is especially good, it's just the luck of the draw. That is, the applicant and interviewer really click. They share common background, interests, or personality traits. However, reading (and following) the advice below can help improve the odds of making an interview work for you.

Interviews can be held on campus or in your own community. Campus interviews may be conducted by anyone from the top dog on the admission staff to a faculty member to a student. Off-campus interviews are typically conducted by alumni but sometimes by traveling staff members.

Alum interviews tend to be a bit more informal than those conducted by admission staff members, and alums tend to like it when students ask them about their own college experiences and even their current work, so—if your interview is with an alum—try to relax and have fun, just as you might enjoy meeting any new, interesting person.

You don't have to get dressed up for an interview, but don't look too casual either. Avoid t-shirts, flip-flops, cut-offs, or any other attire that makes it appear as if you're not taking the occasion seriously. Use common sense when preparing your wardrobe, and leave the “Dartmouth" sweatshirt at home when you're heading to your Duke interview, along with the Coed Naked Ping-Pong tee.

The majority of interviews are conducted almost like casual conversations. Picture yourself sitting beside a stranger on a long airplane trip. He or she might ask you where you go to school, what you're studying, whether you like your school, etc. Typically subsequent questions are drawn from your answers. For instance, if you mention that you're an officer in the Community Service Club, then the next question might be "What does the club do?" or "Did you get elected to your job?"

However, interview formats can vary. Some are quite open-ended. The interviewer may begin by saying, “Tell me about yourself," and then expect you to take it from there. Others might have a more specific list of queries, some quite straightforward (“What is your favorite senior class?"); others more provocative (“What character from a book would you most like to be?") You may get some curve-ball questions, like the latter, but they aren't too common. (A friend of mine's daughter was asked, "What is your favorite sound?" That was one question she certainly didn't expect, but those kinds are surprises are pretty rare.)

The best way to prepare for an interview is to look over the list of frequently-asked questions below and think about how you would answer each one.

The most important question to prepare in your mind is "Why do you want to go to [Name of College]?" (or a variation on that, such as "What are you looking for in a college?" ) You may NOT ever be asked this, but it's likely that you will. Be sure you have some very SPECIFIC reasons. Don't just say "You have a good science program" because lots of colleges do. Don't say, "It's not too far from home," or "I like the [Boston, NY, East Coast, etc.] area," because, again, a hundred or more colleges would qualify there, too. Try to read about some courses or special programs or opportunities that are either unique to this particular institution or not found at the typical school.

Here are some other common questions:

• Can you give me a brief autobiographical sketch?

• What classes have you enjoyed most?

• What do you do outside of class?

• What do you do in the summer?

• What is your favorite book (or author)?

• Whom do you admire?

• What are your post-college plans?

•What will you contribute to this college?

• What aspect of college life are you most excited about?

• What aspect of college life are you most apprehensive about?

• In what ways do you want your college to be like your high school?

• In what ways do you want it to be most different?

• Is there any aspect of your transcript or overall application that may require some clarification that you would like to explain now?

• What else do you want us to know about you that we haven't covered?

Lately, “ethics" questions seem to be in vogue, especially at on-campus interviews. So don't be surprised if you're asked what you would do if you knew a classmate had cheated on a test or purchased a term paper on the Internet.

In general, your academic interests should come first when talking about what's important to you, but passion for non-academic areas can be important to because these things are all part of who you are and help make you stand out in the crowd.

Note, in fact, that I used the word “passion." One thing that really bugs interviewers is when an applicant seems pretty lukewarm about everything. If you end up on the edge of your seat enthusiastically describing something you love, chances are the interviewer will be excited about you.

Before your interview, jot down the key points you want to get across and then try to end the interview by adding, “There's something else I'd like you to know about me..." if you don't get to talk about what you most want to cover. It's fine to brag a little bit. You can probably tell the difference between speaking proudly of something you've accomplished and coming off as being a bit too full of yourself.

You can also use the interview to explain special situations, whether academic (e.g., skipping from Spanish I to Spanish III) or personal (a death in the family that affected junior grades). It's fine to mention struggles you had in a particular class, but avoid a whiny tone and frequent complaints about inadequate teachers who weren't wise enough to appreciate your brilliant potential.

Your interviewer will definitely ask you if you have any questions. and you should have some. Think of genuine questions you may have, make sure they're not easily answered in the catalog, viewbook, or Web site, and write them in a notebook that you can take into the session with you. (If you're nervous, it's easier to read questions than to remember them. Bringing a notebook with questions into the session will make you look well-prepared, not forgetful!)

Even if you've done a lot of research ahead of time, many interviewers will perceive a lack of questions as a lack of interest—or of intellectual curiosity. The type of questions you ask will say something about you as well. “Can I major in physics and still take engineering classes?" will make a better impression than, “Do the dorm TVs get premium cable channels?" (Don't expect your interviewer to be able to answer all your questions, especially if it's an alum interviewer who may not be up to speed on current courses, campus policies, etc.)

Here are some things you should NOT do in an interview:

Don't make a lot of excuses (I was sick the day of the SATs …, I wanted to get a job but my mother wouldn't let me … my history teacher didn't like me ... etc.) Sometimes, a poor grade, a bad semester, etc. really will require an explanation (e.g., the death in the family mentioned above). But a candidate with a whole litany of excuses does not sound impressive. Likewise, don't come off as a complainer. It's fine to respond honestly, when asked, that you don't like something, but too many complaints won't reflect well on you.

Don't act as if you've passed up opportunities because they were too hard. You can say something didn't fit in your schedule, or you wanted to concentrate on a different activity, but never say, "I didn't do it because I thought it would be too much work."

Don't talk too much about things you haven't done yet. (“I'm about to start volunteering in a soup kitchen." “I'm hoping to do an independent study on snails.") Sure, it may certainly be appropriate to mention these upcoming activities in passing, but you shouldn't come off sounding like all of your best achievements haven't actually been achieved. ;-)

Don't focus your questions on superficial areas. Try to resist the urge to ask whether you can bring a Cuisinart or microwave to campus, etc.

Above all, remember that even though you may feel you're trying to “sell yourself" to college admission folks, they want you to like them as well. So try to relax and enjoy the experience. Remember, too, that sometimes the interviewers are duds, and so don't beat yourself up if you feel that you didn't "connect" with your interviewer.

Some of this information has been adapted from Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions by Sally Rubenstone and Sidonia Dalby. This material is the property of CollegeConfidential.com. Please do not copy or distribute without express written permission.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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