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Articles / Applying to College / How to Handle College Interviews

How to Handle College Interviews

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 9, 2015
Are you going to be visiting colleges this summer or early fall, before you apply to any of them? If you are, maybe you have arranged for an admissions interview at those schools that grant a sit-down. If you are going to go for an interview, you need to know what to expect before you get there. Going in unprepared can lead to less than satisfactory results.

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.

An interview is a no-lose proposition. It's a remote possibility that you could mess up so badly that you damage your (otherwise decent) chance of admittance, but, insists some deans, that doesn't happen very often. In fact, one dean says that it's “highly, highly unlikely" (saying “highly" twice for emphasis).

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, regardless of how well you relate to your interviewers. 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 (or, if you're doing it via computer, you could even be in your own bedroom). 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.

Regardless of who interviews you, below are some tips that you might find helpful:

– 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 “Penn State" sweatshirt at home when you're heading to your Penn interview.

– 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?"

– 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.

– The most important question to prepare in your mind is Why do you want to go to [Name of 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)?

– What are your post-college plans?

– What will you contribute to this college?

– What aspect of college life are you most excited 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?

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.)

Here's a list of 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, such as a death in the family. But, a candidate with a whole list 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 (obviously), “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 coffee beans.") It may be appropriate to mention these upcoming activities in passing, but you don't want to 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 about the food, the size of the dorm rooms, whether you can bring a car or a 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, so don't beat yourself up if you feel that you didn't “connect."


For more information and insights about college interviews, search the College Confidential discussion forum for a bounty of threads on this topic. Above all, though, good luck!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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