In many cases, you’ll be sitting maybe only a few feet from the admissions office conference room where your fate will be decided. If you’re really lucky (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint), you may be interviewed in the same conference room where the admissions committee will place your file on one of three piles after they’re done discussing your application: Admit, Deny, or Waitlist.
Sometimes, the on-campus interview is conducted by a student of the college, usually a junior or senior who has been working in the admissions office. This may be a bit less stressful for you, but it still represents one of the hoops you must pass through. Some applicants feel that being interviewed by a student isn’t as important as being interviewed by an actual admission committee member. Well, an interview is an interview and the student’s comments about how you did in the interview will be entered into your folder along with everything else.
The second kind of interview is the so-called alumni interview. That’s the one I will be discussing today. Alumni interviews take place locally, near your home, saving you the time, travel, and trouble (and possibly significant expense) of having to travel to campus. A college’s alumni network provides a crucial service to the college. It saves the admissions staff valuable time during the hectic application review season. Their reports go into the applicant’s folder exactly the same way that on-campus interview reports do.
The locations for alumni interviews can be more relaxing than on-campus interviews. Some take place at Starbucks, or other semi-quiet public places, or even at the alum’s home. The informal settings tend to ratchet down the stress level and many applicants report having had a great time with their interviewers. Some even develop a kind of friendship, exchanging email and texts during the admissions cycle (or afterward).
My College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, has written at length about alumni interviews and I would like to share some of her wisdom with you here. Take notes!
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—since you’ll be meeting 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:
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 active in the chess 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?”), some 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 recently 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 Harvard?” (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 will be academically challenging” or “I like the Boston 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 Harvard 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 books have you found enjoyable but challenging?
• 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?
In general, your academic interests should come first when talking about what’s important to you, but don’t downplay your interest in chess, computer art, Scouting and other non-academic areas, because these things are all part of who you are and help make you stand out in the crowd. 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. Some key points that are important for you to convey:
1. Your small-town background where students end up at the local plant and never at elite colleges
2. Taking classes at a local college–the only one to do so
3. Computer art–maybe the only person doing this anywhere!
4. Community service commitment–Camp Wonderland (try to avoid saying you only did it for a week, unless asked), Chess for Charity, etc.
You can also use the interview to explain special situations, whether academic (e.g., being the only student from your school to take college classes) or personal (e.g., family dynamics that may have affected your choices or 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 about Harvard, 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!). 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 studio art 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.). Again, you can almost never go wrong by asking your interviewer about his/her OWN Harvard experiences, preferences, opinions, etc. (e.g., “If I go to Harvard, what’s the one thing you suggest I don’t miss while I’m there–academic or otherwise?”)
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 parents wouldn’t let me … my history teacher didn’t like me … etc.). 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 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, too. 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.
Check College Confidential for all of my admissions-related article.