April 15, 2020
One of the more stress-inducing aspects of the college process is the admission interview. It was that way when I applied to college back in the Dark Ages of the mid-Sixties, and it remains the same today, here in the summer of 2019, more than a half-century later.
Interviews come in a variety of flavors. Perhaps the most intimidating is the on-campus interview with a real-life admission committee member. Slightly less anxiety-invoking is the local alumni interview, which can take place in the quiet of a private residence or in the hustle and bustle of a Starbucks.
There is even the high-tech approach of Skype or FaceTime interviews for certain applicants who are also competing for prestigious scholarships. The good news is that not every college requires an admission interview. For applicants who are seeking acceptance at a relatively broad array of colleges, however, there is likely going to be an interview requirement in the mix somewhere.
Are you going to be visiting colleges this summer or early fall? Maybe you have arranged for an admission interview at those schools that grant a sit-down. If so, you need to know what to expect before you get there. Going in unprepared can be risky.
While many colleges no longer require interviews, a good number “strongly recommend" them. Certainly, having an interview is a good way to show an admission committee that you are indeed interested in attending. For those who can't get to campus, there are often interviews offered near your home, as mentioned above. Check your candidate colleges' websites or call the office of admission for details.
An interview is almost always a no-lose proposition. There's a remote possibility that you could mess up so badly that you damage your otherwise decent chances of getting in, but, insist some deans, that doesn't happen very often. In fact, one admission dean says that it's “highly, highly unlikely" (saying “highly" twice for emphasis) that you would make such a fabulous fail.
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 appear. Keep in mind that most candidates receive some sort of a vanilla “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, keep in mind the relatively low impact of your session will make. 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 the dean, an admission staffer, a faculty member or even a student. Off-campus interviews are typically conducted by alumni, but sometimes by traveling staff members.
Alumni 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, these tips may help you better prepare:
- You don't have to get dressed up for an interview, but don't look too casual. 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 selecting your wardrobe, and leave the “Penn State" sweatshirt at home when you're heading to your Penn interview. Trust me; that has happened.
- 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 may be more provocative (“What character from a book would you most like to be?"). You may also get some curve-ball questions, like the latter, but they aren't too common.
- The most important question to prep for is “Why do you want to go to [Name of College]?" You may never 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, special programs, faculty members or opportunities that are either unique or outstanding to this particular college or not found at the typical school.
- 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 website, 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 into your schedule, or that 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." Fabulous Fail Alert!
- 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. Stay focused on the bigger picture.
- Finally, and 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 forums for a bounty of threads on this topic. Above all, though, enjoy your college “conversations!"