In these days of shifting college admissions criteria, interviews can be more important than ever. With test-optional policies, grade inflation, and other trends disrupting how admissions offices make their decisions, the importance of having a comprehensive essays strategy that weaves the narrative thread is critical. Essays and interviews, our topic here, provide the human factor beyond mere numbers like GPAs and SAT or ACT scores. Here are some interview tips to help students who are applying to schools where they’re given the opportunity to meet someone who will assess their candidacy. It’s all about the subtle art of persuasion. Here are the most commonly asked questions I hear from consulting clients, and what you need to know.
1) What should I expect during a college interview this school year?
Expect a conversation, not an inquisition. All these days are on Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. You’ll be asked a series of questions, but will be able to experience these 20-30 minutes (average) as a pleasant dialogue. Typically, interviews are academic in nature, but in some cases will also include questions from the student’s personal statement or about their home life. Expect it to be over before you realize, so be sure to front-load important info about yourself you want them to know. An ice-breaker of a narrative about your life that demonstrates something unique about you is always a good idea. Keep your tone conversational, don’t be afraid of a little gentle humor, and avoid bragging. They already know your profile and extracurriculars, or you would not be interviewing.
(2) What is appropriate to wear during a college interview?
Tip: view the school’s website to get a sense of how they present the aesthetic of the student body. Are they in crisp polo shirts or more casual? Business casual attire is recommended for some of the more conservative colleges and universities. It’s hard to go wrong with a navy blue blazer and solid white or brightly colored collared shirt, minimal jewelry and clean, styled hair. That said, interviewers from many arts programs and more liberal campuses will be fine with something a bit more flamboyant. The goal is to look academic and approachable, not formal. If you have glasses, wear them. Obviously, avoid t-shirts, logos, and anything worn, torn or stained. You don’t need to spend money on a new outfit, but when you feel confident, you look it. Take the time to lay out what you’ll wear the night before. As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
(3) What are some dos and don’ts for my college interviews?
a. Do be on time. Arrive to the Zoom link early, center yourself, and don’t be playing on your phone when they arrive. Silence it or better yet leave it in another room.
b Don’t be a generalist. These interviewers are not interested in platitudes about their “friendly people” or “beautiful campuses” — be specific about why you want to attend there. Research particular professors, clubs, and programs beforehand.
c. Do have a sense of humor in at least some of your replies.
d. Don’t criticize your high school or family. Be mature and show yourself to be someone who knows how to make a positive experience out of any challenges you’ve had to endure.
e. Do thank them for making the time: “I’m so pleased we were able to sit down today to discuss my application.”
f. Don’t use any vulgar phrases or swear words. Consider using some of your more erudite diction in a few places to demonstrate that you think and speak in college-level vocabulary.
g. Do remember you’re there to assess them as much as vice versa. Think of it as a semi-blind date. You are not there to impress anyone. Be your (best) self, let them show you who their institution is, and go from there.
h. Don’t chew gum.
i. Do make great eye contact and smile as you say hello and goodbye.
(3) What are some common questions that are asked
and how should I answer them?
Many people are surprised at how many students struggle with the most predictable question of all: “tell me about yourself.” More than Q&A, students want to be prepared to have an actual conversation. Here are 16 popular questions, based on reports from students I’ve mentored over the years:
a. Why are you interested in this college?
b. In what ways would you like to be involved on campus?
c. If you could have a “do over” what would it be and why?
d. Describe your high school and hometown.
e. What are you most passionate about in life? In academics?
f. If you were not going to college, what would you be doing?
g. How do you see yourself transforming as a result of your college experience?
h. Who is one person (dead or alive) with whom you’d like to have lunch?
i What is something you’ve learned that’s truly blown your mind?
j. What’s a really challenging circumstance you’ve to overcome (or the most challenging) and how did you do it?
k. What qualities do you seek in your friends?
l. What would your friends say about you?
m. If you had unlimited resources, what would you do?
n. What was the last book you were required to read that you really disliked.
o. Name a favorite book you read not for school.
p. What issue do you think is either misinterpreted by the media or not talked about enough?
(5) What questions should I ask, and why?
Ask questions based on research. Spend time on the school’s website. Look into particular courses you find there. Whether you know your intended major or not, be ready to identify a particular program that caught your eye. Reference an actual course’s or professor’s name. Consider reading a book he or she has published if it’s on a topic you want to study. Show that you go the extra mile. Be prepared to compete–the way to do that is by differentiating yourself among applicants with a knockout interview.
A final tip: you can answer the question you wished that they had asked. Once you prepare these responses, no matter what they ask, it can been leveraged as an invitation to speak about something you truly want them to know. Your job is not to volley questions like a tennis ball, but to dialogue in a way that reveals the really you who will be contributing to their campus life once they (presumably) admit you. Endeavor to frame several replies in the spirit of “what you’ll give” not “what you’ll get”. Most important of all is to have FUN going through the interview process. In doing so, you are one step closer to launching from home toward your independent adult life.