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Rocking Your College Interview

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Here are a few tips, tools and insights to help you succeed in a college interview.


What are interviewers looking for?

Interviews are used to round out the data that you put on your application and to get a sense of who you are as a person. Most colleges don’t use the interview as a make-or-break opportunity; so while you should prepare ahead, don’t be too nervous! Your interviewer is evaluating your interpersonal skills, your intellectual curiosity, your emotional intelligence, and your maturity. They have four questions in their heads. They won’t ask these questions directly, but they are looking for evidence in your answers. Make sure they get the evidence they need.


How will this person contribute to campus life? Colleges want people who are intellectually curious and contribute both in the classroom and out.

How will this person contribute to discussion and debate in the classroom? Can they articulate a point of view and defend it in a mature, thoughtful way? Are they passionate about anything? Will they actively participate or lead?

Feel free to share your point of view on a topic and engage in thoughtful debate during the interview. Share evidence that you are a contributor, not a bystander.


Will we get to brag about this person when they’re an alum? Colleges want to say, “So-and-so who just invented/started/took over/created this amazing thing is a graduate of our university.”

What does this person want to do with their life? Do they dream big? Do they want to change the world in some way? Your interviewer knows that 17- and 18-year-olds usually change their path as they gain life experience but they want proof that you think big and have the skills to make things happen.

Show them what you’re passionate about (right now or long-term) and what you’d like to change about the world.


How is this person unique or special compared to the thousands of other applicants? Colleges need a reason to choose you over someone who -- on paper -- might look very similar to you.

Why this person and not the other person with similar test scores, grades, and club involvement?

Highlight what makes you you (unique interest or experience, atypical life situation), not a laundry list of factors that many other applicants share. Own your story and let your personality show.


Will this person be able to hack it at our school? Colleges don’t want to admit students who will drop out.

Will this student be able to handle the transition from where they are now to campus life? Do they have the strength and emotional intelligence to handle unfamiliar situations? Can they handle things on their own, without hovering parents? Are they mature? Do they know how to ask for help?

Figure out what evidence proves your grit, resilience, and ability to handle new or uncomfortable situations.


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There are two types of interviewers. While the questions they are investigating are similar (see above), you should adjust your expectations and answers to match who is interviewing you.

Admissions officers work for the school and do these interviews professionally. They will be familiar with your application and likely ask you specific questions. An interview with an admissions officer might mean you are an interesting candidate but there’s something puzzling or unclear about you that they want to explore. Admissions officers know a lot about current life on campus.

Alumni are volunteers and are much more casual; they vary widely in how they approach interviews. Alumni interviews are usually optional for candidates and are often much more conversational. Alumni interviewers probably haven’t seen your application; they may have graduated years ago and have little information about current campus life besides basic website facts.


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Logistics, a.k.a. stuff that might trip you up

Here’s a checklist of things to think about in advance:


Scheduling the interview: This process is actually part of the interview, so make sure that you treat it professionally. Answer emails and phone calls promptly. Double-check your spelling and punctuation in any emails and texts before sending (and make sure to use proper English even if you’re texting -- this is not a time for IMHO, BRB, or emojis). Speak professionally on the phone. Confirm exactly where and when you are meeting; make sure that you have agreed to a time and place that you can get to (you have a ride, can take a bus, won’t miss school, etc.).Try to avoid re-scheduling unless it’s an emergency; if you must, give them as much notice as possible and apologize profusely.


What to wear: Think “church/temple/mosque with my conservative grandma.” You do not need to wear a suit or anything that fancy, but your clothes should be clean, pressed and not allow any undergarments (or much skin) to show. Because you want to be focused on the conversation not your clothes, make sure they are physically comfortable.


What to call your interviewer: For admissions officers, start by calling them by last name, e.g. Mr. Gomez or Ms. (“miz”) Chang. For alumni interviewers, you can listen to how they introduce themselves (“I’m Joe” means you can call him Joe). Another adult way to handle this is to ask, “Would you prefer I call you Joe or Mr. Gomez?”


If you are meeting in person: Plan to arrive 15 minutes early so you aren’t rushing. If you are at their house, ring their doorbell at the agreed time. If you are meeting in public (e.g. a coffee shop), Google them ahead so you know what they look like. Get yourself settled (buy your coffee, choose a table to sit at) then wave to them when they come in. Smile, make eye contact and offer a firm handshake.


If you are meeting via technology: Practice using the technology beforehand so you’re not fumbling during the call. Make sure you are in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Dress appropriately and check what’s behind you for distractions (or anything inappropriate). Make sure that you are well-lit and either at eye-level or slightly below the camera. Smile and look directly in the camera while you talk.


Prepare a small-talk starter: Have something small and easy to start with, if you need it: “Have you been to this coffee shop before?” or “What’s the weather like in [whatever city they are calling from] today?” Ideally, your interviewer will have the social skills to do this, but if not, this will give you both a chance to settle in and relax before the interview really starts.


During the interview: Relax (or fake it the best you can). Treat it like a conversation. Expand on your answers; don’t just give them the basics. Put your phone away. Let your excitement and enthusiasm show; they want to know who you are and what makes you your own amazing self, so let them see that. (Did I mention to put your phone away?)


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Preparing for the interview


Tool: “The Big Three”

Interviews sometimes go by really quickly. You can get so focused on answering your interviewer’s questions that you never get to tell them why you’re special and what you’ll bring to campus and as an alum. Do not let that happen.

Before the interview, think of the three things which make you special that the interviewer absolutely has to know about you before the interview is over. (Three is the limit because more is hard to remember.) For example, how you overcame the obstacle of a learning disability or what you learned from watching your mom struggle with cancer or how you started a club to save baby seals because you care so much about animals. Then, for every question the interviewer asks, see if one of your Big Three is a good answer. If the interview is coming to an end and you haven’t shared all three, say, “Before we leave, there’s one more thing I’d like you to know about me,” and tell them what they need to hear.


Tool: Make it a story

Instead of just telling your interviewer that you are a natural leader or passionate about public health, show them. Give them concrete examples, e.g. “I was so obsessed with the election last fall that I would sneak into the bathroom at school to stream the debates on my phone.” When possible, answer questions with a 1-2 minute (no longer!) story: this was the situation, this happened next, I felt this at first, I tried this, what I learned is this.


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Common interview questions that you should be ready for

The most obvious questions that you’ll get is this: Why do you want to go to [this university]? It may come in a slightly different form, but make sure you answer it. At least part of your answer must address why this school, not just why college. The school’s website is a great resource for specific details, e.g. “Your college has a great reputation for math. I was browsing the list of courses and I’ve already picked some out that I’m excited to take, like…” Tie your answer back to why you’ll be an asset to campus and as an alum.


Below are some of the types of questions you might get. Don’t bother memorizing word-for-word answers because you’ll sound like a personality-less robot. Instead, think about 1-2 points you might use to answer questions like these; you’ll start to notice patterns and can re-use the same points for whatever questions they ask.


Why do you want to go to college and what do you hope to achieve there?

What is the scariest thing about getting ready to go to college?

Without telling me where you've applied, tell me how you picked the schools you applied to and why [this university] is on the list.

How would you sell yourself to me in a 15-second elevator ride?

What are you "famous for" i.e. what are you known for amongst friends, family, classmates, etc.?

Tell me something you feel very strongly about and why.

What do you see as the most important global issues your generation of leaders will face?

What characteristics do you value in others and in yourself?

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Can you think of an instance where you made a mistake in judgment and what, if anything, did you take away from that?

Who would you write a biography about and why?

What would you do if you had a free week with no other obligations/commitments?

What was the coolest assignment you had in high school? Which class did you least enjoy in high school?

If you had to pick your first semester schedule right now, what would you take?

If you could be anything in the world regardless of talent or money, what would it be?


Have a friend or family member ask you questions and practice answering. Instead of stopping in the middle and saying, “Wait, no, let me start over,” act like it’s a real interview. Practice what you’ll do if you lose your train of thought (“I’m sorry, my mind just went blank. What was the question?”) or say something you didn’t mean (“That came out differently than I meant.”).


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How to handle questions you don’t know how to answer.

Try the tactics from this great Muse article (technically about job interviews but they work the same):


Give yourself a moment to think. Don’t be scared of silence. Say, “That’s a great question. Let me think about the best way to answer it.” Then take a deep breath and think.


Think aloud. Sometimes the interviewer isn’t looking for a “right” answer but more about how you think. So illustrate: “The first thing I might ask/research/do is ____. Then I might consider _____.”


Re-direct. Maybe you really can’t answer the question. Own up and shift to something you can answer or that highlights a related skill. For example, “I actually haven’t taken many official leadership roles. What I’m good at is getting things done, so let me tell you about the time that I….”


Remember: don’t lie, embellish, exaggerate or otherwise stretch the truth of your experience. You will gain more points for being mature and honest. Besides, there are many ways to fact-check everything you say, if your interviewer is suspicious. And nothing will move you into the rejection pile more quickly than dishonesty.


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Tackling “Do you have any questions for me?”


Interviews usually have two parts: the interviewer asks you questions and then they ask, “What questions do you have for me?” This second part is as important as the first. This is a chance to show (a) you know enough about this school to ask meaningful questions and (b) you’re thoughtful, mature and curious. Have 3-4 questions prepared in advance.


Don’t ask any question that could be easily answered on the college’s website; that makes you look lazy. Also consider what your interviewer would know: admissions officers know current academic standards and campus life, alumni interviewers may not have been to campus for years (even decades). And at least some of your questions should be about academics not campus life.


Here are some examples of good questions to ask alumni interviewers:

Tell me about your experience at [this college]. I’m particularly curious how your experience helped you get where you are today.

What was your favorite class? Did you take any classes that changed your life? How so?

If you could go back and do your time at [this college] over, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

I know [this college] is well-known for _____. Did you take advantage of that? How did it help you?


You can also tie back to something they’ve said earlier. You said you grew up in California too. What was it like going to school so far from home? Any tips for me?


Here are some examples of good questions to ask admissions officers:

What do you think it takes to succeed at [this college]?

What are some mistakes you’ve seen freshman make?

I’m interested in studying abroad for a semester and I’m also a student-athlete. Can I do both?


You can also ask them more specific campus life questions, like: “I didn’t see anything about recreational soccer on the website; are there casual teams I could join?” or “I am really interested in the creative writing program; how likely is it that I can get into the introductory classes as a freshman?”


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After the interview

Immediately send a thank-you note through whatever medium you scheduled (email or text). Thank them for taking the time to talk to you and give them 1-2 specific things you took away from the conversation, e.g. “I really enjoyed our conversations about how economics affects daily life,” or “Your perspective on how to choose a major was really helpful.” If there is something you want to clarify, add, or fix after the interview, you can include it, e.g. “I realized that I forgot to mention that [this college] is my top choice because of your underwater pottery major,” or “I want to apologize again for spilling my coffee all over you.” (It happens!)


By Becca Karpinski

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