Admissions

College Interviews: Your In-Person Sales Pitch

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Summertime college visits sometimes offer the chance to do sit-down interviews with a member of the admissions staff. Some seniors may prefer to wait until the fall to visit and interview. Others may choose not to interview at all.

There are several schools of thought about the need to interview. These days, many colleges don’t require an on-campus interview, opting instead for alumni interviews close to the applicant’s home base. Other schools make the interview optional. The topic of interviews is a source of concern for many seniors, so I thought I would offer some thoughts for your consideration.


For those of you who will be interviewing, think of it as a chance to make a positive initial impression. Keep in mind that old saying: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s true when it comes to college interviews.

The interview is a kind of two-way street for information flow. You’re there trying to show your sincere interest in the school, as well as showing off who you are and how you think. Displaying your personal attributes is similar to the purpose of application essays, with one chief difference: It’s happening in real time. You have to think on your feet, rather than taking all the time you need to refine and polish your essay draft.

For some, this can be a frightening prospect. You may be a major introvert (aka shy) and have a hard time revealing or even articulating your true feelings. This is where the optional interview can be helpful. If you’re not required to have an on-campus interview, then you may be better off choosing not to have one if you’re terrified of that prospect. Usually, alumni interviews are more comfortable and lower key than campus interviews, simply because of the setting.

Consider Interview Strategy

Take stock of whether you think you can gain an edge from a campus interview. If you feel that you would come across better in only your application (and essay[s]), then you may want to decline an interview, if that is an option. As I mentioned, some schools require only alumni interviews and don’t offer on-campus interviews. That seems to be the growing trend as colleges look to streamline their admissions processes and optimize their budgets and time constraints.

You may be wondering how important interviews can be if a school doesn’t require one. The truth is that in most cases, an interview isn’t a dealbreaker. Obviously, you can sink your admission chances by making blatant mistakes in an interview, either on campus or with an alum. These mistakes include radically inappropriate dress (shorts, flip-flops, t-shirts, etc.), poor attitude (arrogance, off-color humor, slang) and general behavior (appearing bored, checking text messages, slouching, etc.).

Don’t laugh or roll your eyes. I’ve heard stories about interviewees who actually displayed these poor attributes. For most of them, the results weren’t good. However, if you can avoid these extremes of poor judgment, your interview won’t make a big difference one way or the other 98 percent of the time.

Back to choosing an interview strategy. 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, as I mentioned regarding egregious behaviors. In general, here’s how the process works.

At the end of an interview, the interviewer will write a brief 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. 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 or 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.

Check These Tips

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. As I mentioned, 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 University of Pennsylvania 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 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 curveball 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 as well. Search the web and find out about some courses, special programs or opportunities that are either unique to this particular institution or not found at the typical school. Dig deeper. Go beyond what’s in the school’s marketing materials.

Here are some other common questions you may encounter:

– 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?

Know How to Finish the Interview

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 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 or a bad semester really will require an explanation, such as a death in the family. However, 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 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.”

– Don’t talk too much about things you haven’t done yet. (“I’m about to start volunteering in a soup kitchen” or “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, cable TV options, whether you can bring a car or a microwave to campus, etc.

Above all, remember that even though 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. (I realize that that may be hard to do.) Remember, too, that sometimes the interviewers are duds, so don’t beat yourself up if you feel that you didn’t “connect.”

So there you have some food for thought about college interviews. It may be a lot to digest, so to speak, but some forethought now can pay dividends later, when your college process kicks into high gear.