Preparing for College

What Questions Should I NOT Ask at a College Interview?

Question: I'm a high school senior and will be having several campus interviews this fall. I've heard that it's not a good idea to ask a lot of questions that suggest that I'm only concerned with material things ... like if I can bring a car or microwave to campus. Are there other kinds of questions that I should avoid, too?

You don't have to eliminate the "creature comfort" questions entirely, but just go easy on them. Sometimes, in fact, students have important reasons to ask such things, and it's always wise to let your interviewer know if you do. One student in my orbit, for instance, is hoping to take a car to college so that she can visit her ailing grandmother who lives in a nearby town, several hours from all other family members. Another student I know has kept kosher since she was 12, even though the rest of her family does not, so having her own microwave would help her continue this in college. But you certainly don't need to ask if your dorm room gets HBO.

Do avoid all questions that can be easily answered by visiting the college Web site or reading other propaganda ("Do you have a Spanish major?" "What's the Early Decision deadline?" "Is there a women's lacrosse team?") Also try to steer clear of questions that sound like they're straight from some "How to impress your interviewer" article, written by someone who's probably never impressed an interviewer. ("What percentage of tenure-track professors receive tenure and what is the average waiting period?") And be wary of questions that have a negative tone. For instance, instead of saying, "How many freshmen get stuck in triples?" ask, "Can you tell me about the rooming options for freshmen?"

Unfortunately, you shouldn't expect an answer to what you may want to know the most ("Do you think I'll get in?"). In fact, don't even bother to ask ... at least not quite that way. But, if you think you may be out of your league, you can try saying something like, "Is this school a huge long shot for me?" You will probably get a vague, party-line reply along the lines of, "It's impossible to say without all your application materials in front of me." But you might, instead, be told that indeed you're reaching very high, which is usually code for, "You don't have much of a prayer," since most interviewers are trained to encourage applicants, not scare them off.

A question that seems harmless enough but always somehow bugged me when I conducted interviews is, "What's your best department?" No admission official is going to single out one area above all others or dump on any of the potentially weaker ones. You're better off being more specific by asking, "Is there anything that you know about that sets your English department apart from others ... internship opportunities, popular profs, etc.?"

Sometimes, even worse than asking the "wrong" question is asking none at all. Coming up empty at question time suggests a lack of interest in the college or a lack of curiosity in general. But, in my interviewing days, I was always okay with a "No questions" response as long as it came with other context (e.g., "I've already read everything I could get my hands on about your school" or "I just grilled the tour guide for 25 minutes!").

As you hit the interview circuit, whatever your questions are, it's fine to write them down in a notebook and take that notebook into the session with you. This will not only keep you from blanking out if you're nervous, but also it will show your interviewer that you are well prepared. Even so, don't shy away from spontaneous questions either. Sometimes the things you truly want to find out are those that come to mind as you look around you on campus or react to something the interviewer has just said.

Even though you may feel like you're on the "hot seat" at your interviews, do remember that they also present a great opportunity for you to learn about the schools you're seeing, so do take advantage of this chance to find out what you really want to know ... besides, "What are my chances?" ;)