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Expert Opinions on the College Admissions Process
by Dave Berry

College Admission Interviews

While most colleges no longer require interviews, many “strongly recommend them.” Certainly, having an interview is a good way to show admission committees that you are indeed interested. For those who can’t get to campus, there are often interviews offered near your home. Some colleges are now interviewing via Skype or other Webcam options. Check college Web sites or call the office of admission for details.

However, if you are compulsively shy and feel that an interview could actually hurt you, there are other ways to highlight your interest in your target schools, and an interview may not be the best bet. 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.

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. 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. However, regardless of how well you relate to your interviewers, reading (and following) 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 anyone from the top dog on the admission staff to a faculty member to a student. Off-campus interviews are typically conducted by alumni but sometimes by traveling staff members.

Alum 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, 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. 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 “Dartmouth” sweatshirt at home when you’re heading to your Duke interview, along with the Coed Naked Ping-Pong tee.

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 to your job?”

However, 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 curve-ball questions, like the latter, but they aren’t too common. (A friend of mine’s daughter was recently asked, “What is your favorite sound?” That was one question she certainly didn’t expect, but those kinds are surprises are pretty rare.)

The best way to prepare for an interview is to look over the list of frequently-asked questions below and think about how you would answer each one. The most important question to prepare in your mind is “Why do you want to go to [Name of College]?”  (or a variation on that, such as “What are you looking for in a 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, too. Try to read about some courses or special programs or opportunities that are either unique to this particular institution or not found at the typical school.

Here are some other common questions:

• 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)?
• Whom do you admire?
• What are your post-college plans?
• What will you contribute to this college?
• What aspect of college life are you most excited about?
• What aspect of college life are you most apprehensive 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?

Lately, “ethics” questions seem to be in vogue, especially at on-campus interviews. So don’t be surprised if you’re asked what you would do if you knew a classmate had cheated on a test or purchased a term paper on the Internet.

In general, your academic interests should come first when talking about what’s important to you, but passion for non-academic areas can be important too because these things are all part of who you are and help make you stand out in the crowd.

Note, in fact, that I used the word “passion.” One thing that really bugs interviewers is when an applicant seems pretty lukewarm about everything. If you end up on the edge of your seat enthusiastically describing something you love, chances are the interviewer will be excited about you.

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 Web site, 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!)

Even if you’ve done a lot of research ahead of time, many interviewers will perceive a lack of questions as a lack of interest—or of intellectual curiosity. The type of questions you ask will say something about you as well.  “Can I major in physics and still take engineering classes?” will make a better impression than, “Do the dorm TVs get premium cable channels?” (Don’t expect your interviewer to be able to answer all your questions, especially if it’s an alum interviewer who may not be up to speed on current courses, campus policies, etc.)

HERE ARE SOME 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 (e.g., the death in the family mentioned above). But a candidate with a whole litany 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 you wanted to concentrate on a different activity, but never say, “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.” “I’m hoping to do an independent study on snails.”) Sure, it may certainly 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.

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, and so don’t beat yourself up if you feel that you didn’t “connect” with your interviewer.

Good luck!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

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One Response to “College Admission Interviews”

  1. Catherine A. McClarey Says:

    My daughter has had one admissions interview already (with a Harvard alum), and is preparing for another admissions interview (Washington & Lee), as well as 2 merit scholarship interviews (Franklin College (IN) & Monmouth College (IL)). We printed out a lot of information about the majors & minors she was interested in (as well as the teacher certification program) for Harvard, and we did “mock interview” questions in the car on the way to the interview. College Board/Big Future also has some pointers on prepping for admissions interviews, which we found to be quite helpful.

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