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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

How to Prepare for Your College Admission Interview

Whether you're an 11th grader beginning your college search or a 12th grader submitting your last applications, you’ll most likely participate in an interview at some point during your admission journey.

In the college application process, interview policies and availability differ by school: while many schools encourage admission interviews, others don't offer them at all and a very few require them (usually for specific academic programs or scholarships). Some schools offer interviews with admission officers or current students during campus tours and information sessions. Others offer only alumni interviews, either in person or virtual. For many schools, interviews are purely informational – a way for you to find out more about the school, and vice versa. For other schools, interviews play an evaluative function; even if the interviewer is not part of the admission team, their report or summary of the interview becomes one (among many) factors considered when decisions are made to admit, deny, or waitlist the applicant.

Regardless of interview type – and no matter your comfort level when speaking with strangers – this part of the application process can be stressful! But careful preparation will reduce your anxiety and help you put your best foot forward.

Before you sit down with that admission officer, alumna, or current student, check out these tips for how to prepare for your college admission interview.

Consider this a "conversation" rather than an "interview."

Approaching the conversation from this perspective should lower your stress level, since conversations are typically less formal and more reciprocal than interviews. It should also help you answer questions more strategically. Consider that conversations ebb and flow based on what each conversant says, with new, follow-up questions arising based on how initial questions are answered. Keep this in mind when answering questions posed by your interviewer. Want to make sure you mention the cultural sensitivity you’ve learned from performing with your South Asian dance troupe? Then talk about dance when asked about what you like to do outside of school. Chances are you’ll get a follow-up question about your involvement in this activity, and you’ll be able to elaborate on why it’s been so meaningful and formative for you.

Before the interview, write down 3-5 talking points.

Your talking points should be the top characteristics you want the interviewer to know about you by the end of the conversation: for example, personal qualities, such as determination, perseverance, or your incredible sense of humor; accomplishments you are proud of (as long as you describe them in a humble, non-bragging way); and goals for your future. Memorize your talking points – or keep them handy during a Zoom interview – so you can refer to them easily while answering questions.

Jot down the unique campus resources that resonate with your interests and goals.

Reread your application, including your answers to “Why this school?” and “Why this major?” essay questions. Revisit the school’s website, browse their social media accounts, and review other resources for doing college research. During the conversation, refer to unique aspects of the school – and how or why those appeal to you – in order to demonstrate your interest in, familiarity with, and unique fit for the school.

Practice answering common interview questions.

Realistically, you won’t be able to prepare an answer to every possible question you might be asked, so don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself! But generally, interview questions can be grouped into a few categories or types, and knowing how you’ll respond to different types of questions will help you "in the moment." These basic questions types include:

  • Questions about your background or personality: “Tell me about yourself,” “Tell me about your family,” “How would your family or friends describe you?”, “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?”, “What makes you unique?,” and so on.

  • Questions about your high school experience: “What have you liked or disliked most about high school?”, “What will students at your school remember about you after you graduate?”, “What is your favorite subject or class (or who is your favorite teacher), and why?”, “If you had to do high school over again, what would you do differently?”

  • Questions about extracurricular activities: “How do you spend your time after/outside of school?”, “Which activities do you enjoy the most?”, “Which activities will you get involved in at this college/university?”, “How have you impacted your school or community?”

  • Questions about your future goals: “What do you hope to be doing in 5/10/15 years?”, “How do you define ‘success’?”, “What is your dream job or career?”, “How can this school help you prepare for your future career?”

  • Questions about college, both in general and specific to this college: “Why are you interested in this college?”, “What do you hope to study in college?”, “What do you hope to gain from your college experience?”, “What could you contribute to our college?”

  • Quirky questions! These are hard to prepare for, but knowing that they can happen can prevent you from being caught off guard. Quirky questions can include anything from the more serious or practical (“If you had as many resources as you needed to make an improvement to your school, what would you do?”) to the just plain silly (“Which Muppet is your favorite, and why”?). If you encounter a quirky question, take a breath, answer honestly, and be yourself.

When answering any interview question, use your talking points as a guide. If you want the interviewer to know that you hope to attend medical school and want to be a radiologist, then be sure to mention that formative Biology class when you are asked about your favorite high school course or teacher. Answering strategically can help you guide the conversation in the direction you want it to go. If you want to see more sample interview questions from specific colleges and universities, check out the College Essay Guy’s comprehensive list here.

Have an answer to the question "What else would you like to share?"

If you haven’t gotten to all of your talking points, now is the time to work them into the conversation!

Prepare to ask questions and not just answer them.

If you’re comfortable asking questions during the conversation, then ask away! If not, interviewers nearly always ask, at some point, whether you have any questions. Asking questions demonstrates your interest in the school (and makes for better conversation!).

Find out who your interviewer is.

Is your interviewer an admission officer, a current student, or an alum (graduate of the school)? Tailor your questions to the interviewer's role. Alumni interviewers are most common, but here are some differences to be aware of if you encounter other interviewer types:

  • Admission officers help evaluate applications and make decisions about the incoming class, so interviews with them tend to “count” more in the admission process. At the same time, admission officers are also trying to sell you on their school, and they might want to impress you as much as you want to impress them. They have a deep knowledge of the school because they frequently lead presentations designed to introduce it to high schoolers like you. So, good questions for admission officers are about specific academic and extracurricular opportunities, study abroad or study away programs, and career center resources.

  • Current students, like campus tour guides, are usually admission office employees. As students, they aren’t involved in application reviews or admission decisions, but they are likely reporting back to admission officers with a summary of the interview or general impressions of you as an prospective classmate or roommate. The objective of these interviews is typically to provide you information about the school, find out more about why you are interested in applying, and gauge how you would fit into the student body or campus culture. Good questions for current students are about student life, favorite professors or classes, advice for incoming students, and school traditions.

  • Alumni interviewers are generally volunteers who liked their college so much that they want to stay involved even after graduating. Like student interviewers, they have had very positive experiences at their school and love talking about it! Alumni interviewers are similar to student interviewers in that they are not involved in admission decisions but are likely submitting a report about the interview. Alumni are different from students in being more removed (both in years and distance) from current campus life. As a result, alumni might not know as much about specific majors, course offerings, or extracurricular activities; but they can (and love to!) answer questions about long-standing school traditions, favorite memories from college, and advice for incoming students.

Remember that an alumni or student interviewer has not seen your application.

Alumni and students don’t know anything about your high school courses and grades, test scores, activities, or essays – and, generally, those things don’t matter here. Interviews are about assessing personal qualities, accomplishments, and goals that may not come through “on paper” in your application. You don’t need to worry about repeating parts of your application (though it may be wise to provide additional examples that the interviewer can include in their report). And you shouldn’t assume that an alumni or student interviewer already knows about your community service projects or your chess prowess. You'll need to explain those.

Consider doing a practice interview!

Try this with a friend, family member, or teacher. Give your partner a list of common interview questions, ask them to choose a few, and practice answering those questions the way you would in the actual interview. Afterwards, talk to your partner about what you could do differently next time.

A few additional thoughts about interviews in general:

Unless you’re paralyzingly shy or a particularly unpleasant conversationalist (a truly rare trait!), then an admission interview will only help you. Declining an interview when offered one is more likely to hurt your application because it suggests that you aren’t really interested in the school. For colleges and universities that track demonstrated interest (how often and in what ways you have made contact with the school), not seeking out an interview when one is provided or encouraged can also suggest that you are not a serious applicant, or that you aren’t likely to enroll if admitted. When possible, you should interview!

For many admission offices, interviews are more an informational than an evaluative part of the admission process. Even when interviewers submit reports to admission officers, the objective of the interview is usually to give you more information about the school and for a school representative to meet you as a whole person, and not just a GPA, test score, or list of accomplishments. If you are well-prepared, you’ll make the best impression just by being yourself. And, since the goal of the admission process is for you to land at a school that truly fits you – where you’ll thrive academically, socially, personally, professionally, and in every other way – being yourself is likely to lead you to the most successful outcome anyway.

Finally, these last tips surely go without saying, but just in case:

  • Dress neatly. You don’t need to be in a suit or party dress, but you shouldn’t be wearing ripped jeans and a tube top either. If it’s a Zoom interview, then yes, you only need to worry about your top half. But do consider what would happen if you needed to get up!

  • Write (and send) a “thank you” note or email afterwards. This final touch solidifies your good impression and can have the helpful effect of reminding your interviewer of how awesome you are as they are completing their report or summary about your conversation.

Good luck, and feel free to reach out with questions or to schedule a practice interview.

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