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College Admissions Interviews: A Guide to Success

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Why Do Colleges Offer Admissions Interviews in the Application Process?

College admissions interviews are an important element of the entire admissions process.  This post provides important tips to help you prepare for the interview so that you can demonstrate your abilities. As well as show your enthusiasm for a college, and share your sparkling personality.  With a bit of solid information, combined with some forethought and research, you’ll be able to nail the admissions interview.

WHY COLLEGES OFFER INTERVIEWS

Colleges have three motivations for offering interviews for prospective students.  First, they want to gain more information about you as an applicant, and to assess your suitability for admission.  Second, they want to give you more information about the college and ensure that you leave with a favorable impression.  In other words, interviews are as much a marketing strategy as an evaluation tool.  Third, they want to gauge your interest in their college.  Admissions officers want students who have a particular desire to attend their institution. Also, the college admissions interview is a way to learn how their school ranks on the student’s list of choices.

Regardless of the motivations, you want to take the opportunity to present yourself as a candidate for admission.  The college admissions interview is a chance for you to humanize your application. As well as for a representative of the college to learn more about you beyond your grades and test scores.  It’s also a great way to learn more about the college from someone who knows quite a bit about it.  An interview—even a relatively bad one—rarely hurts your application.  A good interview could help your candidacy considerably.  So if an interview is offered, take it.

An interview doesn’t have to be this complicated.

Why don’t all colleges offer interviews?  Generally, the issue is volume of applications:  schools like New York University just have too many applicants to make interviews practicable.  Highly selective schools with a very high volume of applications—including the Ivy League universities—never schedule an on-campus interviews. However, they will offer alumni interviews to those who have completed their applications. 

State universities have too many applicants or have admissions procedures that are designed for efficiency.  Generally the smaller colleges and more selective universities are the ones that will offer interviews as a way to get to know their applicants better. And as a way to offer a more personal touch in the admissions process.

TYPES OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEWS

Most colleges will be clear about what sort of interviews they offer.  We generally find three different kinds of interviews.

  • Evaluative:  Usually offered by admissions officers or highly trained current students, these are generally the most formal interviews.
  • Informational or Non-Evaluative:  These are offered as ways for prospective students to get to know a college better, and at the same time to give the student the opportunity to share information that may not be easily conveyed in the application.
  • Alumni:  Selective colleges may offer alumni interviews to applicants after they have submitted their applications.

THE INTERVIEWERS

Your interview experience will depend, in large part, upon the type of interview, as well as the person doing the interview.  If a university offers an interview, the interviewer will either be a professional member of the admissions staff, an alumnus or alumna of the university, or a current student specially trained by the admissions office.

Admissions Officers:  

These interviews are relatively formal, and obviously the admissions officer has a high degree of influence over the decision whether to admit you. So whether this is an evaluative or information interview, you definitely want to be on your toes.  However, bear in mind that admissions officers meet with hundreds, if not thousands, of students every year. So they are probably less sensitive to your appearance and language than a professor or other adult might be.  

On the other hand, the admissions officer has access to every bit of your current admissions file prior to the interview.  If you already have submitted the application, she might already have read your essay. And consulted your teacher recommendations.  If you have not submitted the application, she will at least know that you met her colleague at a college fair or filled out a form on the college’s website requesting more information.  Finally, an admissions officer will have a pretty good knowledge about the college, including information about various majors, academic programs, the composition of the student body, and the housing options available.

Alumni:  

An alumnus or alumna of a college will likely keep the interview relatively informal, but sometimes these interviews can feel a bit more formal to the student, depending on where the interview takes place. And different alumni may have somewhat different ideas about how to structure the interview.  But generally they are pretty relaxed conversations.  However, alumni can sometimes be the most sensitive to a student’s appearance and language.  This is especially true of older alumni, who may not have very much contact with young people on a regular basis.  An alumnus or alumna has very little influence over the ultimate admissions decision.  Their only job is to complete a form describing their impressions of the candidate and to send it to the admissions office–where it carries relatively little weight in comparison to your transcript, test scores, and teacher recommendations.  

Moreover, the alumnus or alumna giving the college admissions interview has absolutely no prior access to information about you.  Usually all they know is your contact information and the school you attend. Thus you have an opportunity to explain your involvements and to highlight your academic strengths in the interview–and you won’t likely have to say too much about your grades or test scores.  On a final note, alumni may not be the best sources of information about the college, especially if they graduated ten or more years previously.  And what knowledge they do have is limited to their own, unique experience on that campus.

Current Students:  

Many admissions offices hire and train a group of “ambassadors” to give a college admissions interview to prospective students.  Often this is because the volume of prospective applicants who want interviews is greater than the capacity of the staff to offer them.  Students can often be excellent interviewers, and they have been schooled in asking appropriate questions and helping applicants feel relaxed.  These ambassadors do not have a direct influence on the admissions decisions, but if they really like (or dislike) an applicants, their opinions can sometimes make a difference.  Ambassadors generally do write up a report of the interview, often following a prescribed template.  

One good thing to know, however, is that student interviewers are not likely to be too sensitive about your appearance or your language (unless you are a complete slob and speak in gibberish), and the tone of the interview is likely to be very relaxed.  The student interviewer might know a few things about you prior to the interview, if you have already submitted an application, but they generally do not have access to your entire admissions file.  

One good thing about a student interview is that you can likely get the low-down on the campus vibe and social scene at the college, because these ambassadors are current students. However, do keep in mind that the one student you meet in the interview does not represent every individual on the campus.  Try not to generalize your impressions of this one person–positively or negatively–and ascribe those impressions to the entire student body.

Check out my video: “Nailing the College Admissions Interview”

YOUR OBJECTIVES FOR THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW

Regardless of the type of interview or who the interviewer might be, you have to keep your own objective in mind.  Your aims are as follows:

  1. Demonstrate your interest in and knowledge of the college.  You need to show your interviewer that you really are keen to attend, and that you have done your homework (more on that in a minute!)
  2. Convey your academic abilities, interests, and curiosity.  This is your chance to toot your horn and tell them all about all the interesting things you do.
  3. Speak with enthusiasm about your various activities and interests.  Every admissions officer is looking for students who can convey their excitement about their pastimes.  So go ahead and gush (at least a bit…!).
  4. Provide context for various choices you have made (dropping a class, adding a sport).  This is an opportunity to put  your choices into some perspective.  When you show competence and enthusiasm in certain areas (see #3 above), then it makes it more understandable why you made the choices you made.
  5. Showcase your sparkling personality.  Be friendly, warm, and fun.  Every campus is looking for individuals who exude some sort of spark.  Ignite yours!
  6. Make a memorable impression.  You want whomever gave you that college admissions interview to remember you, and to take the time to communicate their favorable impressions on your admissions file.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

In order to demonstrate your interest in a college, you have to do your research.  You need to know why you want to attend, what makes the place special, and the sorts of academic programs and extracurricular activities you’d enjoy pursuing.  Many interviews are more a test of fit:  do you understand whether you’d fit at this college, and can you convince the interviewer of this conviction? Here are some ways to prepare.

  1. Consider the activities you most enjoy both in and out of school now.  Are similar activities offered at the college or university?  What can you learn about them?  Investigate those pages of the website and know the names of the particular clubs and organizations on that campus.
  2. Think about your academic interests now, and investigate how those academics subjects are presented at the university.  Check out the course catalog (sometimes call a “bulletin”) and look at the requirements for particular majors you may be interested in pursuing.  Even if you are undecided about your major, you can investigate a couple of departments that pique your curiosity: “I have no idea what I might major in at this school, but I noticed that there is a Latin American Studies major that looks interesting to me, because it combines my interests in Spanish, geography, and history.”
  3. Know the basic admissions requirements, the demographics of the student body, the range of majors, and the basic organizational structure of the college.

MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION FOR YOUR COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW

 Scheduling and Logistics

  1. Check the admissions website well in advance of your desired interview date to see whether the school offers interviews, and if so, of what type.  Don’t be caught flat-footed thinking it was a non-evaluative interview with a student, when in fact it is an evaluative interview with the admissions representative who will read your application.
  2. Sign up for the college admissions interview according to the procedures explained on the college website. If they ask you to fill out a form, fill out the form.  If the ask you to use a web-based scheduling tool, use it.  Or if they as you to email or call, definitely make the call.  (Parents:  your student should make this call—not you.
  3. Allow plenty of extra time to get to the interview. Tardiness detracts from your ability to make a good first impression.
  4. Try to schedule your first interview at a safety school (but not a school where you know you’d never apply). This will enable you to do a practice run where the stakes are not as high.
  5. Bring copies of your college resume and transcript. Your interviewer may or may not want to look at them; however, you should always offer them–or at least have them handy, in case your interviewer wants to see them.

Make a Good Impression

No matter what, remember that you are being judged, in part, on your social skills.  So keep the following points in mind.

  • Offer a firm (but not bone crushing!) handshake as you meet your interviewer.
  • Smile.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Be conscious of your posture; sit up straight.
  • Listen actively.
  • Show enthusiasm (about yourself, the conversation, and the institution where you’re interviewing).
  • Watch your grammar and your language.  Avoid the pitfalls of “teenspeak” (“like,” “you know,” “cool,” “umm”…)
  • Be gracious as the interview ends, and thank your interviewer for his or her time.  And reiterate how excited you are about the college.
  • Ask for the interviewer’s card:  you will need the contact information to send the interviewer a personal note of thanks after the interview.

Dressing and Grooming

  • Dress comfortably and dress to make your interviewer comfortable.   No need to wear a suit and tie or a dress and pumps.  But you do need to step it up a notch above what you might wear to high school. An interview is an informal conversation, but you should remind yourself that your interviewer is taking the occasion seriously.
  • Resist any temptation to reveal your midriff, cleavage, or underwear. Dress respectfully so that the interviewer is not distracted by your appearance.
  • Avoid heavy perfumes, colognes, or other pungent grooming products.  Do you want your interviewer to remember most how you smelled?

The bottom line:  be respectful, polite…and yourself!

AFTER THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW – BUILDING A POSITIVE IMPRESSION

Here we discuss the actions you should take after the interview is over to continue building that positive impression in the office of admission.

When you get home, send a personal note to the interviewer thanking him or her for meeting with you. A handwritten note on a note card (in an envelope with a stamp on it!) will make a much better impression than an email.

You can also make the note specific and more personal by referring to particular things you learned in the interview.  For example:

  • What you learned about a specific program or campus organization in the interview, that you subsequently researched on the website and found to be particularly interesting or exciting.
  • You were impressed by visiting a particular facility on campus after your interview.
  • You enjoyed learning something interesting about the interviewer (e.g., she majored in a subject you had never even considered, but have since researched on the website; he had done a study abroad program in France, just as you hope to do).
  • Refer to one new reason for which you are enthusiastic about this college that you discovered through the interview.

This practice of following up after an interview will be important throughout your life, as you interview for campus jobs, for internships, and for every job you get after you’ve graduated from college.  You’ve made it this far in the process, and it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to continue building that good impression in the admissions office.  Do write that thank you note!

COLLEGE  ADMISSIONS INTERVIEWS: START PRACTICING EARLY

Are you interviewing at any colleges this fall? If so, here are a few tips as you prepare.

1. Practice, practice, practice! Whether you practice with your counselor, a friend, a parent, in front of the mirror, or on video the more you practice for interviews the more likely it is that you will pick up on those slight quirks you didn’t even realize you had. For example, are you conscious of how much you talk with your hands? Do you make eye contact? Do you fidget in your seat? Take the time to observe these slight distractions that may take away from what you are actually saying.

2. Look over sample interview questions. A lot of colleges will start and finish the interview with similar types of questions. For example, be ready to answer a question about why you are interested in “college x” as you start an interview and be ready to close with an answer to “Is there anything you else you think we should know about you as we make our decision on your application?”

3. Brush up on the school you are visiting before you get to the interview. Whether you do this in advance of your trip or in the backseat of the car while your parents drive between college tours make sure you know which school you are headed to for your interview. Double check that you have a general sense of the school offerings, size, majors, etc.

4. Be prepared with questions on hand. Keep a list of questions handy that you can ask if they give you time to do so. The kinds of questions a student asks can tell an admissions counselor a lot about their interests. However, make sure you aren’t asking questions you can simply find in the guidebook for the college. Make the questions specific to you and your desire to learn more about the university. I have attached a list of questions to ask at your college admissions interview below.

5. Be genuine. Admission counselors who conduct lots of interviews are quite adept at reading students. You may be nervous and that’s fine, just make sure you are being yourself and being honest.

Tips and Suggestions for Alumni Interviews

As you submit applications to colleges, it is worth noting whether or not they offer the opportunity to interview with an alumni representative. These are people who graduated from the college or university and live in your community. This is a great chance to sit down with someone who attended the college, ask them questions about their experience, and share a little bit about why you might be a good fit for their school.

As an former alumni admissions representative for Dartmouth College I have had the chance to conduct alumni interviews here in Colorado. Here are a few tips that I would like to pass along to you so that you can make sure your interviews are great!

Scheduling your interview: 

Some colleges may reach out to you to let you know there is an alum in the area available to meet. However, sometimes you may have to reach out and schedule these on your own. As you schedule, remember, interviews can last different lengths of time so allow for plenty of time to get to the interview on time and don’t be the one to have to cut it short. I have had students actually stop my interview mid-way through to tell me that they had another commitment. Alumni interviewers know you are busy, but so are they. If they can take the time to dedicate to this interview and focus their attention so should you.

How to prepare in advance:

Take time to do your research before you go to the interview.  Alums who are volunteering for these interviews care deeply about the schools they are representing and want to know that you care too.  If you have visited the college, refresh yourself on what you saw and heard when you were there. If you have not visited campus, review materials and emails you have received and go through the website. Show familiarity with the college so you can help the alum understand why you and the college are a good match.

Pick out clear examples to use and make sure if you are doing multiple interviews that you have your schools straight! You can even do a little bit of research on who the alum is that you are interviewing with as it may be helpful to ask them a question or two about how the college or university prepared them for where they are now and their career. Also, prepare plenty of questions to bring with you (see below) because these interviews are often more conversational in nature than a traditional interview.

What to wear: 

No matter the setting, when it comes to an interview, you always want to make a good impression. You do not necessarily need to wear a suit, but I do recommend wearing the sort of outfit you would wear to a nice dinner, concert, or church. Overall, the dress should be a step above what you typically wear to school. No ripped clothing, hats, jeans, short skirts, low cut tops, etc. If you are coming straight from sports practice and don’t have time to change make sure to take a moment to explain ( I have had students show up in sweats before) so that the interviewer knows it is not that you are trying to be sloppy in appearance but that you are so committed to your extracurricular activity that you didn’t want to miss a minute of practice.

What to Bring: 

I always encourage students to bring a notepad and pen to the interview to take notes or refer to any questions. Depending on the interview some colleges may encourage, or discourage, you from bringing a resume. Pay attention to their directions. You may also want to bring some water. What shouldn’t you bring? Your parents. This is about you!

What to do when you arrive: 

First, make sure to arrive on time , or better yet – early! Second, introduce yourself. Shake the alum’s hand, make good eye contact and let them lead on where to sit. Sometimes, if meeting at a coffee shop, they may offer you a drink or a snack. It is okay to take them up on their offer but not necessary. Third, take a moment to situate yourself. Gather your notes and your thoughts for a moment before jumping in.

Be yourself: 

Don’t try to be someone you are not, or someone you think the interviewer wants you to be. This is your chance to tell the interviewer about who you are as a person, your unique qualities, and why you have decided to apply to their school.

Questions to ask:

 Interviews with alums are often a little different than traditional interviews. These interviews are typically more conversational in nature. Questions specific to admissions and financial aid are often best left to the admissions office. This is a great time to ask questions about the student and alumni experience.

I recommend that students prepare at least ten questions in advance so there is plenty to choose from. A few examples might include: What did you study while you were on campus? What was your experience interacting with professors? What were you involved in on campus? How easy was it to get involved? What were some of your favorite traditions on campus? How has your experience been as an alum? Do you stay connected with the college? What role did the college play in helping you get where you are today? For more college admissions interview questions, see the list below.

Following up: 

You always want to follow up after an interview so make sure you get the alum’s contact information before you leave. This way, you can follow up with a thank you note. I encourage sending the note within a week’s time so you don’t forget.

Dos and Don’ts of the Alumni Admissions Interview

  • Don’t expect an alumni volunteer to be able to answer detailed information about the application process.  They may be able to give you general statistics (average SAT scores, acceptance rate) but they may not be able to provide details on how admissions decisions are made.  Save those questions for an admissions officer.
  • Do expect the “interview” to be more of a conversation.  The alumnus may have a set list of questions, but more than likely, they are just trying to get to know you.
  • Do be prepared to talk about your interest in the school.  One thing all admissions interviewers are trying to gauge is how interested you are.  Make sure you can show that you have done your homework and can clearly state why you want to attend the university.
  •  Do ask insightful questions.  This is your chance to ask someone who has not only attended the university you are interested in, but has also graduated from it.  Ask them what life has been like after graduation.  How did the university prepare them for the real world?  What was their job search like?  Did they work with the career services office?  These are questions that can not be answered by current students or admissions officers.
  • Don’t feel like you need to discuss your academic credentials during an interview with an alumnus.  More than likely, the alumnus will not know what your GPA is or your standardized testing scores because the point is for them to get to know who you are beyond the classroom.
  • Do remember that they are volunteering to conduct these admissions interviews, so they obviously are invested in their alma mater.  Alumni are often drawn to doing interviews because they want to find students who are going to contribute to the college community.  They want to make sure you are going to make their alma mater a better place.

THE VIRTUAL COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW

Thousands of high school students are venturing to college campuses this summer to not only tour the campus, but to sit down for a face-to-face interview.  While participating in a college interview is a great way to learn more about the college and to show the admissions office how you put your best foot forward, it is not always a possibility.  The reality is that showing interest in a school matters in the college admission process.  So what do you do if you can’t afford to visit a school?  Or if you already visited a school, but did not have a chance to interview with an admissions officer?  Ask for a virtual interview.

Many colleges are now offering virtual interviews to candidates who cannot make it to campus.  Using programs like Skype, WhatsApp and iChat, students are now able to interview with an admissions officer without every leaving home.  There are also companies like mycollegei.com that are specifically designed to facilitate a virtual college admission interview.

Here are some specific tips to keep in mind if you are planning on doing a virtual college interview.

Get comfortable with the technology:  

Before the date of your interview, make sure you know what type of virtual chat program you will be using and how it works.  Practice Skyping or chatting with one of your friends.  Make sure you know how to adjust the volume and the picture.

Find out the contact information: 

Make sure you are able to add the admissions officer you will be chatting with as a contact.  Are they going to call you or do you need to call them?  Also, if you are in a different time zone, make sure you clarify what time the interview will take place.

Appearances do matter:

 Just because you are not interviewing in person, does not mean you can slack off on your appearance.  If you have the “just rolled out of bed” look it will show.  Also make sure you pay attention to what is behind you.  Remember that the interviewer can see your surroundings so make sure your room is clean!  A messy background can be a big distraction. You want the interviewer to pay attention to you, not the huge poster on the wall behind you.

Show your interest: 

During the interview, make sure you communicate your interest in the school.  If you are not able to visit, be able to say why the school is at the top of your list based on the research you have conducted.  If you did visit, make sure you share what your impressions were of the campus and community.  Talk about what excites you about the school.

Remember, just because you are doing a virtual interview, it is still an interview.  The conversation you have is still going to used in evaluation of your application!

Sample College Interview Questions

Whether your interview is informational or evaluative, or whether it is conducted by a student, alumnus, or admissions officer, the questions you may be asked generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Academics and Your School Experiences
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Personal Life
  • College and Future Plans
  • Interest in the Particular College

Therefore, you must be ready to address each of the categories, regardless of the precise questions you may be asked. So as you prepare, think of one or two points that you’d like to focus upon in each category, and then as you answer questions, try to steer your comments toward those main points. This way, you won’t ever be surprised. As you listen to the interview question, quickly calculate which category it falls under, and then you can calibrate your answer accordingly. 

Academics/high school experience:

  • Tell me what courses you’ve taken and if you have a favorite or least favorite one. If you do, why is it your favorite/least favorite subject?
  • What do you think are the strengths/weaknesses of your high school?
  • If you had to go back and do your high school experience all over again, what would you change and why?
  • Do you have a favorite teacher? If so, why is he/she your favorite? What makes the teacher good?
  • Have you encountered a particular academic challenge during your years in high school? If so, what was it and how did you handle it?
  • Is there something that you will always remember from your high school experience?
  • If you could create your own course in high school, what would it be and why is it of interest to you?
  • Tell me about a particularly “hot” issue that has arisen in your high school and your thoughts on it.
  • If your teachers were to describe you to me, what words would they use?
  • Can you discuss a project or paper that you were particularly proud of during your high school career?
  • What are you doing to challenge yourself either in school or out of school?
  • Name a book you’ve read recently outside of school. Did you like it/dislike it?

Extracurricular activities and interests:

  • What are your most notable interests and hobbies, and how are you pursuing them?
  • What activities are you involved in at school? Which are the most important to you?
  • What have you personally gotten out of your involvement in your activities?
  • Do you have what you would consider to be any particularly unique interests?
  • Are there any accomplishments that you are particularly proud of with respect to your activities?
  • How have you spent your summers while in high school?

Personal life:

  • How would you describe your hometown?
  • Tell me about your family.
  • What words would your friends use to describe you?
  • What is your most embarrassing moment?
  • Talk about an ethical dilemma that you’ve faced and how you’ve handled it.
  • If you had one year and unlimited funds, what would you do?
  • How do you want people to remember you?
  • If you had a weekend with absolutely nothing scheduled, how would you spend your time?
  • What’s your opinion on (a current event)?
  • What would you change about yourself?
  • Do you have a “bucket list”? What are some things on it?
  • Do you have a hero/heroine? If so, who and why do you hold him/her in such high esteem?

College/future plans:

  • How would you contribute to life on a college campus?
  • What are you looking forward to most about college?
  • Do you have an idea about what you would like to major in?
  • What would you like to do after college?

School interest:

  • If you were standing in front of the admissions committee, what would you tell them to convince them to admit you? What makes you unique?
  • Describe the kind of college environment you are looking for.
  • Why are you interested in my school?
  • Why do you think that my school is a good fit for you?
  • What have I not told you that you want to know about the school? (a.k.a. What questions do you have for me?)

College Admissions Interviews – Conclusion

I hope that this comprehensive guide will help you nail the all college admissions interview you will do as part of your college admissions process. If you follow these tips, I know you’ll nail them.

Happy chatting!  And good luck!

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