The Truth About College Interviews
(From the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) website http://www.nacacnet.org. Written by Jennifer Gross)
Anticipating an interview with a college admissions officer makes many students nervous. Unsure students may imagine something more like an interrogation, complete with rapid-fire questions and a bare bulb hanging overhead.
The truth is, most college interviews are relaxed, informative, and even fun.
“The interview is as much about you finding out about the [college] and whether it fits you as it is an interrogation with dire consequences,” says John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling for Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.
In other words, very few colleges use interviews to weed out applicants. A great interview could enhance your application—especially if your interviewer is the same person who will assess your application—but it won’t make up for a weak academic record. On the other hand, a so-so interview probably won’t hurt your chances. Just taking the time to visit the college and talk to an admission officer makes a positive impression, because it shows that you’re really interested in the college.
But why settle for a so-so interview when a little preparation can make you stand out from the crowd? Here are some tips to change an interview from ho-hum small talk into meaningful conversation.
Know your stuff
Be prepared to offer a few different dates and times when you call to schedule your interview. This simple detail shows your ability to manage your time, as well as your respect for your interviewer’s busy schedule.
If you would like to meet a specific professor or sit in on a class, make that request when you schedule your interview, not when you appear at the admissions office.
Spending your interview just finding out basic facts about the college is a waste of your time (and the admission officer’s). Before you schedule an interview, read up on the college and make sure you’re really interested.
“I always tell my students to do their homework and not ask for any information they can find elsewhere (Internet, guide books, viewbooks, etc.),” says Sue Bigg, an educational consultant from Illinois.
Know yourself–and be yourself
Admission officers want to get to know you—not some fake personality that you think will impress them.
“There is no ‘personality type’ or ‘lifestyle’ that is synonymous with a successful interview,” says Cigus Vanni, a counselor at Howell High School (NJ). “Give your interviewer credit for being able to discern if you’re being a phony.”
Instead, get comfortable with yourself. Be prepared to discuss your interests, talents, and experiences. Also, think about how your interests fit with what the college offers.
“Students who understand their wants and the qualities they desire in a college, and who can articulate their needs, allow for the best interaction,” says Kevin Kropf, associate director of admissions at Albion College (MI).
Before the interview, think about how you’d answer the following questions.
- What are your goals?
- Whom do you admire?
- How would your friends and family describe you?
- How does this college fit in with your interests and talents?
- What majors are you interested in, and why?
- What are you passionate about?
- Why do you want to attend college? Why this college?
- What extracurricular activities are important to you?
- What academic or intellectual topics interest you?
- What types of books do you enjoy reading?
“Students who can share their own thoughts and discuss books impress me more than students who wax eloquently on something they obviously heard from their teacher,” says Kropf.
Ask good questions
Often, your questions tell an interviewer more about you than anything else. Asking how many students attend the college, for example, tells the admission officer that you haven’t done your homework. On the other hand, insightful questions show that you’ve thought seriously about the college and your own needs.
“Come with specific questions in mind that are sophisticated,” says Robert Massa, vice president of enrollment, student life, and college relations at Dickinson College (PA). For example, he adds, a student interested in biochemistry may want to ask how that major can be combined with studying abroad.
One strategy is to jot down several important questions ahead of time and take the list with you to the interview. This gives you two advantages: you make sure not to forget anything, and the admission officer is sure to be impressed by your level of preparation.
Here a few examples of good questions:
- What percentage of students come back after freshman year?
- Can you tell me some things about ____________ program/major?
- What makes _______ program/major a good one?
- What social options are available if I don’t join a fraternity/sorority? (for colleges with Greek systems)
- What campus issues are students talking about this year?
- How involved are students in extracurricular activities? Do most students stay on campus during the weekends?
“Asking ‘why?’ allows for the student to learn more than the superlative descriptor of a department or program,” says Kropf. “Of course your English department is great–tell me why it is great.”
Beware of these questions!
Your first-grade teacher was wrong—sometimes there is such as thing as a stupid question. Boshoven lists some questions to avoid:
- What majors do you have?
- Do students have to go to class?
- What are the dorms like?
- Want to see my tattoo?
Remember your manners
First impressions do count. Don’t let how you’re dressed get in the way of connecting with your interviewer. “There is no merit in taking extreme positions in fashion,” says Vanni. “Glamour and slovenliness should both be avoided—no need to rent a tux nor to make a statement by under-dressing.”
Casual dress is fine–especially if you’re planning to walk all over campus later—but avoid T-shirts and very short skirts or shorts. Khakis, casual dresses/skirts (for women), nice shorts, and polo-type shirts are all acceptable. You should be comfortable, without looking like you’re headed to a wild party or an evening in front of the TV.
Make eye contact and listen attentively. Also, don’t forget about whoever you’re traveling with. Remember to introduce your parent(s), friend(s), and even your pesky younger brother to the admissions officer.
And for a great last impression. Thank your interviewer, shake his hand and write a thank-you note to the person who interviews you (make sure to get his/her business card before you leave the admissions office). Mail/email a Thank you note within 48 hours. Many students don’t take the time to do this—which will make you stand out as the wonderful, well-mannered person you are.
- Ask your parents to schedule your interview for you.
- Roll in late; if it’s unavoidable, call.
- Slouch, chew gum, yawn or litter your speech with umm’s or like, you know’s; avoid slang and off-color language.
- Answer your phone or text during your interview. Your parents shouldn’t either
- Expect (or permit) your parents to answer questions asked of you. The admission counselor wants to hear from you, not your parents.
- Be negative about everything in your life; conversely, don’t overwhelm your interviewer with insincere enthusiasm about everything.
- Recite your resume and think you’ve helped your interviewer know you better.
- Give answers you think the admissions counselor want to hear. Give your own, honest answers.
- Show up without thoughtful questions about the college or university.
- Ask questions you could easily answer on your own if you checked the school’s website or a college guide.
- Let a question like, “What doesn’t the school know about you after reading your application?” slip by without a good answer; answer with “Nothing” or “I covered everything” and you miss a plumb opportunity to share something new – and memorable – about yourself.
- Hug your admissions counselor. It’s too forward and uncomfortable for everyone.
- Forget that the interview is just one part of a collection of materials that will help the admissions staff evaluate you. Your future does not hinge on the stellar or pedestrian quality of your interview.