A lot of the very selective and ‘elite’ schools use alumni interviews as part of their application review process but alumni interviews are not only limited to the Ivy League and schools like Stanford, MIT, UChicago etc. There’s somewhat of a myth floating around that alumni interviews aren’t worth much and don’t help your application. That is not true. A former Harvard interviewer helped me prep for my interviews and he said that interviews are actually an important part of the application process. Yes, it is a way to keep alumni connected to their alma mater but interviews help determine fit and personality and can do a lot in terms of admit or deny. An excellent interview can very well be the thing that puts your application in the admit pile and a horrible interview can have a detrimental effect on your application. Well, you might be thinking ‘If the interview can hurt my application, why would I want one?’ The interview will only hurt your application if you don’t prep for it, and that doesn’t mean hiring an overpriced coach but doing your research and coming prepared. So without further ado, here’s how to have a stellar college interview:
1) IF THE INTERVIEW IS OPTIONAL, TAKE IT ANYWAY
Most schools do alumni interviews by invitation only so in that case, if you’re offered an interview, you’re pretty much obliged to take it. However, if you’re applying to a school like UChicago that does optional interviews, take it. When the interview is optional, having vs. not having one is a good way to measure interest in the school. If you really want to get in, you’ll do everything possible to show the admissions office why the should accept you. The interview is one way to do that. Again, interviews asses fit and personality and it adds another dimension to your application; it shows that you’re human, more so than your essays and a ton more than your transcript and test scores.
2) PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE
This means actually spending time going over possible questions and coming up with ideas. Going to an interview unprepared is the worst thing you can possibly do unless you are 1000% sure you can wing it successfully.
- Take the time at least a week before the interview and gather a list of possible questions. Go on google and look up possible college interview questions. Set up a google doc and paste as many as you can until you start seeing duplicates. It will look scary at first because there can be upwards of 30 questions but fear not, it’s much easier than it seems.
- Once you’ve compiled a list of possible questions, start preparing answers for them. This doesn’t mean having a detailed response for each one and memorizing it. That looks super fake and no one will take you seriously. Instead, look over the questions and see which ones kind of overlap and break them up into groups. After you’ve done that, find an anecdote or story from your life that can help answer those questions. For example, if you have community service or volunteering questions, tie it in to that story you have about the organization you volunteer at. People remember stories, not vague statements and you’ll be helping your interviewer out by giving them a funny or interesting story to write about in their evaluation. Who’s your interviewer more likely to remember and write a favorable review, that one kid who listed all their accomplishments and sounded fake or you who told them a funny story about your first debate tournament and how you got over your fear of public speaking. You’ll sound down to earth, relatable, and friendly which is what you want to go for.
- An important question is the ‘Why School X’ question. This is an important one and you need to be prepared. Have some concrete reasons why and show your interest. Be dedicated and passionate and it will show.
- Anecdotes will also help you prepare for unusual questions that you might not expect such as the one I got for UChicago: “If you were a desert, what desert would you be?”. Use the anecdote to shape your answer to the question.
- Have a list of questions to ask your interviewer about the school. These should be more than just basic, found on the school’s website, I didn’t do my research questions. Ask questions you can’t find online and that only someone who went to the school could tell you.
- After you’ve got your anecdotes and stories done, have your parents, siblings, friends, or teachers ask you mock interview questions and see how you do. Remember, the goal is not to have everything memorized but to have a bank of stories you can draw on to inspire your responses.
3) COMMUNICATION IS KEY
A small but trivial part of the interview process is how you communicate with your interviewer before and after the interview.
- Before: Respond politely to the initial interview offer but show your enthusiasm for the school. You might even give a little background about yourself to the interviewer so they’ll know a little bit about you before the actual thing. Set a date, time, and place, and stick with it. Don’t reschedule unless it’s an emergency. It looks like your not serious and unprepared if you switch the date two days before the interview. If you need clarifications about anything, don’t be afraid to ask.
- After: Hopefully you had a great interview but even if you didn’t, send the interviewer a thank you card or email that thanks them for spending time with you and telling you more about the school. It would be good if you could indicate a specific thing you talked about with the interviewer because it will remind them as well and give them something to write about on the evaluation. Remember, any interview is a good interview as long as you did your part correctly. Sometimes the interviewer doesn’t click with the interviewee and that’s fine. As long as you were polite and talked about yourself, it shouldn’t negatively affect you.
Mentality is a big one because it dictates your behavior during the interview. You don’t want to go in scared or hesitant because the interviewer can sense it and it might not be favorable. It’s ok to be a bit nervous but not overly so, or at least if you are, don’t show it. Think about it this way, if the interviewer had to pick only one of the people he or she interviewed to get in to the school, they would pick you. Go in with that mentality and you’ll own the interview. You have to be certain of the above statement when leaving the interview.
5) THE ACTUAL INTERVIEW
Some points about the interview itself. The goal of the interview is an informal way for you to learn more about the school and for the school to learn more about you.
- Dress appropriately. This means business casual. No tennis shoes, any jeans that aren’t black, no over the top make up, no too short skirts/dresses, no super tall heels etc. But at the same time, don’t be overly formal. No tuxedos, gowns, or other extravagant clothing. A skirt with a nice shirt and flats/heels would work for girls and dress pants with a button up shirt would work for guys.
- Be punctual: A good rule of thumb is to plan to arrive 15 minutes before the interview starts. This will give you a buffer so if you get lost, there’s traffic or an accident, or something else happens, you’ll still have sufficient time to get there and not be late. I would also suggest to scout out the interview location before the interview. See where it is and how long it will take you to get there so you aren’t scrambling on the day of. If you really are late, send your interviewer an email or text to let them know.
- Bring a resume: Some interviewers are prohibited by the college from looking at resumes but bring one anyway. It will help remind you of your talking points and if the interviewer does look at resumes, it will make it easier for them to ask questions and it will help them write the review after the interview.
- Make eye contact and don’t fidget too much: Get rid of your nerves and jitters and be calm and prepared.
- If you don’t know how to answer a question, don’t panic: Take a few seconds and use an anecdote. Once you start telling the story, it will give you time to think and answer the question properly. It’s ok if you miss a question or two because the interviewer will be expecting it and you’re human after all. Just don’t miss all of them.
- If you’re asked an opinion question, try not to be offensive or overly opinionated: You don’t know your interviewer’s views on certain situations and you don’t want to accidentally offend them. Be polite and express your opinions without acting superior or trying to impose your opinions on them. Don’t make up stuff if you have no idea what they’re talking about. It could backfire on you.
- Don’t live inside your head. Don’t spend too much time thinking and stare off into space. Articulate your thoughts in a clear and concise manner.
- Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
- Don’t zone off, no matter how boring your interviewer is.
- It’s not recommended to bring a notebook to the interview to take notes. Remember, it’s informal.
- Don’t worry about the length of the interview.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- If the interviewer offers to buy you a drink or snack, don’t say no but don’t go extravagant. Get something small and something that won’t make a mess.
- Don’t put on too much perfume or cologne.
With that being said, don’t worry too much. You’ll do great! Go and ace that college interview!