The Admissions Interview

The college application process can be fairly daunting, and one of the mostdaunting aspects is the interview application.  As a rule, the admission interview is the only opportunity a prospective student will have to actually speak face-to-face with a human during the admissions process. There are two types of admissions interviews:  the Informational Interview and the Evaluative Interview.

The Informational interview is an opportunity for the student to learn more about a particular college or university.  They are often (but not always) given in groups and run by an admissions officer from the school in question or an alumnus of the school. The interview is essentially a recruiting tool.  During the Informational interview, the student is—in a sense—interviewing the school. The student asks questions, which the school’s representative then answers. As a rule, Informational interviews do not ordinarily impact a school’s admissions decision.  However, if one chooses to attend an Informational interview, it should be treated and prepared for as extensively as the Evaluative interview. There is no reason the individual conducting an Informational interview wouldn’t make note of exceptionally good (and bad) prospects.

The Evaluative interview is a one-on-one, (usually) face-to-face interview in which the college or university judges the applicant.  An Evaluative interview can make or break the applicant’s chances for enrollment in a competitive school. For this reason, the remainder of this post will focus on specific, common questions about the Evaluative interview.

Will I have to do an interview at all?

Most of the highly selective colleges (the Ivy League, etc.,) will offer the option of an interview, with some schools and some departments within schools requiring one. If the option is offered and it is not prohibitively difficult or expensive, the opportunity for a face-to-face interview should definitely be accepted. In cases where face-to-face interviews are not feasible, many schools will offer the chance to interview via phone or video conference. That being said, if you do have a chance to interview and you are at all concerned about your prospects of getting in to the college of your choice, do the interview if it is offered.

Who will I meet with?

If the student is able to travel to the school, or is in an area where the college sends admissions officers to do interviews, then the student will meet with a member of the school’s admissions staff or a trained aide. This person may be either a junior staff professional or a graduate student. If the student is in an area where a staff member isn’t available, the school will attempt to match the student to a nearby alumnus. The same preparations should be made regardless of who the applicant is meeting with.

How should I prepare for the Interview?

In many ways, the college interview is like a job interview and it should be treated as such. Research the school you’re interviewing for and familiarize yourself. Think about why you chose the school in the first place and be able to articulate those reasons. Consider what you’re going to wear – you don’t have to go out and buy a new suit, but you should dress to impress (business professional is best).

Most importantly:  Read up on the most commonly asked asked interview questions.  There are hundreds of good articles available, and from a few of those you should be able to cull the most common and have answers prepared.  This is not to say you want to have a canned, “know your cliches”* response. An interviewer will recognize a rehearsed speech, but be sure you know your bullet points for each common question.  And then…

PRACTICE! Sit with someone who knows you and have them ask you those questions and any others they want to.

What will I be asked?

There are three basic types of questions to be prepared for: School Fit, Personality, and Interest questions.

Before addressing these questions, let me emphasize a few basic, universal points:

  • BE REAL:  Don’t try to be anyone besides who you are.  It is tempting to believe that you’re not not the type of person they accept into Generic U.**  Remember to embrace your Awesome and share it. Don’t try to be funny if you’re not naturally funny. ***  Don’t try to talk like you study the dictionary nightly. Just be your best version of you.
  • BE HONEST: Don’t assume that the interviewer is looking for a particular answer.  They are looking for your answer.

  • AVOID TMI:  There is nothing wrong with talking about difficult or unpleasant aspects of your life, but remember that you are speaking with a stranger who is making a decision about you.  Be honest, but not to the point where you could produce discomfort.

  • LISTEN!:  There’s a great line in Pulp Fiction:  “When you’re in a conversation, do you listen or do you wait to talk?”  Make sure that you are answering the question they actually asked. Ask follow-up questions based on the interviewer’s responses. If you can turn the interview into a conversation, so much the better.

School Fit questions are questions that ask in one way or another, “Why do you want to come to Generic University and what do you have to offer?” This is where preparation will really pay off.  Be as specific as you can about why you want to attend Generic U. Talk about campus culture, the department or professors you want to study with, alumni success rates: whatever you are honestly interested in.  As for what you have to offer, you’ve probably already addressed that in an application essay, so in an interview you can reiterate and build off of that.

Personality questions are those which give you the chance to lay out who you are.  With these questions, applicants can really advocate for themselves. Don’t be afraid to insert your values and views into your answers here.  Like the Application Essay, you want the interviewer to get a sense of who you are.

Interest questions are meant to elicit your hobbies and interests.  Think about the things that truly interest you and, more importantly, why they interest you. Here you can talk about the things that aren’t covered by your transcript.  You may have a passion for pre-war jazz or the art of René Magritte or cooking.  While these may not be part of your academic plan or career arc, they are certainly interesting parts of you.

It is okay to think outside of the box when answering interview questions.  If an interviewer asks if you would solve a particular problem by doing “A” or “B,” it is completely okay, maybe even preferable to say, “I think ‘C’ would be a better way to go” if you really believe in “C”.

Speaking of “out of the box,” sometimes the interviewer will throw you a question that doesn’t fall neatly into the categories above.  Questions like, “If you had a free day without homework or school, how would you spend it?” or “What would you do with a million dollars?” Since the number of possibilities are nigh-infinite, just be prepared to be honest and thoughtful.

One of the worst questions an interviewer will ask you is “Do you have any questions?”  ALWAYS have a question or two at the ready for that one. Try to make them as specific to the school as possible.  This is a chance to remind them of your particular interests (“Does the Sanskrit Department participate in intramural sports?”), bring up something about yourself that you felt didn’t get covered but they’d like to know (“Do you ever receive correspondence in Sanskrit?”).  Don’t waste this opportunity!

The Interview does not have to be an intimidating prospect.  Treat it like you treat other aspects of your college application process.  Do you research. Prepare. Be yourself.

NOTE ON THE WRITING OF THIS ARTICLE:  I want to give a shout-out to Charida Thiem, who did most of the research for this piece.  Since I had not done any interviewing when I was applying to college back in *ahemcoughingfitahem*, Charida really brought me up to speed.  Prior to her great work, most of my knowledge of the college interview process came from the movie Risky Business.

*10 points to anyone who gets that reference.****

**You are.

*** I know I make it seem easy.  It isn’t.

****The points are only worth bragging rights.

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