Your Step by Step Guide to Interviews from AdmissionsMom (with loads of potential interview questions and tips about nonverbal communication) — Hint: It’s easier than you think! (2022 Updates)
If you might be kind of freaking out about interviews, you’re not alone. A few weeks ago, a student confessed that they really didn’t want to go to their first college interview. Despite their parents eagerly hyping them up, the poster couldn’t help but feel that they were going to bomb the interview. And they were positive that they would have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the interview.
College interviews seem scary, for real. It’s easy to become anxious and stressed about college interviews, but you’ve made it this far, having surmounted obstacles like grades, extracurriculars, writing your essays, and putting together your application. Having a respectful, open, and casual conversation about all of that is much easier than you think.
Don’t believe me? According to Sayaka Smith, a Tufts Undergraduate Admissions Officer, college interviews “are meant to be informal conversations and an alumni interviewer’s job is to get to know you as a 3D human being and tell us a little more about you.” That’s it! You won’t be graded or win points. This isn’t Jeopardy. Your interview isn’t on TV (you are on a screen this year, though!).
However, you do need to prepare for that informal conversation. So instead of stressing, focus all that nervous energy on what you can do right now:
Before the Interview
- Research the School’s Interview Process: Lots of schools have different methods for the way they conduct interviews — and some even have different interview deadlines, so you need to read their websites carefully. Put all of that information into a new “Interview” Column in your College Application Organization Spreadsheet.
- Stay Connected: You don’t want to miss any electronic communications from the college. You especially don’t want to miss news about college interviews. Start regularly checking your inbox, as well as your spam, social, promotional, and junk folders, for communications. Clear out your voicemail — or set one up and make sure your message is appropriate. Check your portal in case they leave info there.
- Do the Interview! There’s data out there showing a striking difference in acceptance rates for those who interview and those who don’t (if the opportunity is available to them). So, if the school offers you an interview, do it! Even if they say that the interview is technically “optional” (you do know that there is no such thing as truly “optional” in college admissions language right?).
- Light Interview Prep: You have to be careful during this part. The temptation to memorize monologues about yourself is real, I know, but don’t do it. DO NOT MEMORIZE. DO NOT REHEARSE. Why not rehearse? You’ll sound stiff, false, like a robot. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who had a list of points they were trying to blow through no matter what you wanted to talk about? It’s not a conversation any longer. It becomes an awkward trap where one party is just talking at the other and everyone just wants it to be over. What you need to do is come prepared to talk about yourself. In the days leading up to your interview, think about why you love the school so much, how your academic experience, extracurriculars, interests, and ambitions demonstrate who you are. All of that will be much more interesting to the interviewer
- Create your Magical, Story-Collecting Invisible Backpack: Prepare ahead of time with your invisible backpack full of stories about you. The best way to answer a question is with a story about yourself. Think of lots of little stories about you that represent who you are and what’s important to you. That way you can pull them out as they fit the questions. DO NOT memorize them. They just need to be accessible — like in a little invisible backpack! Instead of thinking of specific answers to specific questions, try thinking of themes or collecting stories about yourself that you can share. Think of it as your magical story-collecting backpack that you wear to the interview. There’s nothing memorized — just stories that explore who you are and are brought to the forefront of your mind for easy recall.
- If you need some help to get those thoughts flowing, check out my lists of college interview questions I collect every year:
- Prepare a One Page Highlights Resume: If the college or the interviewer doesn’t explicitly tell you not to, I recommend having a “One-Page Just-the-Highlights” Resume ready to hand to the interviewer. This gives the interviewer something to refer to during the interview and later when they write their notes. Of course, some schools specifically say not to bring a resume, so be sure you read all the directions they send you. For in-person interviews, just hand it to them when you first sit down. If they use it, great. If they put it aside and never look at it again, no biggie. For virtual interviews, you can make it ready to link in the chat (or you could send it to them ahead of time linked in an email). Save it as a pdf in a google drive so you can link it in the chat or easily screen share. Make sure you share with permissions for them to open it. I suggest letting anyone open it so you don’t have to worry about if they have the right email or not while chatting with you. If they don’t use it, it’s no biggy.
- Get in the Zone: The night before the interview, do the basic but essential preparation stuff — make sure your clothes are prepared. Go over the next day’s schedule and make sure you’ve given yourself enough time to get to the interview location and get into the right frame of mind. For virtual interviews, click on the Zoom link just to make sure you know where it is! For in-person, plan out your route to get there and plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Get a good night’s sleep.
- Do a Virtual Tour or Info Session before! I have links to as many as I could find on my website, www.collegevizzy.com or you can easily find them on the college’s own websites.
- For Virtual Sessions, Practice with your Computer: Make sure your camera works. Lift your computer enough so that you are looking into the camera at eye level. Practice with your mom or a friend. Make sure you have lighting in front and behind you — especially in front of you. Put a lamp just behind your computer so that your beautiful smile is sure to show!
- For Virtual Sessions, Arrange the Time and Space with your Family. Let them know ahead of time that you’ll be interviewing so you’ll need some quiet space for half an hour or an hour or so. Sit in a location where if your family has to walk around you, they’ll be going in front of your computer, not behind you. Your interviewer def doesn’t want to see your dad walking around in his underwear! If you are in your room, then make your bed and tidy the space.
The Day Of
- What to Wear: Wear something you are comfortable in and that makes you feel confident. You don’t need to wear a suit, but you must look tidy. Wear a clean shirt with a collar, tucked in, and if you’re in person — a clean pair of pants or jeans with a belt (if you have pants other than jeans, wear them). You can wear a nice but not-too fancy dress, a clean skirt, or pants with a blouse or shirt, tucked in. NO inappropriate t-shirts or dirty, stained, or torn clothes. Clean up your tennis shoes. Consider removing piercings beyond ear piercings. Wash and comb your hair. Get a haircut if you need it. Shave or trim your beard, if you have one. No need for anything too elaborate, but you must look clean and neat and not like you just rolled out of bed.
- Bring your Questions: As Finding_Snoo says in their great post, make sure to bring your list of uneasily googleable questions. If the information can be found on the website, don’t ask. But it is ok to ask them to explain something or elaborate about something on the website. Personal questions that connect to the interviewer can be useful: ask about their favorites on campus and their experiences.
- Get There Early: For virtual, plan to log on 10 or 15 minutes early for virtual, so you have time to deal with tech problems, do last-minute adjustments with lighting and camera angles, run to the bathroom one last time, etc. Arrive early so you don’t stress out. Double-check your planned route. For in-person, plan ahead how early you need to leave to arrive 15 minutes early, and then leave 15 minutes before that time.
- Superman It: When you get there or when you’re all set up and ready to go on your computer, go take one last trip to the bathroom. After you take care of business, go look at yourself in the mirror, put your hands on your hips, and stand up nice and tall. Do the Superman Pose and take some deep breaths.
During the Interview
Make your Introductions
- Smile: Don’t force it, but try to relax and enjoy yourself a little. Again, this is just a little chat between you and the interviewer.
- Make Eye Contact: This is important and can be tricky on a virtual chat. Resist the urge to watch yourself in the video and keep your focus on your interviewer. Make sure you look the interviewer in the eye so they know you’re engaged and paying attention. Not too much. It’s not a staring contest. Be confident but natural.
- Introduce yourself. The easiest and most confident way to do this is to simply state your name during the handshake if you’re in-person, and for virtual, just say something like Hi, I’m Carolyn. Nice to meet you! (but don’t use Carolyn, that would be ridiculous unless your name is Carolyn)
- Shake hands. If you’re in-person and you feel comfortable with a handshake, you can stick your hand out, but remember they might not be yet comfortable with that level of touch, so be respectful. A little bow is fine too. Think of a good handshake as about the degree of firmness you would need to hold onto a doorknob to open a do.
- Silence and put away your phone: (The only exceptions would be something like they ask to see a picture of an art project you did and you happen to have one on your phone. Make sure there’s nothing potentially embarrassing to scroll past!)
- Keep Smiling and Making Eye Contact: Consider your non-verbal communication. Nod, lean in to listen, use your hands to speak. If you’re interested in learning a little more about nonverbal communication, here are my short notes from a recent webinar I went to about nonverbal communication and body language.
- Listen to your Interviewer: Respond to the questions. The numero uno thing colleges tell us to share with you is to LISTEN to the interviewer! Don’t come with an agenda of what you want to say or come off as overly-practiced or memorized. They could end up noting that in their write-up.
- Lean into your nerves: Own it. Being nervous is ok. You can tell the interviewer if you’re feeling a little nervous. This will help them know to help you along. They don’t want you to fail. More than likely they’ve been nervous about something really important to them a time or two, too.
- Take Notes: It’s ok to take occasional notes as you’re talking in case there’s something you want to come back to, but be sure you aren’t staring down the whole time.
- Remember to Breathe. Make sure you’re continuing to breathe. There’s no rush.
- As it ends, thank them and make sure you have their contact info.
After the Interview
Write a Thank You Note After The Interview. If you meet in person, ask for a business card so you can jot down a quick thank you note and send it when you get home. Try to send an email that evening or afternoon or the next morning. Be gracious, be grateful for their time, and be specific about something they said that made you think about or particularly excited about the school. Thank them for taking the time to talk to you. Be friendly and warm. Use good grammar. Don’t worry if you don’t hear back from them. It doesn’t mean anything at all.
See how direct and simple this is once you divvy up what you have to do? After you’ve handled that huge college application checklist, this interview process will be a piece of cake. If nothing else, you’ll feel more confident, which will make you a more engaging and exciting interviewee.
I get asked all the time about how important interviews are. And of course, the answer to that question, just like in pretty much all things college admissions is it depends. Interviews with admissions counselors from colleges are indeed important and they will be accounted for in your evaluation — as far as how much? Who knows — back to “it depends on the college.” In my experience, alum interviews are a great time to get to know more about the colleges and share a little about yourself, but not a whole lot more real. I think a horrible interview could tank you, but beyond that not too much. Many kids I know have had alum interviews that positively rocked and they still weren’t admitted and other kids have had alum interviews that they felt were very ho-hum or even worse and they were admitted. So my point is, don’t overthink it. Think about these interviews as life practice. Not as making or breaking your college apps.
Be early. Smile. Breathe. Bring a magical backpack of stories. Listen. Breathe. Write a thank-you note.