Your Step-By-Step Plan for Conquering College Interviews
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. They were afraid their application was so bad that their safety school wouldn’t take them, much less their dream school. And they were positive that they would have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the interview.
College interviews seem scary. 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.
However, you do need to prepare for that informal conversation. So instead of stressing, focus all that nervous energy into what you can do right now:
Before You Land An Interview
- Research the school’s interview process. Lots of schools have different methods for the way they conduct college interviews, so you need to read their websites carefully. Put all of that information into a new “Interview” Column in your College 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 and junk folders, for communications. Clear out your voicemail — or set one up and make sure your message is appropriate.
- 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?).
Do some 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? 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.
If you need some help to get those thoughts flowing, check out my Top 25 Potential Questions You Might Face During a College Interview handout. But, you need to remember that instead of thinking of specific answers to specific questions, you need to be thinking of terms of 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.
Bring your Resume. If the college or the interviewer doesn’t explicitly tell you not to, I recommend bringing a one-page highlights resume. This gives the recommender something to refer to during the interviewer and later when they write their notes. Simply hand it to them when you meet them. If they put it aside or say they don’t need it, no biggie.
Get in the Zone. The night before the interview, do the basic but essential preparation stuff — make sure your outfit is clean, pressed, and ready to go. Check out the route to the interview location to anticipate transportation challenges. 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. Get a good night’s sleep.
The Day Of
Make a Good First Impression. 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 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.
Get there early. Arrive early so you don’t stress out. Double-check your planned route. Plan how early you need to leave to arrive 15 minutes early, and then leave 15 minutes before that time. When you get there, go to the bathroom. After you take care of business, 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 very important. 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.
- Shake hands. Think of a good handshake as about the degree of firmness you would need to hold onto a doorknob to open a door.
Be engaged during the Interview
- 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!)
- Remember to breathe.
- Listen to your interviewer. Respond to the questions. Don’t come with an agenda of what you want to say or come off as overly practiced. They could end up noting that in their write-up.
- Own it. Being nervous is ok. Lean into your nerves. You can tell the interviewer. They might be too, and this will help them know to help you along. They don’t want you to fail.
After the Interview
Write a Thank You Note After The Interview. Ask for a business card so you can jot down a quick thank you note and send it when you get home. Be gracious, be grateful for their time, and be sure to bring up something they talked about during the interview. Don’t worry if you don’t hear back from them. It doesn’t mean anything at all. (Here’s a good rule of thumb — if your interviewer is your parents’ age or older, send a hand-written thank you note to the interviewer’s address; otherwise, an email is fine.)
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.
If you want to learn more about college interviews, or if you need more college admissions advice, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.
You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram.
Good luck and stay awesome!
Carolyn Caplan is an independent college counselor, a moderator on r/ApplyingToCollege, and the author of Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. She’s on a one-woman mission to bring mindfulness to college admissions.