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College Admissions: Ten Tips for Acing Your College Interview

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

 

Photo credit: iStock

You probably don’t have to take part in an interview to get into college. Most schools don’t require it, but many schools make it optional. If you are an extrovert, normally an interview will work to your advantage if you have prepared well. If you are an introvert or get extremely nervous, it is possible that your written application might not be enhanced by an interview. If you are not sure whether an interview is a good idea, ask the opinion of an adult you trust.

If you have decided that admissions or alumni interviews will work to your advantage, here are ten tips for putting your best self forward.

1. Do Deep Research

Colleges want to spend their time on serious applicants. In a prior column, I explained how to do school-specific research. A college interview is not intended to be your fact-finding mission. You should have learned the basics and more before the interview and should use your time with an admissions rep or alum to dig into what you cannot learn elsewhere. I encourage you to show up at your interview with your own notes about the school. This proves that you spent the time and energy to do some unassigned homework.

2. Practice

Here’s advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Michelle Kretzschmar: “Sit down with another person and have them ask you questions, and you practice answering them. You think this feels stupid; you’ll just jot down some ideas and go over them in your head before the interview? Anyone who is a professional at something practices it—you know, people like actors. Even baseball players take batting practice before every game.”

If your interview is via Skype, then your practice also includes the technology. Here’s advice from interview expert Paul Nicholas: “With technology you should do at least two trial runs.  Whether you have a Mac or a PC, you will need to activate your webcam and see what your interviewer will be seeing. You will give them your Skype address in advance and confirm them as a connection. Your photo/avatar for Skype should be professional. Would you show that photo to your grandma? Do not position yourself with a window behind you. Consider what will be in your ‘frame’ and take care not to have anything distracting in the background. Prepare yourself in a room where there will be no distractions. Leave your cell phone elsewhere. Close the door. No pets.”

3. Schedule Early, Schedule Smart

Admissions representatives often have grueling fall travel schedules. If they are in your city for just a few days, they probably are short on sleep and juggling a schedule filled with school visits and interviews. There may only be a few interview slots available. Don’t panic if you have missed out on snagging one of those spots. Politely check if there is a Skype option or an alumni interview option available instead. 

If you have a face-to-face interview scheduled and you and the interviewer agree upon a location, plan on being there ten minutes early. Exchange cell phone numbers so that you can text in case either of you is running late. 

If you have some control over your interview schedule, do your interview with a less selective school first. You will get better with each interview you do, so having your lower-stakes interview first is a good strategy. 

4. Make a Positive First Impression

“First impressions are lasting impressions.” The majority of the first impression you make is non-verbal. Factors like your clothing, posture, handshake, smile, and eye contact all contribute to the aura of confidence you give off and how you are perceived. Here are more suggestions from Paul: 

“Dress: If you were to meet your grandparents for an event, what would you wear? That is how you should dress for an admissions interview. Not so dressy that you feel uncomfortable, but not so shabby that your grandparents would wonder. Smart casual. 

Handshake: Follow the lead of your interviewer when it comes to shaking hands. It sounds strange, but some people don’t want to shake hands. Don’t obligate your interviewer to shake your hand by offering yours. If they go for the shake, give them a firm reply. If not, it’s OK!

Eye contact: When you are at a face-to-face interview, look directly into the interviewer’s eyes as you introduce yourself. Eye contact in Skype interviews is different. Be aware of where the camera is and direct your eye contact directly into the camera. It will feel strange at first to speak with your eyes into the camera, but this ensures that the other person gets your full eye contact. When you speak, it’s into the camera. When they speak, you watch them naturally.”

5. Find a Connection

Admissions officers and alumni interviewers are just people, and it is human nature for them to root for applicants they like. Finding some point of connection with your interviewer is ideal. The easiest way to do that is to be genuinely interested in them. Search for something in common—whether it’s a love of dogs or scary movies or the truffle fries at Little Big Burger.

Help the interviewer by being prepared to answer any permutation of the basic opener—tell me about yourself. Decide in advance on three specific things that you want the interviewer to know about you. These might include an academic accomplishment, an extra-curricular activity, and anything that demonstrates what is personally important to you. You should be prepared to list them off with ease.

It’s a conversation. Follow the lead from the interviewer, and let the interview progress organically. If you get a question that stumps you, it is fine to say, “Wow, that’s a tough question. Please give me a minute to think about that.”

The interview is for you—first and foremost. The interviewer is there to help you gain a deeper understanding of the college/university and answer any questions you might have that you could not find the answer to online. Lean in and engage.

6. Take Notes

You won’t remember everything you hear (especially if you are nervous). Notes will come in handy when you write those “Why this college?” essays and will also be helpful when you have a handful of acceptance letters and are trying to narrow your options.

7. Answer Honestly

Trying to “psych out” colleges and give answers they want to hear is a complete waste of your energy. You are a teenager. Be your polite self and don’t try to figure out “right answers” to the questions you are asked. If your true passion is video games and you did ten hours of community service because your mom made you, then don’t talk about community service when you are asked your favorite extra-curricular activity. Authenticity is always best.

8. Ask Great Questions

Nearly every interviewer saves time at the end of the meeting for you to ask questions. Ask questions appropriate to the person. If it is an alumna who graduated 25 years ago, she will not know about the latest new major offered on campus; however, an admissions officers would. Open-ended questions are great, and there is a list of suggestions in my column last week. 

9. Prepare a “Leave-Behind”

Have a copy of your academic resume ready to give to the interviewer at the end of the meeting. If you hand it out at the beginning, the person might spend time looking at it rather than connecting with you. If you do not have an academic resume, it is fun to make a “calling card” on the computer. It should include your name, email, high school, year of graduation and city. If you want to add a cute graphic (my daughter had a robot on hers because she was interested in engineering), have fun with it.

10. Send a Thank-You Note

Handwritten. Not email. You need to get the person’s business card so you know where to mail it. Thank the interviewer for making time for you and for providing useful information. If you had a great point of connection, you can mention that in your note. Write it the same day that you have your interview and take it to the post office to mail so the person gets it promptly. If you cannot get an address from an alum, a same-day email thank you will suffice.

Jodi Walder is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC, which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at [email protected].

Michelle Kretzschmar is a blogger and the Houston-based author of DIY College Rankings.

Paul Nicholas interviews hundreds of tutors in person and via Skype to find employees for his Los Angeles-based business Alma Mater Educational Services.

 

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