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Interview Tips, Undergraduate Admissions


The college admissions interview often causes much anxiety among applicants—understandably, considering that applicants are often inexperienced and imagine the interview to carry more weight than it actually does in the selection process. 

Despite that fact that an exceptionally good interview, especially one conducted by an actual admissions officer, may positively influence one’s candidacy, most of the time an interview—especially an alumni interview—doesn’t do much help or harm.  Applicants may be relieved (or disappointed) to learn the following: (1) the interview as conducted by most colleges is almost always more of a genial public relations platform than a hard-core screening exercise; (2) the interviewer is usually an off campus alumnus remote from the decision-making circle of the admissions committee; (3) the interview rarely if ever makes or breaks a candidate.


It may be comforting for students to understand the actual purpose of the interview as conducted by most colleges. With the exception of military academies and some exceptionally selective scholarship programs, for which applicants are indeed rigorously screened and hand-picked, in the context of normal admissions for the entering class of a typical university (and even an elite university), the interview is used more as public relations exercise—i.e., form of advertisement—intended to create a positive impression of the college in the applicant’s mind. While it is true that an applicant can have a knockout interview and incrementally boosts his or her chances of admission, most of the time interviews are congenial, sunny encounters intended to heighten student interest in the school.  Alumni interviewers are usually instructed not to ask overly difficult or potentially upsetting questions, but rather simply to offer a friendly and positive human face for the applicant to associate with the university. The interview is not designed to be an interrogation; is not intended to trick the student or expose contradictions in his or her application (“A-ha! You lied!”); it is not intended to humiliate or crush, as in some mean-spirited and even sadistic competitions or reality shows. Colleges want students to walk away from their interviews feeling happy and even more enthusiastic about the school, so that in the event that students are accepted, they will turn down competing offers, enroll, and thereby boost the college’s yield rate (one of several factors by which colleges are ranked).


It is important to note that most interviewers are off-campus alumni who volunteer their time to help out their alma maters. All of these alumni interviewers obviously feel proud of their colleges or otherwise they would not spend any time volunteering; these interviewers are not  admissions officers and are not granted any formal power to admit or reject any applicant. These alumni generally conduct amiable interview sessions of approximately 30-60 minutes and then provide fairly simple subjective feedback to the admissions committee, which in turn inserts that feedback into the applicant’s file. Because these alumni are not admissions officers per se, and are relative outsiders to the closed-door decision-making corps, their opinions and impressions, while of some value, carry little dispositive weight.  Their electronic inputs are like postcards from the periphery, composed with varying degrees of detail and care, and the encounters they relate will invariably mean less to an admissions officer than they did to the interviewers themselves.   That remoteness, unfortunately, is the inevitable nature of second-hand impressions.


At this point of reading my summary, a nervous applicant should begin to feel much relief—perhaps even too much relief, in that some students might even begin to wonder whether it is worth bothering to seek an interview in the first place.  Despite the relatively minor importance of the interview in the selection process (compared to grades, test scores, essays, and particularly impressive extracurricular activities), seeking an interview is still recommended for these reasons: (1) requesting and following through with an interview is evidence of genuine interest in the university; (2) because the interview can very rarely hurt an applicant, and can sometimes even help, the rewards generally outweigh the risks; and (3) the more practice young people get with interviewing the better, because almost all of us will be interviewing continually and increasingly competitively throughout our careers.


To sum up so far, the above is a broad discussion of the importance of interviews in the usual overall process; what follows now are 20 brief tips on handling the interview itself:


1.     When scheduling interviews, try to schedule them in order of reverse importance—i.e., attempt to schedule your least desired school first and your most desired school last. The reason for this inverse order makes sense: you will almost certainly improve as you go along, learning from each interview, and will therefore be comparatively confident and smooth by the time you reach your final and most important interview. 

2.     In all correspondence setting up the interview, be prompt, thorough, and courteous; your interviewer will begin to form a impression of you—positive or negative—based on your preliminary communication efforts. Obviously, you will want to start off on the right foot.

3.     Arrive to the interview site on time—in fact, arrive early.  The interview site will normally be the interviewer’s professional office or a public space like a coffee shop or a library.  Do not be late: it is rude and unprofessional and makes a instantly poor first impression. Furthermore, when interviewees are running late, they tend to be stressed, distracted, and rattled, and will therefore not be at their most confident when the first words out of their gasping mouths are sheepish, out-of-breath apologies.

4.     Dress nicely and neatly: you do not need to overdress, but it is fair to say that dressing too casually or sloppily may alienate certain interviewers by conveying the message that the interview is not very important to the student.  For most schools, ”business casual” is a reasonable standard that will convey appropriate respect; for art schools, one can afford to be a little more artsy, but still stay on the more conservative side of that particular spectrum. The college admissions interview is a relatively grown-up affair and should therefore be approached accordingly.

5.     Check yourself in a mirror right before meeting your interview so that you will feel confident and upbeat about your appearance.  It is not much fun to emerge from an interview to discover that one’s collar had been sticking up, one’s fly had been open, or that there had been a small piece of broccoli stuck between one’s two front teeth.

6.     If you are a little nervous, that is perfectly natural, so don’t worry about it.  That added adrenaline will keep you alert and interested, and after a few minutes of speaking, you will relax and settle into a more normal state.

7.     Create a strong and amiable first impression.   American culture in particular tends to admire the direct approach: the warm smile, the firm handshake, the confident eye contact.  (As the interview progresses, you can pay attention to behavioral cues by your interviewer to modulate to a quieter and more reserved personality style, but there’s rarely any harm in introducing yourself warmly and openly, because as a purely psychological matter, most people respond positively to that extroverted approach.)

8.     Accept your host’s hospitality: if interviewers offer you a glass of water or a cup of tea, go ahead and accept it.   You will make them feel hospitable and will not be starting off the interview with a No.  (Contemplate the negative vibe created by the following exchange: Hello Mr. Candidate, can I get you a glass of water? No.  A cup of tea perhaps?  No.  Coffee?  No.  A cookie?  No.  Anything at all?  No.  (Does this candidate appreciate the unintended negative impression generated by this chain of nullifications? No. (Another reason to accept that proffered beverage: it is not unusual for an interviewee’s mouth to get a little dry, so even if one is not thirsty at the outset of the session, that glass of water will soon be very welcome.)

9.     Sit down where invited and pay attention to your posture and bodily cues throughout the interview.  Reserve about 15% of your attention to observing yourself and how you might be coming across to your interlocutor.   Maintain awareness of unconscious (and distracting) habits such as slouching, foot wagging, hair twirling, finger tapping, and ear scratching. Also maintain reasonably consistent eye contact (without staring unblinkingly or unnaturally); while it is natural to give one’s eyes some freedom to relax and look elsewhere, try not to look away too often or too long (because doing so may be perceived as evasive). Most of these bodily tics are purely unconscious, which is why one must maintain gentle awareness of them in order to discreetly stop them as they arise.

10. Speak clearly and confidently: do not mumble, do not rush.  Be aware of—and try to eliminate—distracting filler word-noises such as “um,” “ah,” “like,” “ya know,” and potentially off-putting affectations or mannerisms such as “vocal fry.”  (Practice your speaking beforehand—and see Tip 12 below for more on this point.)

11.  Be sensitive to the vocal style and pace of your interviewer.  If you find your interviewer speaks quickly and up-tempo, you can pick up your own pace (at least slightly) so that the conversation is not frustratingly slow for him or her; if your interviewer speaks slowly and deliberately, selecting his or her words with care, you too can speak at a similar, thoughtful pace, because that is the speed at which you will make the most meaningful connection.  (In psychological terms, what you will be doing here is adapting to the Tell-Fast or Ask-Slow conversational styles of your interviewers.)

12. Be prepared to speak concisely or at length about anything on your application or in your life.   For typical interview questions, it is good practice to rehearse speaking aloud both concise short answers and detailed longer answers.  (You can learn something from campaigning politicians here: the most expert and fluent ones prepare both short and long answers to every issue and talking point.) You can practice in the privacy of your bedroom or even while walking in the streets or park.  (If you are self-conscious about appearing to talk to yourself in public, you can wear your earbuds while walking and everyone will think you are having a phone conversation… )

13. How to prep for typical interview questions? What do these questions look like? For starters, they can resemble any and all questions that appear on the Common Application or on supplements. They could be questions about academic or personal interests, decisive life moments, family background, best and worst classes in high school, career goals, and of course, Why you want to go to X University.  Very rarely if ever will an alumni interviewer ask a “trick question” or an unsettlingly personal question.  Again,  I repeat: universities generally approach the alumni interview as a public relations tool, so the tone will consequently be genial, open, and welcoming. No school wants interviewers asking upsetting questions, and it is also fair to say that the vast majority of volunteer interviewers do not sacrifice their valuable free time for the perverse purpose of sizzling teenagers over a griddle.

14. Prepare a few reasonable questions for your interviewer. At some point, as inevitable as sunrise, your interviewer will ask you if you have any questions. You will not want to say “no” here, because once again, “no” is a nullifier, a conversation-stopper, and suggests perhaps a lack of serious interest in the college.  A student who is truly eager to go to a particular college will almost certainly have some questions.  In preparing your questions, do not ask anything that can be easily found on the college website, that is purely factual or technical , or that an alumni interviewer will not be expected to know (e.g., the number of credits required for a chemistry minor, etc.). Also, of course, refrain from asking anything laughably simple-minded, such as “Where is the University of Chicago anyway—in what city and state?” 

15. A reasonably profitable question approach might be one that focuses on the personal experiences or perspectives of the alumni interviewers themselves. For instance, you might ask your interviewers what they believe were the most important benefits they got out of their college educations; what they might do differently if they had the chance (step lightly here: nothing too sensitive, please); what changes they might have seen in applicants and alumni over the years; or what wisdom or advice they might offer you from the perspective of their experience.  Be alert, too, of course, for good questions that might spontaneously occur to you in the course of your conversation—a point that is thematically tied to the following tip.

16. Above all, keep the conversation going.  The best interview will be not be a stiff catechismal Q&A interrogation, but rather more of a free-flowing conversation with an easy, dynamic rhythm of natural ebbs and flows (and with any luck, some laughs); think of the back-and-forth dialogue as one of those friendly warm-up games of tennis in which you are simply trying to keep the volley going; don’t think of the interview as a tense competition in which you are seeking to defeat an opponent by smashing unreturnable 225 km/hr serves over the net.  Just keep the conversation going and let it roll.  A good interview will be fluid, largely spontaneous, and reasonably enjoyable for both parties.

17. In order to keep the conversation going, be mindful not to interrupt, speak over, or frustrate your interviewer.  Nothing you can possibly say is as important as observing the rules of polite conversation.  Listen to all questions mindfully and then answer relevantly; similarly, when you ask a question, listen thoughtfully to the response–don’t just zone out and load up your next question as if it were a shell in a cannon.  Anecdote: one time I was conducting an alumni interview for Columbia, and as I was in the middle of responding to the student’s first question, I momentarily paused to collect my thoughts before continuing, and into that three seconds of mindful silence the student suddenly lurched and blurted out a brand-new, extravagantly  unrelated question.  It was comically obvious that he had not paid attention to a single thing I had been saying and had simply responded to the silence like a machine cued to speak again. (That faux pas did not “sink his battleship,” as they used to say, but it did make me smile inwardly and note that he was perhaps a bit too disengaged, over-rehearsed, and strategic.)

18. Be yourself. Almost all lists of interview tips include this point, so this near-Delphic truism can even appear to be a tired cliché, but it is a cliché for a reason: it is true and important.  It is important to be yourself because you will be more relaxed and natural if you act in a genuine way.  Too much energy and falsity are required to stage (not to mention pull off) a disingenuous act; therefore, such acting is rarely worth the effort. However, with that said, it is also fair to say that life and personality are both dynamic, and that there are times when it is healthy and wise to change ourselves and our behavior.  It is no good for someone to “be himself” at an interview if that self is obnoxious or unappealing.  Part of growing up is to evolve into a socially adept individual who can live and work harmoniously with others.  So in short, be yourself, yes—but also be the best version of yourself that you can muster at this stage of your life.  If you present yourself well, you will increase the possibilities of being both authentic and socially graceful.

19. At the end of the interview, mirror your opening by shaking hands, smiling, and thanking your interviewer for his or her time, all while maintaining eye contact.  On the same day or the next—but no later than the next day—email your interviewer, thanking him or her once again for both the time spent and for whatever pieces of information or advice you found most valuable.  Everyone likes to be appreciated and it is good to register such appreciation before the interviewer sends his or her electronic summary of the interview to the admissions office.

20. Looking ahead: If you had a particularly good and vibrant interview, or if your interviewer works in a field in which you are interested, you can maintain some occasional contact with that person because at a later time you can potentially approach him or her for advice or inquiries regarding internships, references, or even employment; developing a network of contacts is at the heart of nearly all service businesses, and as long as one does not become a pesky nuisance, some occasional contact is acceptable and harmless.  Your first communication after the thank you notes can be another e-mail updating the interviewer of your application outcome.


Good luck with your interviews and please recall that alumni interviews are usually harmless, soft-gloved public relations outreach platforms offered by the universities; remember too that the more you interview as a young person, the more practiced and professional you will be as you later seek graduate school placements, internships, and jobs, occasions when interviews become much more important and decisive in influencing hiring decisions.


If you wish to practice interviewing in person or online, you may contact Ted Cleary for a personal coaching session or sessions; also feel free to contact us with your interview experiences and your feedback regarding the effectiveness of these tips during your admissions interviews.  Thanks for reading and best of luck to you.



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