At its worst, the college application process can seem terrifyingly impersonal. As one completes essay after essay, it can become easy to imagine a committee room of faceless admissions officers evaluating one’s life based on some unknowable, Kafkaesque metric. The college interview offers a chance to see that on the other side of the admissions window are ordinary people; it also gives the chance to make a favorable impression upon them.
The how, when, and who of the interview will vary widely from college to college. Some schools will offer on-campus interviews with admission officers; others will have regional chapters of alumni organizations conduct them on their behalf. In some cases, interviews may be a requirement for all applicants, while in others, only a minority of applicants will even be granted one. If a college doesn’t grant you an interview, don’t worry; you won’t be penalized for what’s beyond your control. However, if you do have the opportunity to interview, you should take it; doing so shows admissions that you have a real interest in the institution. You should check the website of every college you’re applying to in order to learn their specific policy. In my case, I was interviewed by four of the eight colleges I applied to; two of these interviews were with alums whom I met in cafes, one was with an alum in his office, and one was on-campus, with an admissions officer. Only one of these was a mandatory interview.
For the most part, the interview by itself is not going to make or break you. It’s one element among many in your application, and, generally, matters less than your grades, essays, and test scores. That doesn’t, however, mean that you shouldn’t take it seriously. In borderline cases, a good interview can get you admitted to a college you otherwise might not be.
If and when you are granted an interview, there are a few basic etiquette-facts you should keep in mind. Most of these are fairly obvious, but they bear repeating. The interview is between you and your interviewer; your parent or guardian should not be present. Wherever you’re meeting your interviewer, you should be timely: no busy professional wants to be kept waiting, especially alums who have graciously volunteered their time. On the other hand, don’t be too early: if you’re meeting someone at their office, try to arrive no more than five to ten minutes before your scheduled appointment. In terms of attire, business casual is your best bet. Most interviews last for thirty minutes to an hour, so make sure to put enough time into your schedule.
Treat the interview itself as a conversation. Your goal should be to get the interviewer to see you as a memorable, interesting, intelligent person who would be a good fit for the college in question. Very few interviews are simply rapid-fire Q&A sessions, in which the interviewee is expected to answer in a certain, objectively correct way. Usually, the conversation evolves organically; the interviewer might start off with one of the archetypical questions (“Tell me about yourself,” “What would you say is your greatest strength?” etc.) and move from there. Try to engage with the person just like you would any other (though remember to remain polite, of course). ink about what, if you were in the interviewer’s position, you would find interesting Don’t simply list your credentials and hope they will speak for themselves. The admissions department will get this information via your application; it also doesn’t make for very good conversation. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t bring up extracurricular activities or other achievements. Rather, you should do so in a way that shows that they really mean something to you. If you volunteered at a local animal shelter, you might talk about what you got out of the experience, or why that particular cause is important to you. Your interests outside of academia are also fertile territory for conversation; is there a book you read recently that really made you think, for example?
The interview is a two-way conversation. Part of making a positive impression on your interviewer involves showing a clear interest in the college. Have a few questions prepared to ask when the moment arises (often, the interviewer will explicitly ask you if there’s anything you want to know about the school). These questions should show that you’ve done at least a little research; don’t ask something that you could easily learn from the school’s website (for example, “Does the college have a computer science department?”). You might inquire about the campus culture, or ask about a specific program or professor the college has (bear in mind that your interviewer might not be able to answer every question; an alumnus who was an English major likely doesn’t know much about the biology department, and one who graduated in the ‘80s probably can’t tell you about a current professor).
Afterwards, be sure to send your interviewer a brief email to thank them for taking time out of their day to meet with you. Interviewers will appreciate hearing from you, and are more likely to remember you positively when writing up their report.