5 Essential Strategies for College Admission Interviews

It is interview season and I'm hearing from applicants across the land that interviews scare them.  The subject line of a recent email is fairly typical -- "Emergency!  How Do I Get Ready for an Interview?" It is isn't all that surprising that admissions interviews scare you because you probably don't have all that much experience interviewing.  We all fear the unknown.  But I promise that you can have a great college admissions interview if you follow these 5 essential strategies.  

1.  Get it together and be organized from the beginning. 

  • Put the interview in your calendar. 
  • Assemble a file for the interview.  Put full information for the interviewer in it (name, address, telephone, email).  Put the address for the interview location and a map for getting there in it.  Put a copy of your resume to give the interviewer in it.  
  • Make sure your interview outfit is clean and ready to go the day before your interview.
  • Leave plenty of time to get to your interview -- allow for getting lost or running into other snafus. 

2.  Do your homework. 

You must demonstrate two kinds of knowledge during an interview: knowledge about yourself, and knowledge about the school. Under no circumstances should you bluff or lie about ANYTHING.  There is no surer way to deny than a breach of integrity.

  • Knowledge about yourself means you know how to answer questions about your talents, skills, and interests. 
  • Knowledge about the school means you've done enough research and talked to enough people that you don't ask questions that are easily figured out by looking at the website ("do you have study abroad programs" when the website makes clear they do, or "I really want to be a business major" at a school that doesn't offer business majors). You impress them by demonstrating that you know a lot about the school, and that's one important way to persuade them that your interest is genuine. You understand and can articulate why you would be a good fit for the school and vice versa.

3.  Practice before you go. 

Interviewing is a learned skill and, like most learned skills, practice helps.  It is actually fairly easy to practice interviewing.  Recruit a parent or a teacher or some other adult to serve as your interviewer.  Give them this list of possible interview questions and ask them to pick 5-6 questions and conduct an interview with you.  For the best practice, conduct the interview in a setting as close to the actual setting for the interview as you can get.  If you are going for an interview with someone in an office, practice in an office.  Likewise, if you are going for an interview at the local Starbucks, practice in a Starbucks.  Practice every moment of the interview from start to finish -- from arrival to departure.

4.  Mind your manners from the first contact to the thank you note. 

You have to be on your best behavior for the whole of the interview process.  That means:

  • You respond promptly to an invitation to interview.
  • You present yourself politely and formally in all communications (no text messaging "C U", no emails that start "Hey Anna").
  • You show up on time.
  • You are dressed appropriately.
  • You treat the interviewer with respect and deference.
  • You follow up with a thank-you note.

5.  Remember that it is a conversation, not a test.

An interview is not an "oral examination" in which the interviewer asks questions and the interviewee answers them.  Instead, an interview is a structured conversation, in which the interviewer leads the conversation with the interviewee.  So talk rather than recite.  You listen to the question and give more than a one-word answer.  You manage your anxiety so that you participate in the conversation rather than shutting down or babbling uncontrollably.

A final note to Parents....

You can help with some things (e.g. practice interviews, making sure student is up on time, driving), but do NOT schedule the interview, make direct contact with the interviewer, or sit in on the interview.  One of the things that is being evaluated is a student's maturity and capability to operate as a grown-up. Over-involved parents make the student look anything but mature and capable.

Comments or Questions?

Have a good interview story to share?  Post it here.  We'd love to celebrate and learn from your success!

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)