For many students, the admissions interview won’t do too much to help or hurt them, but in some cases, it can make a big difference.
So why do colleges offer them? Should you do them if they’re voluntary? What are colleges looking for? And how can you make the interview work in your favor?
Colleges offer two types of interviews, informational (where they are just offering to answer your questions and let you talk with a real live human about the school) and evaluative (where they are judging your potential as a member of their next freshman class). Sometimes, these interviews are with admissions officers during your campus visit (these are the most important ones — not only are you demonstrating interest in the school, you are also speaking with someone who is actually involved in the decision making process), other times, you will meet with either current students or an alumnus/alumna of the school. If you are visiting a school and they offer you the opportunity to interview, by all means, take it! If you don’t, they will wonder whether you are really that interested in the school.
Students who can’t travel to a school for a campus visit might be offered an alumni interview instead. Again, these are more likely to help you than hurt you, since it will give the university a chance to see who you are and what you are actually like as a person. It’s tougher to reject a human being than a paper (or electronic) file, so most interviews have a slightly positive effect on your application. At a highly competitive school, this impact won’t be enough to “save” a student who doesn’t have the grades, test scores, or rigorous course load to merit admission, but given that most elite schools can pick among *tens of thousands* of well qualified students to make up their freshman class, they want to know more than whether you can handle the work. They want to know if you will contribute to the university as a community. Will you be engaged in class and offer unique and informative insights? Will you be a good roommate? Will you take part in community service, the arts, and extracurricular activities that are so vital to the social life of a university?
If you come across in your interview as someone who is passionate about learning and enthusiastic about your extracurricular interests, you will fare better than a talented but indifferent student, or someone who is the president of a half dozen different clubs, just to put them on their resume.
So what can you do to make your interview work for you?
- Demonstrate the traits that impress interviewers and admissions officers – wisdom, maturity, thoughtfulness, passion, compassion, intellectual curiosity, and leadership.
- How? By showing that you are engaged, thoughtful, respectful of others, concerned with more than just what affects you personally, and dedicated to helping others in your community.
- Show that you have truly taken advantage of all of the opportunities that you have had. If your school makes everyone do a research project with a local university as a high school graduation requirement, that alone isn’t going to impress your interviewer or the admissions committee.
- Show that you took that opportunity and made the most of it — did you continue the research beyond the school requirement? Did you get your findings published? Did that research lead you to engage in other extracurricular projects or to continue pursuing your interests in the classroom? Taking the requirement and going beyond it can be impressive. Just doing what your high school makes you do since they think it will help you with your college applications doesn’t.
- Remember, the admissions officers and interviewers know your school (and if they don’t, they’ll research it). If everyone at your school takes at least five AP classes, or if grade inflation is particularly rampant, the admissions committee and your interviewer will know this and they will adjust their expectations of you accordingly.
- On the flip side, if your school doesn’t have resources to provide a lot of AP classes or extracurriculars, schools won’t hold that against you. It’s to your advantage to let them know what your schools limitations are (and they will probably look this up themselves anyway) and demonstrate that you have taken every opportunity you have. If you need to work to contribute to your family financially, or if you have siblings you have to care for and that impacts your ability to take part in extracurriculars, make sure to let your interviewer know! Schools are more impressed by a kid who has a job flipping burgers to contribute to the family finances than they are with the kid whose dad got them a really impressive internship with a major international company.
- Ask good questions. If you have nothing to ask at the end of the interview, it will seem like you aren’t that interested. Don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer mostly about their own experiences with the school — what made them choose it, what they liked best about it, what surprised them most, etc. Most of these interviewers are pretty passionate about their school (whether they are current students, alumni, or admissions officers) so they are more than happy to talk about their own experiences. Try not to ask questions that can be easily answered by info on the school’s website (like whether they have a major in neurobiology or how many students live on campus). Instead, ask your interviewer (if they attend or attended the school) how they chose their major, or why they decided to live on or off campus.
- Practice good interview skills. You are going to need these later in life, anyway. Be polite, make eye contact, have a firm (but not death grip!) handshake. If you are shy or if interviews make you nervous, ask someone to help you practice. The more comfortable you get with the process of interviewing, the easier it will be for you to relax and be yourself in the interview. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank the interviewer for their time. A polite follow up email to say thanks is always welcome.