Top 10 ways to ace your college interview

Posted 10 months ago

So you want to go to college – but there are some hoops to jump through first. After all that work, the SAT scores, the extra-curriculars, and the personal essay, you may actually have to talk about your interests in an in-person interview.

Not all colleges in the US require interviews, but many of the Ivies do (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Penn and Yale). By and large these interviews are “evaluative” and therefore play a role – though not generally a very large one – in deciding whether or not you get in. It’s an opportunity to meet with a representative from the university, to demonstrate your interest in their institution, and to show yourself in your best light. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for you not to mess up by making a fool of yourself—all you need to do is be humble, illustrate that you are intellectually curious and passionate about something (hopefully multiple things), own up to your flaws and make clear that you’re still learning and growing, and be able to clearly express why college (and the interviewer’s particular school) are the right path forward.

Should you be facing such an interview, here’s how you can prepare to say Hello Harvard:

1. Have a conversation

Don’t go into the interview with a memorized script. You want to be as natural as you can, though it may be nerve-wracking, and, if you can, take each question as it comes. You can practice improvising—it sounds like an oxymoron, but have a couple friends ask you the typical interview questions (easily Google-able) and see how your answers come out differently each time.

2. Consider beforehand the elements you want to highlight

Of course, you do want to make sure to have a think about how to best present yourself. In order to avoid being overwhelmed with all the information you want to convey, we suggest making a short list beforehand of the most important areas of your interests and future plans you’d like to get across so your best thoughts don’t just slip away in the moment!

3. Break it down

Which areas you focus on is up to you, but we suggest having a think about three main areas, in relation to the life of the college:

  • Your personality: think about your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your activities outside of school: how do you choose to spend your free time?
  • Your academic strengths: what kinds of learning really make you tick?

4. The college

This is a really important part of the interview: you need to think about and research your chosen destination and have a compelling answer for why you would fit in there. Look into classes, extracurricular clubs, societies – you name it, as long as its specific to your chosen school – and talk about why you want to join them, as it’s important to show what you want to contribute to college life, not only what you want to take away.

5. Personality

It’s a classic interview question, so give it a little thought: how would you describe yourself in three words? Be as honest as possible, but try not to mention how you always forget to feed the fish, unless you can turn this into a positive about how you set up a system to make sure you remember! On this last point, it is helpful to show how weaknesses have been something you have actively tried to overcome. That doesn’t mean saying “I’m an overachiever” or “I’m a perfectionist” — interviewers despise humble-brags, so avoid them at all costs. Instead, admit a real flaw – ”sometimes I’m too quick to judge” – and then discuss how you’ve improved on that, how you’ve realized it’s a problem, and how you’ll look to continue learning and growing as you move into college.

6. The ‘why’

When thinking about answers to probable questions – what do you want to do after graduating, what is your favourite book – don’t just stop there. Ideally you should also have a clear sense of why it is these things appeal to you, so force yourself to get into detailed specifics. Preparation beforehand will make a world of difference on this particular point.

7. Be nice!

Remember that – as in any interview you’re ever likely to have – an important part of what is being assessed is whether these people are likely to like having you around. Show them that you’re compassionate, that you are understanding, that you consider others’ feelings, and that your world doesn’t revolve only around you!

8. Big thinking

Be prepared for them to ask you some bigger questions for which it’s hard to prepare. For instance, they may ask you how you would change the way your school is run, if you had the chance. Or they might ask your views on a political issue. Try to stay calm and take these in stride. And if you say something you don’t mean, or wish you hadn’t said, then say that! You’ll look remarkably mature if you’re able to admit when you’ve been caught off guard, and much better to handle it that way than to pretend you aced it.

9. Be informed

On this point, it would be wise for you to have a sense of what’s going on out there in the world. Not every family talks about politics and current affairs, and your interviewer is very unlikely to hammer you on any of these points – but it would be wise to have a sense of recent events and ideally to have a position on what’s been happening.

10. Relax, you got this

Ultimately, once you arrive at the coffee shop or hop on the Skype call, don’t sweat it – they’d be lucky to have you. Let yourself have the conversation and don’t overthink the points above. Overthinking is for before the interview, not during it!

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