Dos and Don'ts to Nail Your US College Interview

Posted 10 months ago
College interview

This may feel like foreign ground to those of you who haven’t grown up in the US or UK, but college interviews are actually a pretty integral part of the US university application process.

So much so, that an interview can actually be the difference between rejection and acceptance.

I know, it sounds terrifying. And believe me, it can be.

Sweaty palms, racing heart, cold sweats and anxiety are all very real symptoms of university interviews; thankfully, they’re also very avoidable.

The best thing you can do to curb your anxiety and avoid having your answers sound like the ramblings of a patient on the psychiatry ward is prepare early!

But that’s just but one simple step to help you ace your college interview, we've got plenty more!

Early vs Regular Round acceptance rates - breakout box

If you follow this guide, I’m sure you'll absolutely NAIL all of your college interviews. You’ll be laughing your way through the gates of your dream university in no time.

So what are you waiting for? Read on!

MUST DO: things to do to nail your college interview.

Good college interview

Step 1: Prepare… obviously!

Honestly, this should go without saying, but failing to prepare is the most common mistake students make!

The first thing you must do is to learn about the university.

US colleges use interviews to determine your interest in their school and assess your cultural fit. If you don’t know anything about the college you’re interviewing for, you can pretty much guarantee that your interview won’t go well.

Then, you have to shift your focus to how you will answer questions. All too often you hear about people just winging the interview, naively assuming it’s going to be a laid-back, get-to-know-you type process. This could not be more wrong.

While admissions officers will ask questions about who you are, the type of answers they expect will not be fluffy, fun or laid-back.

They want you to be able to see evidence of your successes, understand your thought processing and get a deep look at who you are as a person.

They don’t want to know your favourite colour or the origins of your last Insta story of the Summer break.

While you don’t want to have a pre-prepared speech, which can make you sound disingenuous as you rattle off cliché after cliché, you do need to have a list of key points you want to communicate.

Keep in mind that this is no different to a job interview. As such, your answers need to communicate qualities you offer that are relevant to the position – in this case, as a member of the university’s incoming class.

Before you go into your interview, jot down some of your achievements and defining moments that clearly and succinctly identify the value you’ll bring to the campus. Remember these should be the points that make you stand out – the meat of your back story and what makes you different!

In addition to preparing answers, you need to take time to prepare for the kind of questions you’ll be asked.

Often colleges will ask a seemingly random maths questions or a question that seems completely left of centre. Sometimes the university won’t be looking for the correct answer, but just a logical answer.

Depending on the question, you’ll need to be able to produce the type of answer they’re expecting to hear.

Winging it is never a good option!

Step 2: Update your CV

Though there’s no requirement to bring your resume to an interview, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

I mean, imagine how traumatising it would be if you rocked up to an interview without your CV and they asked for one… that’s what nightmares are made of!

Just to be sure, bring a few resumes with you.

The benefit of handing your resume over to your interviewer comes when they’re writing on your behalf to the admissions committee. The resume allows the interviewer to have clarity and information when it comes to translating your successes.

You never know, the detail could be what makes you stand out!

However, the advice to bring your resume to an interview comes with a proviso… Namely, how you present your resume.

Start with the obvious problems – spelling mistakes and grammar. Always get as many eyes on your resume as possible before you hit print.

Secondly, take time to prepare some achievements that align with your college application. Each CV should be slightly different for each university. This can take months of preparation researching what each school looks for in a candidate, so make sure you’re starting early.

This is another opportunity to impress, so make sure it’s something you’re proud of and something that will improve your application.

Lastly, how you physically present your resume can make a difference, too. Don’t come in and force it down their throats immediately. Wait for a natural moment during the interview to present it or if one doesn’t arise simply offer it to them as you stand to leave.

Step 3: Mind your manners and follow up with a thank you letter

Most interviewers are genuinely nice people who are simply looking to send a positive report to the admissions committee, so don’t give them any reason not to.

Using good and proper manners is the simplest approach to ensure you receive a positive report.

Shake hands, say please and thank you, don’t interrupt, listen carefully and earnestly, look people in the eye and, most importantly, thank the interviewers by name for providing time when you’re leaving.

More often than not, interviewers are actually volunteers, so they won’t be compensated monetarily for the interview. So let them know you’re appreciative.

To add an extra bit of charm to your interview, it can be a good idea to handwrite a personalised thank you letter to the admissions consultants of the alumnus who interviewed you.

It’s an easy way to stay front of mind and remind the interviewers of how kind you are!

Step 4: Arrive early and stay calm

This is one tip you can carry over to other parts of your life, too.

Seriously, nothing bad can come from arriving early. However, if you decide to sleep in and rock up late it’s not going to help you at all… ever!

Get off on the right foot and show the interviewer that you respect their time and are taking the opportunity seriously.

Plus, if you arrive early you’ll have time to prepare, calm down and get in the right state of mind to absolutely smash your interview.

If you planned your trip well, taking into consideration travel time and traffic, take some time to read a newspaper and relax. Try to avoid coffee/caffeinated drinks and any other stimulants.

Having time to relax before your interview will set you up to impress.

Remember, even running the risk of arriving late to allow an extra 15-20 minutes of sleep isn’t worth it. The extra rest you gain will be zapped right out of you when you’re panicking and stuck in traffic.

Now that we've covered what to do, let's take a look at what not to do in your college interview.

DO NOTS: Cardinal sins of a college interview.

Bad college interview

Step 1: Avoid providing too much information (TMI)

Just as there are the right answers to give, there are also the wrong type of answers.

One of the worst things you can do is share too much information.

You don’t want to spend half the interview talking about your mum’s uncle’s partner who owns an asparagus farm and how her journey inspired you to reduce waste at your school.

This is a great example of a serious case of TMI!

Just get straight into your achievements of reducing waste at your school.

When sharing too much information you ignore all the key points that make you a good candidate.

Keep it simple, concise and valuable. Always provide value to your application with every aspect of your answers. Don’t waffle on and confuse the interviewer.

On top of TMI, there’s another issue you must avoid: negativity.

This should go without saying, but try to avoid saying anything negative about the university. Keep a positive outlook on your future there and highlight why they’re a perfect fit for you.

Never indicate that you are not interested in attending the school or even that you’re looking elsewhere.

For obvious reasons, that’s not a good look! If the school’s not your top choice, don’t mention it.

More than just emphasising why the school is a great fit for you, try to point out why you would be a great fit for the school!

Step 2: Don’t lie

As it is in most life situations, honesty is key!

Remember, US universities have access to your resume, academic transcript and extracurricular activities. No doubt, they will be able to tell when you’re exaggerating the truth.

Be honest about yourself, your capabilities and your college application.

Don’t lie about a book you haven’t read, a politician you do not know or some research you’ve never heard about.

There’s nothing worse than having to dig your way out of a hole. The heart rate picks up, you begin sweating and every answer you give just gets worse and worse!

Don’t risk it.

And truthfully, universities will appreciate your honesty much more than your faux knowledge of the world at large.

If there are certain topics you’re worried are going to stump you, head back to step one and prepare for them!

Whatever you do, don’t lie!

Step 3: Leave your politics at home (unless you want to study it)

It’s a common belief that you should leave talk about politics and money at home in any social situation. It’s no different for your application interview.

You don’t want to come across of arrogant or preachy by pushing a political agenda. Best to completely avoid the subject!

Some exceptions do exist, however, such as if you plan on studying politics or you may have a deep passion for politics. Yet even so, you should always discuss with caution as you don’t want to marginalise any political views, particularly those of the interviewers!

The same goes with discussing other universities you might be applying for – the topic should be avoided,

If for some reason the subject arises, don’t bad-mouth any other unis.

For a starter, you don’t know what college the interviewer went to. You could be dissing their many years of education… not ideal.

Additionally, it’s not uncommon for schools to be in cahoots with each other (particularly sporting schools).

Interviewers and admissions officers from different colleges talk, and if you’ve been running around bad-mouthing schools and marginalising people with your political chat, it’s not going to be great for your chances of admission!

Just be your natural, kind and funny self and you’ll be fine!

Pro Tip: answer behavioural questions using the STAR method

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. This tip applies to behavioural interview questions only, which is a question based on discovering how you have acted in specific situations.

Questions such as:

Tell me about a time you had to complete a task under a tight deadline? Have you ever gone above and beyond the call of duty? What do you do when a team member refuses to complete his or her portion of the work? To make your answer more than just a hyperbolic retelling, draw on a real life experience where you’ve had success or learned a lesson.

Start with the situation, then the task required, followed by what action you took and end on the result and outcome. It’s that simple and it can help your answer become tight, succinct and provide maximum value!

Seriously, it’s a life-changing technique, and not just for college interviews but for job interviews, too!

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, universities want to know what you're like as a person and how well you'll mesh with the community at their school.

It's not about your IQ or ability as a student, but what kind of person you are. Take time to prepare, get in the right headspace and you'll kill it.

Don't worry, you got this. Just be your awesome self and do what I said!

Godspeed.

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