Applying for college is a scary process. You’re putting yourself out there—all your accomplishments, your grades, your hopes and dreams for your future—for a handful of people to judge you.
By itself, the college interview is unlikely to determine your acceptance. Admissions officers look at all types of metrics, including your GPA, your SAT/ACT scores, your course selection, and your letters of recommendation.
Now, admissions policies vary by school, but when I interview students, I don’t have access to that information. I’m faced with you, as a person. So, it’s up to you to tell me who you are, and if you’re a good fit for my school.
So, what’s the purpose of a college interview?
For the most part, the college interview serves the purpose of putting a face to the name, ensuring that you’re a normal person, and that you’re actually interested in the school. While interviews aren’t normally required for undergraduate admission, they may be required to be considered for special programs or scholarships.
That said, if you’re on the fence about interviewing or not, know that a truly exceptional interview can certainly tip the balance in favor of your acceptance. And likewise, an awful one may lead the interviewer to recommend that you aren’t a good fit for that school.
So, what do we look for?
Extracurricular Experiences and Goals
We get it, a lot of high school students are more in survival mode than “achieve great change in the world” mode. That’s why it stands out so much when there is a student who has catered their extracurricular activities towards achieving a goal.
A lot of high schools have community service requirements. The extracurricular volunteer experiences that are completed as a “requirement” tend to look rather varied and unfocused. A day of picking up trash, a day of feeding the homeless, a day of planting trees.
Not that any of those experiences are bad or meaningless, but it’s far more helpful to your admissions chances if your experiences have a passion and a theme. So pick just one or two of those things and focus on it.
Say that cleaning up your city is a real passion of yours. Instead of just picking up trash here and there, take the initiative to volunteer with an organization that does it regularly. You could take a leadership role, and facilitate a partnership with other groups. You can make a yearly “green streets” day, and get your city on the #trashtag bandwagon. Do something to demonstrate not just a casual interest, but actual commitment to the issue.
If helping the homeless is your passion, don’t just go to the soup kitchen every once in a while. Make it a regular occurrence. You can try and recruit volunteers, or facilitate partnerships with local grocery stores to take their excess produce. You can help the homeless have greater access to social services. You can even reach out to a local hairdressing school, and have their students practice haircuts on the homeless. You could help the homeless have great access to showers and laundry, or with a hospital’s homeless outreach.
If you’re interested in environmental sustainability, show a commitment to it! Don’t just plant trees once a year, get the local schools involved in it too. You can write to your local representatives about improving local parks, or create a petition to stop something unsustainable such as palm oil usage in food. You can start an initiative to build community gardening plots, and teach low-income kids to grow vertical gardens to save on food costs.
Showing great passion and commitment to a specific issue or two is far more impressive than a random spattering of volunteer experiences. I’m not saying that you have the save the world, or do everything on the lists I mentioned. Even just a handful of those things, as long as they are a regular part of your life, shows more passion for community service than the average student has. Bonus points if someone in a leadership role for your volunteer experience can write you a letter of recommendation that attests to your passion!
Interest in the school:
When I interview applicants, one of the first things I look for is: are they actually interested in this school? The school I interview for is a competitive research university, with a number of unique curriculum elements that set it apart. We have an open curriculum, several interesting clubs, and unique opportunities for pre-professional students to get hands-on experience. The school tends to attract a certain type of student, usually those with interdisciplinary interests and a passion to create change.
During an interview, I assess how much they’ve actually researched about the school. Do they just want to get into a good college? Or are they going to become an active part of campus life? Are they going to take advantage of the unique opportunities we offer? Are they excited to attend? Is this their dream school?
Showing real interest in a school and its programs is highly important, and can go a long way to make you stand out. I’ve had some applicants describe in great detail which specific clubs they would like to join, which professors they would like to take classes with, and the things about our curriculum that they appreciate. Taking the time to research how you would fit into campus life is a great way to score points on the interview.
I’ve also had applicants flatly tell me that they would rather be at other schools. There’s no faster way to ruin your chances than to say (or insinuate) that you’d rather be somewhere else! And even if you don’t state it directly, indicating that you haven’t really researched a school or its opportunities gives off the same message.
Another thing I look for is a student’s ability to perform in a competitive academic environment. While the school I interview for doesn’t have the toxic type of competitive atmosphere, the classes are tough and require self-discipline, the ability to ask for help when you need it, and and self-motivation. I’m not looking for the perfect student who never struggles; I’m looking for the student who can handle adversity and overcome obstacles while learning from them.
College isn’t like high school. Many classes won’t force you to study or turn in regular assignments to keep you on track. So, we look for students who are excited to learn the material, and will study on their own without having their parents around.
It also helps to have proven your abilities in your transcript. While I don’t have access to student transcripts as an interviewer, I do ask my interviewees about the classes they’ve taken. If they want to major in a highly specific field, it helps if they’ve taken some initiative to explore that career already. While it isn’t necessarily a negative if a prospective premedical student has only taken Honors biology with no other biology classes (after all, not all schools even offer bio electives), it is certainly a bonus if the student has gone out of their way to take AP bio, other bio electives, and done some related medical volunteering or work.
Personal Reasons for Attending
Some schools specifically look for personal connections to the school or area. If your grandfather attended the school and you grew up hearing stories about how wonderful it is, let your interviewer know! If you’ve spent your summers in the area, tell them! If your favorite teacher is an alumni of the school, that counts too!
It also helps to say you’ve visited and are familiar with the campus, with bonus points if you made a trek to get there. Of course, most students can’t afford to tour the 20 schools they apply to, so perhaps save it for your top choices. If you haven’t been able to visit, you should still take some time to research activities and opportunities in the city, and be prepared to ask about them to demonstrate your interest.
Professional Behavior During the Interview
Before I started interviewing, I thought it would be “common sense” to dress professionally for an interview. But in the end, some of the most qualified, impressive candidates I’ve interviewed were wearing sweatpants.
I would say less than 10% of my interviewees (both in person and virtual interviews) are dressed even at a “business casual” level.
As casual attire seems to be the new trend (and hey, I’d rather dress comfortably also), I don’t personally mark students off if they are dressed casually. However, I will say that if you’re one of the 10% that does put on a blazer and comb your hair, you will stand out in a positive way.
That said, more traditional interviewers will likely place a lot more value on professional dress than I do. And it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Nobody will think less of you for being dressed professionally, even if they are dressed casually. But if you are underdressed in the interviewer’s eyes, they will count that against you.
Being on time also helps enormously. Even if your interviewer has missed a scheduled meeting or has been slow to respond to emails, that doesn’t mean that you should be. Usually, the interviewer is volunteering their time, and often juggling several appointments. So if you’re taking weeks to respond to an interviewer’s email, it makes it look like you don’t value the opportunity to interview. If you truly want something, you have to act like you appreciate the opportunity to get it. Don’t act like it’s the last thing on your to-do list.
One of the more impressive students I interviewed ended up driving over an hour to meet me in person, rather than opting for a virtual interview. She was full of questions about our school and its programs, and I strongly got the impression that she was trying to make an educated decision about the best place to facilitate her goals in education. It really stood out, as most students are more in the position of “defending” their interest in a school rather than “owning” it.
Other students show initiative by asking me a lot of personal questions and asking for advice, even emailing me after the interview to ask for more information. Taking the time to visit the school, talk with professors in the subjects they are interested in, or meet with alumni is also a great way to show interest.
Overall, let the interviewer direct the conversation. We’re just trying to get to know you, I promise. Even if there’s something you feel like is important to mention, don’t force it if it doesn’t flow naturally in the conversation. If the interviewer likes you and enjoyed their conversation with you, they are likely to give you good marks—even if you didn’t say everything on your resume.
At the end of the interview, be polite. Thank the interviewer for their time, and send them a thank-you email afterwards. The interview is over, and for the most part, you can sit back, try to relax, and wait for your results.
As always, if any of you readers have questions, feel free to email us or schedule a mock interview via the contact form here.
Good luck out there!