THE BLOG
11/27/2013 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

Knock-Em-Dead College Admissions Interviews

It's almost Thanksgiving. Are you one of the scores of students who has already turned in an early college application? If yes, good for you. Even if you haven't, it's time to begin thinking about college admissions interviews.

What is an admissions interview?

Usually lasting between 15 minutes and an hour, it is a meeting between you -- a college applicant -- and a representative of a college or university who is involved in the college admissions process. The purpose of such a meeting is for you and the representative to exchange information, ask and answer questions, and for the rep to get a sense for who you are and what you would bring to his or her campus.

Generally, there are two kinds of interviews: on-campus interviews and off-campus interviews. Here's what they're all about.

On-campus Individual Interview
An on-campus interview might be with any number of people: a student who works in the admissions office, sometimes a faculty member, an admissions officer, an assistant or associate admissions dean, or even the dean of admissions him-or-herself. These days, virtual in-person interviews sometimes take place through Skype or other voice/video means, when a personal campus visit isn't possible.

adMISSION POSSIBLE TIP: The major reason for you to have an interview with an admissions person is for you to become a real person to someone in an admissions office. Best case scenario: you make a connection or thoroughly impress that person, and he or she champions your cause during the selection phase. Believe me, this can happen!

Off-campus Individual Interview
Off campus college interviews are usually with an alumnus or alumna from your hometown. They take place just about any day or time and usually in an alum's office, home or at a restaurant, hotel or coffee shop. After the interview, the alumni writes a report back to the admissions office about you and the interview.

Very few colleges require interviews; some colleges recommend them or make them optional; many public universities don't offer them at all; and still others offer them only to legacies (a legacy is a son or daughter of a graduate from a specific college). Bottom line is that it's very difficult to "blow" an admissions interview. Most students have only to gain from them. Moreover, they're great opportunities to learn about a college, make a good impression and develop that ever important college contact.

Here are some things you can do to prepare for and have a good experience in your interview.

College admissions reps want to find out as much as they can about you. One way of preparing for an interview is to put together an activities resume that lists your honors and awards, special interests, activities and talents, and volunteer or work involvements. Go to the Examples/Lists section of adMISSION POSSIBLE to find a model and sample resume.

Another way of preparing for an interview is to read about and write down a list of things you like about the school. Probably the number one question college applicants are asked is, "Why do you want to go to this college?" It's really important for you to answer that question quickly and confidently. Before an interview, come up with and write down five or more reasons why a school interests you (and that are unique to that school). For example:

√ The particularly warm, friendly climate of a college
√ Specific departments that interest you (and why), and maybe the name of a professor and/or classes you would like to take
√ Campus activities you'd like to get involved with
√ Perhaps a great sports program the school offers
√ Anything else you find that says the college and you are a good match

The questions you ask in an interview can also reflect how much you know about a school; it's good to be knowledgeable. Before an interview, read the likes of The Fiske Review and Insider's Guide, go to the college's own website, and peruse www.unigo.com, and collegeprowler.com to see what appeals to you. Also, talk with anyone you know who is familiar with the school. If you can convince the admissions rep that you have done your homework and know why you and the college are a good match, this could bode well for your admissions.

One of the best ways of having a good interview is to practice beforehand. Schedule a time with someone with whom you feel comfortable and role-play, answering different questions. You can find a list of usual questions that interviewers ask in the Interview Appointment Checklists section of the Examples/Lists section of my website. Also, come up with some stories you can use to explain your answers to questions (Remember, "show, don't just tell!"). For example, if you are asked what you favorite activity is, you could say "Ultimate Frisbee," but it's better to say something such as, "I really love Ultimate Frisbee because it's a competitive sport that matches with my personality. The self-officiated format really relies on individuals playing with integrity. Ultimate Frisbee lets me be athletic and be the kind of generous, considerate person I want to be."

Be sure to arrive at the interview meeting before the stated time and when the interviewer walks in, stand up, offer your hand for a warm handshake, smile and say how happy you are to meet him or her. Offer a copy of your activities resume to review. (You might say, "Before we get started, I brought along a copy of my activities resume so you can know something about who I am and what I do.") Throughout the interview keep reminding yourself to relax and be as natural as you can be. Focus on making this a friendly conversation in which you are totally involved. Give a lot of details to your answers rather than answering with one or two words. If you don't know what your answer is, it's okay to take a moment and pause. (You could say, "Great question! Let me think about that for a sec!") Then, provide a thoughtful response rather than rambling on about nothing.

When the interview is over, be sure to thank the interviewer for his/her time and ask for a business card. As soon as you get home, send a thank-you email to the person, noting some of the things you learned or were impressed by during the interview conversation.

Finally, here are a few do's and don'ts about interviews that hopefully will help you feel cool and calm:

  • Do relate your answers to interviewer questions back to your own activities.
  • Don't appear to be bored and uninterested in the interview process.
  • Do talk about your interests and passions.
  • Don't brag, boast, or appear to be arrogant and/or know-it-all. That's a real turnoff.
  • Also don't be negative, complain or put down yourself, others, your school, or other colleges.
  • Do talk about your strengths and natural talents

By the way, ask your mock-interviewer how you come across with the above interview elements. You may think you are one way, but someone may perceive you differently.

College interviews are wonderful opportunities for you to develop a personal relationship with someone in a college admissions office. That connection is worth the time and trouble of doing them. As I have already said, rarely does an interview negatively affect your getting into a college; usually it helps.