01/17/2012 12:44 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2012

How to Ace the College Interview

This is part of our monthly series 'Mission: Accepted,' in partnership with Minds Matter, which chronicles the lives of three students as they apply for college in their senior year.

"So tell me, why the University of Chicago?" My interviewer, an alumni of the school, asked me toward the end of our conversation. My answer to the million-dollar question: "U Chicago prides itself on its academics, but from what I've heard from the students, they seem to balance school and social life well, making time for campus activities like the scavenger hunt and the annual Zombie vs. Human game. This is exactly what I've done over the past four years in high school: balanced schoolwork with activities with friends and fun. Knowing that U Chicago students have the same philosophy, in addition to how beautiful the campus is, attracted me to the school even more." By the way, I was totally not kissing up by mentioning that last part --the campus is breathtaking! In fact, ApplyWise, a college application site, ranked U Chicago one of the top five schools in the nation that looks like Hogwarts, and I can see why -- from the bricked architecture cloaked in everlasting vines to the stone gargoyles and pathways that complete the gothic look, U Chicago holds a striking resemblance to Harry Potter's school.

A few months ago, I thought U Chicago was my first-choice school. My interview went great, the campus is beautiful, and the students seem to share my goals. I'm sure it will come as a great surprise then that I've decided not to apply there. Maybe my best friend Erica can help shed some light on this perplexing situation. Erica loves to go online shopping -- it's quite the obsession. She'll buy things she thinks look really cute, but when these shirts and sweaters are delivered to her house and she tries them on, she often doesn't like them. They just aren't the right fit. She still prefers going to the mall, where she can see first-hand if a would-be cute blouse is actually the right fit for her before she buys it. Choosing and applying to colleges is not much different. First, I researched and loved U Chicago, and it went on The List. But before actually applying, I decided to visit so I could see for myself if it was truly the right fit. A school that looks wonderful online and in brochures could still have little flaws that make a person second-guess it. With U Chicago, maybe it was the dungeon-like lecture hall we sat in for the info session, or maybe it was the fact that the school was farther from downtown Chicago than I expected. These things may not matter to others, but they did to me.

A note to seniors (and juniors!): If you're traveling to another state to visit a specific college, also look for other schools in the area to visit. Though I walked away from U Chicago empty-handed, I ventured further into the vast and thrilling mall that is Chicago and paid a visit to DePaul University. My Minds Matter mentor told me it's a pretty good school and urged me to drop by since I was in the city anyway -- but I honestly wasn't expecting much and was just trying to pass the time before the U Chicago info session/tour. Let me tell you, tour guides play an unexpectedly large role in selling a school. My guide at DePaul was hilarious and incredibly passionate about the school -- that was a game-changer. In just 50 minutes, she made me feel as passionate about the school as she was. I added DePaul University to The List immediately.

The college application process, in addition to school and extracurriculars, left me feeling as though the days were blending into themselves, and I constantly lost track of time and was surprised when December finally came. It could have been a few days or a few weeks later when I had Interview #2 for George Washington University, which has moved pretty close to the top of The List after being taken off in late September and added again just a few weeks ago. I first added GW only because the College Board told me I "matched" with it, and I hadn't really done too much research. I remember thinking that if GW had a "Why GW?" question on its supplement, I wouldn't be able to answer it because I had no good reason for applying. But after doing more research and attending an info session, I knew why GW would be a good fit for me, and I decided to schedule an interview. This one felt a lot more informal than U Chicago's.

It was held at a school in Boston, and my interviewer was the parent of a GW alum; I felt very comfortable talking to her. After asking about my hour and a half journey on public transportation (which also included a mile walk to the school), she got straight to the point: "Tell me about yourself? Why GW?" My reply highlighted the two GW campuses: Foggy Bottom and Mt. Vernon. While Foggy Bottom is right in the middle of fast-paced Washington, D.C., Mt. Vernon is a much quieter environment but still only a mere 10 minutes away from all of the action. I really appreciate that GW has two different settings to suit almost any student. I'm used to the city and thrive in that kind of environment, but I also appreciate the opportunity to study in a more peaceful place. Depending on your concentration at GW, you may find yourself on one campus more than the other; however, some classes are taught both places, and you can request to take them on the campus of your choice. All of this made me very excited to apply to GW well before the interview. Even though I haven't visited yet, I hope to get the chance in April (if I get accepted) so I can get a full sense of the school and my feelings about it.
In other news, The List now stands at 18 schools, and my top choices are NYU and GW. Both of them offer a very strong sense of community, even though they are big-city schools, which is exactly what I've experienced as a high school in Boston. Though I often take my school for granted, senior year has made me realize that it is very much a small, familiar (and sometimes dysfunctional) community right in the heart of the city. Although I could say this about each school on my list, NYU and GW emphasize it to a tee.

Here is the rest of The List, in no particular order:

Stanford University
University of Connecticut
Harvard University
Lesley College
Emmanuel College
Brown University
Northeastern University
Columbia University
DePaul University
Tufts University
University of San Francisco
U Mass Amherst
Boston College
Boston University
Suffolk University
UNC-Chapel Hill

With that, seniors, I shall leave you with a few pieces of advice if an interview is quickly approaching:

  1. Dress appropriately, but don't overdo it (unless more formal dress is specifically indicated). For both of my interviews, I wore black pants, a nice shirt and cardigan, and black shoes (boots for U Chicago; flats for GW). Always consider the weather when choosing your outfit; the day I went to U Chicago, it was freezing and snowing -- I would have hated myself forever if I had worn flats!
  2. Before the interview, think about how you'd answer some standard questions (i.e., "Tell me about yourself," "What is your greatest strength and weakness?", "What are your hobbies?", "What is your favorite book/movie and why?", and, the aforementioned million-dollar question: "Why are you interested in this school?") -- but don't prepare a speech!
  3. Don't be scared to hesitate when asked a question -- interviewers like to see that you are taking time to consider the question so you can give an honest and thorough answer.
  4. Have a few questions ready to ask your interviewer after they are done grilling you. If your interviewer is an alum of the school, you could ask: "What were your initial expectations of this school? Did it live up to those expectations? What are you doing now and what, in particular, prepared you for this career as a result of attending the university (certain classes, professors, or internships)? What do you miss most about this school now that you've graduated?"
  5. Take a deep breath and go for it! Smile, be confident, and act excited about attending the school! And, as cliché as it sounds, be yourself!