This post was written by Kim Stewart, a former coach at The Spike Lab. It was updated on Monday, Jan 25, 2021, to include a section on virtual interviews for any students interviewing during the pandemic.
Understanding the Interview
College admission interviews can be nerve-racking. Most of the stress comes from a lack of understanding around the process. Typically, small liberal arts colleges or highly competitive universities offer interviews to prospective students as a way of getting to know them a little more beyond their application.
There are two types of college interviews: evaluative or informative. Typically, admissions websites will tell you what to expect for your interview, which will help you determine whether interviews are evaluative or informative. Evaluative interviews allow a college to understand what makes you unique and learn what you’re like in person. The interviewer will submit a report about your interview to the institution to help admissions officers determine whether you are a good fit. A typical evaluative interview report will talk about specific things that make you stand out, your self-presentation, and a general commentary of how you’ll fit in at the institution. This report is just one piece of the admissions puzzle, and student are rarely rejected (or otherwise admitted) solely due to something they say in their interview. However, keep in mind that a positive impression may encourage an interviewer to make a strong case for you.
Informative interviews are meant to be more for your benefit, allowing you to learn about the college. These are typically less formal, but it’s still important that you make a positive impression. Although informative interviews are not explicitly used to evaluate you, participation does demonstrate interest which does matters to admissions officers.
Who are the Interviewers?
Usually, interviewers are alumni volunteers. A common misconception is that interviewers are trying to find your faults or trick you with tough questions. On the contrary, they’re usually excited to meet prospective students and hear about their interests. They’re also excited to share their college experience with you.
Some colleges use admissions representatives to conduct their interviews. While the interview itself may be more formal in those instances, the interviewer is usually going to be someone who enjoys meeting students and sharing with them the great things about the university they represent. Whichever interviewer type you get, the process is less intimidating if you understand that ultimately they are genuinely looking forward to meeting you.
Should You Interview?
When deciding whether you should interview, the first step is to take a look at college admissions websites. Some colleges require an interview, in which case the decision is obvious. For optional interviews, there are a few things to consider. First, keep in mind that colleges with optional interviews usually ‘strongly recommend’ that you interview. This doesn’t mean that you are disqualified if you choose not to interview, but it does mean that they appreciate your decision to interview and consider it a demonstration of your interest. However, if you strongly feel that your interview will be a negative experience (e.g. you have strong anxiety or you struggle with conversations), then a couple of practice interviews with a trusted adult may help you assess whether you’re ready to interview.
Arranging the Interview
At the start of application season, you’ll want to check interview-related deadlines and instructions for all colleges you intend to apply to. This includes both deadlines for requesting (or scheduling) an interview and deadlines for completing the interview. Keep in mind some colleges will email you with a request to schedule your interview, while others put the onus on students to request an interview. The deadline may fall before your application submission date, or interviews may take place after you’ve submitted your application, so it will be helpful to keep a spreadsheet of your interview timelines for all colleges in your short list. Once you know the deadline, try to schedule for a time when you know you will not be busy or stressed. Many students wait until the last minute to schedule their interviews, which means you may end up interviewing on a weekend when the interviewer has a dozen other interviews. This doesn’t bode well for you — interviewers may feel exhausted, and at this point it’s hard to stand out. Consider scheduling your interview earlier in the process when interviewers are more excited about meeting applicants, when you have flexibility in your schedule, and when you will be competing to stand out amongst a smaller pool of applicants.
Interviewers may suggest a place, or if they are not local to your area, they may ask for your recommendation on a place to meet. For the latter, try to pick a place and a time that won’t be too crowded, with plenty of seating, and in an easy-to-find location.
Common Mistakes in Arranging Interviews
- Missing Important Communications: Whether your interview is required or you requested one, it can be seen as irresponsible if you do not follow up on communications from your interviewer. Check your email (both inbox and spam) often, and follow up promptly.
- Unprofessional Emails: Your emails are the first impression interviewers have of you. Be sure to use a professional-sounding email address (keep it simple — something related to your name is fine) and be courteous in your writing. Address the interviewer with a formal salutation unless they instruct you otherwise.
Preparing for the Interview
Preparation is the key to confidence. Even experienced professionals prepare for job interviews; admissions interviews aren’t any different. A good place to start is researching the institution itself. Interviews help colleges determine whether you’re a good fit, so naturally you’ll want to know what characterizes a ‘good fit.’ Try to get a sense of the values that are important to the college and the type of student they seek. Dig a little deeper in your research to understand the types of programs you might be interested in — enough so that you can talk about it with your interviewer and ask appropriate questions about their programs. Many colleges post guidance for interviews (what to bring with you, if anything; how they use the interview; what to expect; sample questions), so use research to your advantage. Here is an example of a Stanford’s guidance on interviews: https://admission.stanford.edu/apply/freshman/interviews.html.
Once you’ve done your research and you know what to expect, try conducting mock interviews. Role playing should be a huge part of how you prepare. Practice your responses to interview questions with someone you trust to give honest feedback. Ask them to evaluate you, keeping in mind factors like how well you come across, how clear and interesting your answers are, and how professional your demeanor is. Try this out with a few different people so you can have different perspectives on your interview strengths/weaknesses.
Questions to Consider
Interviewers are usually supplied with a bank of questions to consider, but often have the flexibility to ask their own questions. This means that there are many standard questions that you’ll likely be asked, but certainly questions that you did not prepare for.
Typical interview questions include (download our full interview guide):
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why do you want to attend this school?
- What program are you interested in and why?
- What can you contribute to the university?
- What’s your favorite subject in high school?
- What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in class?
- What is your proudest achievement?
- Tell me about a challenge you overcame.
- Is there anything you didn’t mention in your application that you’d like to share with me?
No matter the question, provide a specific answer. For example, if you’re asked about your best personal quality, a vague response like ‘I always work really hard’ is less engaging than a specific example of a time where you really applied yourself to a specific goal. Interviewers submit a report of the conversation, so help them out by providing specific details that they can share with admissions committees. We work with our students to think of accomplishments that they should highlight or elaborate on in the interview, with an emphasis on unique achievements that were not mentioned in their application.
Expect follow up questions, and be prepared to elaborate. All too often, students will mention an interest (with the goal of sounding more impressive) and have little to say when the interviewer probes. For example If you say you like documentaries, be prepared to talk about your favorite documentary. If you claim you’re interested in travel, expect to be asked about your most exciting trip. Don’t just mention something for the sake of sounding impressive.
Common Interview Mistakes
- Arriving late: Making your interview wait is a major faux pas. You should plan to arrive early to avoid any unexpected delays. You’ll also be more relaxed if you’re on time, rather than running in at the last minute.
- Memorizing Responses: This comes off as unengaging and superficial. It’s important to know what you want to talk about. However, you should treat the interview as a conversation and not a speech.
- Embellishing: It’s important that you speak truthfully about your accomplishments and go into specific details whenever possible. If you attempt to fabricate impressive accomplishments, this will probably be sussed out by a skilled interviewer.
- Downplaying Achievements: An interview is not a time to be overly humble. Interviewers want to know why you’re awesome, so don’t be afraid to tell them!
Panicking with Curveballs: Inevitably, questions will come up that you didn’t anticipate. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a minute to think about your answer. While it feels awkward, this actually shows that you are being thoughtful in your response.
- Not Asking Questions: You will likely be asked if you have any questions. ‘No’ is the wrong answer. The questions you ask an interviewer are just as important as the questions you answer. You want to demonstrate that you’ve researched the college thoroughly, that you’re inquisitive, and that you’re excited to attend. As such, your questions should not be things that are easily found online. Don’t be afraid to research your interviewer to learn a little about their background or things you have in common so that you can bring them up during the interview.
- Sample Generic Questions (personalize for specific interviews):
- If you were to do college over again, what would you do differently?
- Looking back, what do you think were the most valuable classes or experiences?
- I noticed that you [something about their experience or major]. Could you tell me more about your experience?
Day of Interview
Preparing for the day of the interview starts the night before. Get a good night’s rest so you are ready to tackle the interview with enthusiasm. There are few things more off-putting than a student yawning their way through their answers. Be sure to dress nicely. Even if it’s a casual interview, you don’t want to look like you just rolled out of bed. Take a bottle of water with you. It sounds strange, but you’re going to be talking a lot and likely nervous, so it doesn’t hurt to have a bottle of water to help if you get dry mouth or choke on your words. You may also want to bring a resume. Some colleges explicitly state that you should not bring any materials to the interview, but otherwise it could be helpful to provide a resume for your interviewer to reference. If you do bring a resume, be able to talk about everything you mention. You never know what the interview is going to ask about, and you don’t want to be thrown off by something you mention on your resume that you are unable to elaborate on.
Make sure you’re clear on exactly where and how you’re meeting the interviewer. Know the location, and what to look for (i.e. are they wearing a university sweater? Should you head to a specific part of a cafe?). Plan to arrive about 15 minutes early in case of unexpected traffic delays, trouble finding parking, and any other last-minute problems. When you arrive, it should be just you. Parents are naturally curious about the interview, and sometimes protective of their child meeting a stranger. However, it’s best if you demonstrate maturity by showing up by yourself. It’s okay if a parent waits for you nearby, but they should not be present for the interview. Lastly, be sure to turn off your phone before you arrive for the interview!
The college interview that takes place online is not all that different from an in-person interview. Students should still dress fully in the appropriate interview attire in case they have to stand up, but also to help remind them of the formal nature of the interview. Do a technology check to avoid any issues that might impede upon the interview. This includes having a professional username, checking the Wi-Fi connection, charging or plugging in your laptop, testing video and audio settings, making sure you can smoothly access the video room on whatever platform the interview will be held on.
You should also set the stage for your virtual interview. Remove any external distractions and noises. Pick a quiet room. Let family members know, so they avoid disrupting your call. Ensure that there’s good lighting so that the interviewer can fully see your face and minimize clutter in your screen background. If you’ve never done a virtual interview, try a practice run that mimics the real interview as much as possible and have someone else give feedback.
Plan to send a thank you email (download our sample ‘thank you’ email) within 6 hours of completing the interview. Oftentimes, an interviewer will send their interview report shortly after they finish speaking with you, so it’s important that you send a ‘thank you’ promptly. In your message, thank them for speaking with you and for sharing their experience at the university. You can also reference something specific that you enjoying talking about or learning. Avoid sharing new information that you didn’t bring up in the interview. This leaves the impression that you were not prepared or engaging during the actual interview.
Remember that the interview is just one thing that admissions officers consider. Try not to stress about it. Interviewers are excited to meet you! With a little preparation, the interview should be a fun and informative experience. The Spike Lab’s interview process is modeled after college admissions interviews, so if you’re curious to experience an interview then consider signing up for our trial program.