In order to gain admission to America’s top universities, one has to go through a long and laborious pilgrimage—college application. This process would usually take the entire first semester of your senior year, during which you have to submit several components to complete your application:
- list of extracurricular activities and awards
- recommendation letters
- SAT/ACT scores
While most of the other application components are more or less predictable, interviews can vary from colleges or even the interviewers. Here I will explain to you what to expect in an interview and what are appropriate to do to leave a great impression that will boost your chance of getting admitted.
Before we start, you need to understand the college interviews are usually optional (but some specific programs might make it mandatory). It is not as important as job interviews where your response would make or break your chance of an offer. So relax! Don’t worry too much about it, keep reading to find out useful tips.
Why do colleges give interviews?
The admissions already know about your academic performance by looking at your scores and grades, but they still don’t know you as a person. They want to see how you talk about your passions and hear about interesting things that were not mentioned anywhere on your application. Interviews also help the admissions make sure that the students they admit are decent people, not just study machines.
Sometimes, an interview is not evaluative at all, it just offers you a chance to learn more about the college.
Who will be the interviewers? Where does the interview take place?
The interviews usually take two forms:
- On-campus interviews done by a current student or admissions staff. You will meet the interviewer in an office on the college campus. It is a good idea to schedule an on-campus interview when visiting the school!
- Off-campus interviews done by alumni who live close to you. The interviewer will contact you to set up a time and place to meet, usually a coffee shop or restaurant.
What does a typical interview look like and what are common interview questions?
First, you greet your interviewer.
Then, your interviewer asks you a series of questions. This part may or may not take place depending on the college.
Some common questions include:
- Tell me about yourself.
You can talk about your family, hobbies, favorite subjects, career aspirations, and maybe your obsession with cute dogs.
- Why do you want to come to this college?
Make sure you answer not only what aspects of the college suits your educational goals(example: hands-on learning experience, liberal arts education, etc. ), but also what new perspectives you can bring to campus (example: your cultural identity, exceptional cooking skills, etc.).
- What are your weaknesses?
Although it sounds bad to talk about your shortcomings, this is a great opportunity to turn a defeat into victory. You can start by describing something you are not good at, and then tell your interviewer what you have done to overcome the problem. Now it makes you seem even better!
Example: You always take over group projects and do most of the work by yourself because you are shy or uncomfortable giving orders. But you have worked on communicating with your group members more and making teamwork less intimidating.
- Some tough Harvard interview questions:
- Where do you see yourself 10-20 years later? You need to sound like an ambitious 18-year-old with clear goals in mind. Elite colleges want to admit students who will likely change the world in the future.
- What books/news have you been reading? If you don’t read newspapers regularly, do it right before the interview! You don’t want to seem ignorant and not thinking of what’s going on in the world.
After the interviewer is done, he/she might say: “Are there any questions for me?”
Make sure you don’t ask questions that can be easily found on the college’s websites. If you can’t think of anything, ask about the interviewer’s experience because they always love to talk about their happy memories!
- How were your interactions with your professors?
- What was something you enjoyed the most on campus?
And it’s finished. This whole thing can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours (Yeah! It varies a lot).
Later, the interviewer will usually write a report about you and send it to the college as an additional piece of evaluation.
What should you do to ace your interview?
- If you are contacted by your interviewer, respond promptly, this shows your respect and interest in the school.
- Wear something nice. Personally, business casual is best because you don’t want to look too formal or too casual. Most of my interviewers dressed really casually (jeans, sweaters, hoodies) and I felt awkward wearing a formal business dress in a coffee shop…
- Prepare what to say and some “good” questions to ask your interviewer at the end (see the common questions and ideas for responses above)
- Be a good listener: Dale Carnegie said that being a good listener will make the person who is talking feel good. When your interviewer is describing his/her wonderful time in the alma mater, listen attentively and praise them. They will have a great time and write a glowing report for you.
- Be on time. It is best to plan on arriving 5-10 minutes early so you can get comfortable in the new environment and refresh your memory on what to say.
- Be polite. Don’t just call them by their first names unless they want it that way.
- Offer a firm handshake and smile A LOT!
- Follow up! You are not completely done when the interview is over. It is best to send an email a few hours later to express your gratitude and reiterate why you are a good fit for that school. You can also mention specific things you two talked about, which shows your strong interest in the school.
Dear Mr./Mrs. xxx,
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today! Your experience learning science through a liberal arts education made me even more excited and I believe that xxx college is a great fit for me. I hope you have a wonderful day!
And here you have it, now go ace your college interviews and have a fun time with your applications!
Bonus 1: Yale has a website that lists examples of “good” and “bad” responses.
Bonus 2: To learn about how to organize your college application process, see a list of schools that offer full-ride scholarships and free mentoring programs for low-income students, please visit my previous article: “The College Application Timeline and Full-ride Scholarships.”