I remember my first college interview. It was terrifying. I felt like I had completely forgotten how people talked to each other, and I was afraid that all the things I had to say about myself – my theatre work, my love of reading – would come off as juvenile or self-interested. I’d also never had a real job interview before that might have prepared me, and at the time I lived in France. The culture I grew up in had higher formality standards, and making casual conversations with real adults was not something I felt prepared to do. Understandably, I was extremely anxious when that first interview rolled around, and although it wasn’t completely awful, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I could’ve done better.
That’s not going to be you. Armed with all the interviews I had that followed, and my several months as an interviewer for the University of Rochester, I am going to give you ALL the advice you need to up your interview game. You’ve got this!
What is college interviewing?
Interviewing for secondary education is somewhat atypical if you look at the rest of the world. Many schools make decisions solely based on grades, and the UCAS system in the UK has a cover letter-style personal statement. Business programs might interview candidates to judge social skills relevant to the profession. But your college applications are so much more general than applying to a single job: you’re looking to be accepted into a social community, a unique academic environment, and you might not even be sure of your major (you don’t apply into majors at Rochester anyway). Rather than trying to be accepted into one thing for a specific reason, you’re trying to show that you fit the vibe. Other admissions counselors will view your grades, scores, and extracurriculars: interviewers are only trying to get to know YOU, the real person, and what you’d be like existing on our campus.
How can I prepare?
Look up college interview questions, and imagine what your answers would be. Think about the narrative you’re building through the rest of your college application: what are you proud of? What are you excited to pursue in college? This is a very special moment in your life when you’re made to reflect on all that you’ve done so far. Be thoughtful! Take some time beforehand to get into the right mindset: sometimes you don’t want to be self-reflective, but you don’t want to realize that in the middle of an interview.
After thinking about the story you’re bringing, the next big step is to get ready to interview for this specific school. You should have already done your research, but you want to have three to five good questions if you want to get the most out of your conversation (and really demonstrate your interest). Good questions might be about things that you can’t learn online: how collaborative is the student body? What events really define your Rochester experience? Why do students choose to go here? Other good questions might focus on campus opportunities specific to your interests: how can you get involved in research? Does the club sports community have a strong presence?
Breathe. You’re interviewing as yourself, so there’s no need to become another person. You want to put your best foot forward, but no one’s asking you to pretend you’ve always been invincible. You became who you are today by overcoming obstacles, and you can be proud of your growth. Share what’s made you unique!
What should I avoid?
- One-word answers. While interviewers care about what you have to say, we’re more interested in the why of how you came to think that way. Anticipate that most questions will have follow-ups to get deeper into your answers, and if you’re asked a question, you really should answer it.
- Not having any knowledge or questions about the school. Even if you’re a great candidate, a lack of interest shows you don’t really want to go here; so why should you be admitted?
- Looking visibly disinterested when the interviewer answers your questions. If you’re only asking things to look good, take the time to find questions that genuinely matter to you.
- Not taking student interviewers seriously. My report is read exactly the same as an admissions counselor, and I’m probably easier to talk to since we’re closer in age. It’s a big mistake to dismiss us.
- Not matching the interviewer’s energy. Being way too casual or incredibly stilted hinders your ability to move the conversation forward.
- Stalking your interviewer beforehand. You won’t get brownie points for citing my articles back to me, and it’s kind of strange unless you have an interest in the school newspaper. Even if you want to look them up for peace of mind, you don’t have to bring it up.
- Not having an answer to why you want to go here. The question shows up at every interview at every school. Have something ready.
- Making things up. It’s going to be pretty obvious when you can’t adequately answer the follow-ups, and it’s just strange. You have things going on in your life, you consume media, you have hobbies and pastimes; even if you think they’re not super impressive, chances are, you’re wrong. And don’t say you read if you can’t name anything you’ve read recently.
I’m an international student. This makes no sense.
And you are so very valid for that. I would recommend looking up mock college interviews online, to get a feel for what your experience might look like. Practice with an English speaker if it’s not your native language, and remember that it’s okay to not know everything. Your experiences are going to be different, and college interviewers will recognize that. As long as you’re making a good-faith effort to engage with the interview and the questions you’re given, you will not be penalized. Maybe think of the interviewer like a friend’s parent that you’ve known for a long time: they’re going to be nice to you, and you want to tell them all the interesting things you’ve been doing.
Alright, that’s been my two cents. Best of luck with your college application journey!