The Undergraduate Interview

by | May 06, 2009

By this time of year, high school seniors are inthe home stretch of college application season (on the flip side, thework for juniors is just beginning as they start preparing for theSAT/ACT). Seniors have had their applications in for a month now (ifthey applied regular decision) and should just be hearing back fromschools regarding interviews. While not all schools offer interviews,many do; and if you are given the opportunity to interview, you shoulddefinitely take it. Studies have shown that students who have had aninterview have a better chance of gaining acceptance to a universitythan students who didn't have an interview.

Interviews usually cause people unnecessaryamounts of stress, but the process really shouldn't be that worrisome.For starters, you're already in a good position if a school requests aninterview, because it means that the admissions office has analyzedyour application and determined that you have made it past the initialscreening. The interview just means the school wants to learn moreabout you as a candidate. Interviews are also perfect opportunities foryou to provide the school with information about yourself that youmight not have included in your application. Don't worry if you're notthe world's best interviewee yet; just think of the interview as aconversation.

Understanding the interview

For most schools, the interview usually serves twomain purposes: to get a sense of whether you'd be a good fit, and togive you the opportunity to speak to a representative from the schoolto get insightful information about the school. There are a variety ofdifferent interview formats, and they vary greatly between schools. Youmay be interviewed by an admissions officer on campus or by analumnus/a in your home town; some on-campus interviews are done in agroup format, while others (and most off-campus interviews) are done onan individual basis. Off-campus interviews are most often conducted inperson, but phone interviews are becoming increasingly more popular forinternational students. You should also be aware that while someinterviewers have read your application and are familiar with youraccomplishments, most interviews are "blind," meaning that yourinterviewer has not read your application and does not have anyinformation about your accomplishments. A good rule of thumb is toassume that the interviewer hasn't read your application (unless he orshe starts to ask you specific questions about your activity sheet).

Preparing for the interview

Now on to the more important topic of how to acethe interview: preparation. The key here is to practice, practice,practice. The more practice you have before the actual interview, thebetter. Ask your parents, relatives, mentors, your guidance counselor,a teacher, or an independent college advisor or tutor if they wouldconduct a practice interview for college. Approach any practice sessionas if it were the real thing. You might even want to wear the sameoutfit you are planning to wear to make sure you are comfortablesitting in the clothes.

Remember body language

And being comfortable with the image you'representing--what you wear, how you sit, how you speak--is significant.Not only are applicants judged on what they say in the interview, theyare also judged based on how they present and carry themselves.Interviewers understand that almost every applicant will be nervous inhis or her interview and will make an effort to see through the nerves,but they shouldn't have to look too hard. Here is some step-by-stepadvice about how to go about putting the best you forward:

  • You want to seem engaging, so remember to walk confidently into the interview.
  • Make sure you make eye contact and give your interviewer a firm handshake to introduce yourself.
  • Be sure to remember your interviewer's name; it's alwayseasier if you repeat her name when you say hello (i.e., "Nice to meetyou Mrs. Smith.").
  • Never ever underestimate the importance of smiling. If youseem relaxed and happy, you'll automatically put your interviewer in abetter mood.

Nail the "two-minute pitch"

I know it seems a little awkward to talk aboutyourself (especially about your accomplishments), but get used to itbecause you need to be at least slightly boastful aboutyourself so your interviewer knows how wonderful you are. Since manyinterviewers will not have read your application when they meet you,most will ask you to just "tell them a little bit about yourself."While this is a seemingly innocuous question, it often trips studentsup because they have no idea where to begin. Start by telling theinterviewer about your background: where you grew up, your family, alittle about your high school and surrounding community. Then move ontoyour academic interests (favorite subject, any awards you've gotten)and extracurricular activities (definitely mention any leadershippositions you have had). Lastly, talk about your future goals and whyXYZ College perfectly suits your future plans. This gives theinterviewer a lot of options about which to ask follow-up questions.But be careful not to get carried away with your life story. Keep the"little bit about yourself" short and sweet, under two minutes is asafe amount of time. Otherwise you’re going to lose the interviewer!

Keep a mental checklist

The art of any good interview is making sure youare able to discuss all the "selling points." A good way to start onthe right track is to mention all of your selling points in yourtwo-minute pitch. However, since your interviewer won't have this listin front of her, make sure to keep a mental checklist of all the majorpoints you want to get across. If you realize that you’re 30 minutesinto the interview and your interviewer still hasn't asked you aboutyour community service and that is your biggest activity, the onus ison you to make sure to get that in there. Even if it doesn't directlyanswer the question she asked, make sure you bring it up. Remember, theinterviewer wants to hear about all of the interesting things you’vedone!

Know the answer to “Why XYZ College?”

Any good interviewer will be sure to ask you whyyou've selected his or her school, so you better make sure you knowyour facts. Be specific with this. Don't just say you like the campusor you hear they have a great English department. This is your chanceto convince the interviewer that you know the school inside and out andcan’t see yourself any place else.

Prep for the tough questions

Some interviewers treat the interview as a basicconversation and won't try to "stump" you with any tricky question.However, some will try to catch you with some difficult questions tosee how you handle them. While you can't prepare for all difficultquestions, it's good to be ready to think on your feet. A couple oftopics you might want to consider are: favorite books, or books you'recurrently reading for pleasure; a current event that you're following(especially if there is something in the news about the particularmajor in which you were interested); a celebrity with whom you'd mostlike to have to dinner; and a joke you can tell on the spot. This is byno means an exhaustive list and you should talk to your family andfriends who have been on college interviews or even job interviews tosee what kinds of questions they've gotten in the past. Obviously, thebest way to prepare for any "random" or difficult question is to have apredetermined answer and to practice. Before a practice interviewsession, ask your practice interviewer to ask you a random question heor she knows you haven't heard before.

Have a list of your own questions

Your interviewer will most surely end theinterview by giving you the opportunity to ask questions about theschool or her experience at the school. No matter how long you'vetalked or how many questions you've asked until then, you should takeadvantage of this opportunity. So have a list of five or so questionsto ask about a variety of topics, just in case. Also, remember thatpeople like to talk about themselves, so feel free to simply ask theinterviewer how she liked the school.

Being yourself

While your heart may be racing and a millionthoughts running through your head during your interview, remember tobe yourself and try to be as passionate as possible about the thingsyou are discussing, and never underestimate the power of laughter. AsVictor Borges once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between twopeople." So if you can manage to get a chuckle out of your interviewer,you’ve already got an instant connection.

Last but not least, don't forget to send a thankyou note (an e-mail is OK) to your interviewer. As an alumniinterviewer for Princeton University, I cannot tell you how nice it isto get a thank you e-mail from prospective students after an interview.

Good luck and, as always, if you have anyquestions about preparing for interviews or any standardized test,please feel free to e-mail us at info@edgeincollegeprep.com or browse The Edge website for more information at www.EdgeInCollegePrep.com.

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