Tips and Strategies for a Successful College Admission Interview
By Peter Van Buskirk on December 12, 2019
The impressions we make in life are important as we meet people, seek new opportunities and build relationships. In fact, good impressions can make a big difference in defining the quality of life we might experience.
The same is true in the college admission process. If you are applying to colleges—especially colleges that don’t have to admit you just because you are a good student, you need to make a good impression. Character, values, energy, grit and personality count. Your objective, then, should be to take decision-makers beyond the data of your resume. Let them know who you are. In doing so, reveal the person whom they might invite into their respective communities.This article will provide tips as you try to make a good impression with a college interview.
Interviews Can Make Impressions!
Years ago, when I was dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall, a friend called to inquire about our interest in taking on an applicant. He explained that Christopher, an apparently talented thespian from Oregon with modest academic credentials, was still looking for a college home. Certain that F&M would be a suitable location for Christopher, he listened patiently as I explained that our class was full. Besides, I assured him, Christopher wasn’t presenting the kind of scores and grades that would cause us to make an exception.
It was at this point that he offered the fateful words, “Peter, when you meet Christopher, you’ll want to adopt him!”
Now curious, I made arrangements to interview Christopher. On the appointed day, he arrived, happy and cheerful, carrying a satchel that included plans for his inventions, including some with patents. Needless to say, they quickly became a point of conversation.
During the course of the interview, I noticed on his information sheet that he had listed involvement in musical theatre and turned the focus in that direction.
“So, what shows have you done lately?”
“We just finished South Pacific,” Christopher responded with a big smile.
“Ahh—that’s one of my favorites!” I had always appreciated the music as well as the provocative social commentary of this iconic 1950’s Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. “What role did you play?”
“I was Emile de Becque,” he said proudly. de Becque was the male lead, a French plantation owner on an island in the south Pacific.
“No kidding!” I responded excitedly as de Becque’s character and dramatic solos were pivotal to the show.
“Would you like to hear something?” he asked and, without hesitation, stood up and sang “Some Enchanted Evening” as well as I had ever heard it sung!
That was it—I was sold! I had always loved the song, but it was his presence and musicianship that sealed the deal. I wanted to adopt the young man!
We admitted Christopher. Immediately a star, he went on to become a pillar of the F&M music and theatre programs. He had made an impression when it counted, and we were all the better for it. Without the interview, though, he would never have been considered for admission.
I tell this story because students can be incredibly fretful about college interviews, sometimes to the point that they never choose to engage in them. You don’t need to sing or do something dramatic in order to make an impression. You simply need to be you. Be prepared to talk about the things that give you joy in life and the interview can actually be fun!
Inside the Interview - Be Aware of the Possibilities
College interviews come in different forms. Before differentiating among them, though, let’s be clear. An interview will, if nothing else, be a personal conversation with someone who wants to get to know you. That person might be a member of the faculty, a student intern in the admission office, or an alumni volunteer. Or, that person could be a paid admission staff person, someone whose job it is to recruit and select applicants.
An interview can take place in an admission office, a snack bar, a hotel lobby or the conference room at an alum’s place of work. In some cases, you might be interviewed over the phone or by skype. Regardless of the means, it is the conversation that counts.
Interviews can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the circumstances. Some colleges manage interviews on a tight 20-30 minute schedule to conform with other planned activities such as tours and information sessions. On the other hand, if you have a lot to discuss and the interviewer is not pressed for time, you might find yourself in a rather expansive conversation.
It is Rare that Interviews are Tightly Scripted
While some interviewers have favorite conversation starters (i.e. “Tell me about a book you’ve read lately,” or “Who do you admire most—and why?”), most interviews are free-flowing conversations. In fact, many take their direction from the chit-chat that occurs at the outset of the interview—“So, what have you been up to lately?” or “How was your summer?” You should be ready with one or two things you’d like to discuss related to such a prompt.
Meeting with Decision-Makers
Any interview opportunity at a college that is important to you is worth pursuing. If, however, a college ever offers an interview with a paid admission staff person, either on-campus or at a location near you, take it! That person will be a decision-maker. As Christopher learned, it always makes sense to have some exposure to a decision-maker!
As you make plans to visit colleges, inquire at least a month ahead of time about the availability of interviews. In some cases, you’ll be able to schedule an interview on the college’s admission website. Others will be happy to make the arrangements with you over the phone. Colleges that offer on-campus interviews typically make them available from May of the Junior year through January of the Senior year, including summer months.
Not Able to Interview with a "Decision-Maker?"
Many of the more selective colleges no longer offer personal interviews on campus. And, not all on-campus interviews are with admission staffers (decision-makers). If that turns out to be the case for you, don’t despair. Your interviewer will still be adding notes to your file that will be considered in the subsequent review of your application.
Before you leave the campus, however, be sure to ask to say “hello” to the admission person who recruits at your high school. Five minutes of “face-time” in the hallway can’t hurt. If that person is not available, make sure you get his/her business card. Then, as you have questions later in the process, let her/him be your primary point of contact.
Alumni interview opportunities are bound to appear on your radar if you apply to some of the more selective colleges and universities. Whether or not they offer interviews on campus with admission personnel, many places will invite applicants to meet with their alumni for “optional” interviews. The invitation for such an interview will be sent out shortly after your application has been received.
Much like all of the other interviews, this one is simply a meeting between two people who want to get to know each other. There can be great variability, though, in the age and occupation of the alumni and, as a result, considerable difference in their respective orientations to the process. Some will tell you a lot about themselves and, perhaps, relive their college days for you. Others might be more corporate or, conversely, more solicitous in their approaches. Regardless, go prepared to let them know who you are.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is not the content of the alumni interview that matters most. Rather, the fact that it has taken place is most important to the institution. Think about it. If you do not avail yourself of such an opportunity, what does that say about the level of interest you have in the institution?
Tips for Getting the Most from the College Interview
As you prepare to interview, keep the following tips in mind—and get ready to enjoy the experience! You will survive!
- Dress comfortably
- Arrive early
- Eliminate Distractions
- Focus on positive body language
- Know the basics about the college
- Be in command of your own information
- Hold your resume for the end
Otherwise, it will become a distraction!