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8 min read

Tips and Strategies for a Successful College Admission Interview

Tips and Strategies for a Successful College Admission Interview

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 experience. 

The same is true in the college admission process. If you are applying to colleges, 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 they might invite into their respective communities. This article will provide tips as you try to make a good impression during a college admission interview. 

  blue@2x   Blog Highlights:




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, a 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 university 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!

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.

A university interview can take place in an admission office, a snack bar, a hotel lobby, the conference room at an alum’s place of work–or even virtually! 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's Rare that College Admission 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?” One of my favorite pieces of college admissions interview advice is: you should be ready with one or two things you’d like to discuss related to such a prompt.

What Your Interviewer Wants to Learn About You

College admissions interview questions often revolve around these four concepts:

  • Your passions - what do you care most about in life?
  • Your energy - what kind of energy do you bring to related endeavors? 
  • Your commitment - how do you grow with and influence your environments?
  • Your values - what are your guiding principles? 

Be sure to reflect on these four aspects of your personality before the interview.

It is highly likely that your interviewer will also want to know more about the following:

  • Academic irregularities (if they exist)
  • Life circumstances that have defined you
  • The “invisible you," the part of you that isn't visible or seen on your resume 
  • Your interest in academics
  • Why you are interested in the school
  • If you have initiative and are proactive

Common Questions Interviewers Ask

USNews presents these four interview questions that all college applicants should be ready to answer. (While the article specifically focuses on international students, even domestic students can benefit from this preparation.)

  • Can you tell me a little about yourself?

  • Why do you want to attend our school?

  • Can you explain the grading system at your high school?

  • Do you have any questions for me?

Some other potential questions to be prepared to answer, as highlighted on reddit by a former UChicago interviewer and current UC Berkeley admissions reader, are as follows:

  • Are there any current events that you feel strongly about?

  • Which classes do you find most difficult, and why?

  • What did you learn from participating in (a specific extracurricular)?

  • What most excites you about our school?

For each of these prospective questions, it is important to remember what colleges are looking for in their students, and to answer in ways that show these traits.

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, 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 or attend virtual events, 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.

Who will interview you?

If you have an interview lined up, you can expect to meet with one of the following:

  • Full-time admission staff person
  • Student—usually a senior or intern within the admission office
  • Professor—likely related to gaining admission into a specific program
  • Alumnus—usually an off-campus interviews with selected applicants

At most institutions, interviews will be conducted by admission staff. If you have an opportunity to interview with such a person, you should always take it! This person is a decision-maker. If you find yourself being interviewed by a student or a professor, you may want to ask the admission receptionist for the name of the admission staff person who recruits in your area, and to see if it may be possible to drop by that person's office to introduce yourself before leaving campus.

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 an on-campus interview, 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, or if you've interviewed virtually, make sure you get their contact information. Then, as you have questions later in the process, let them be your primary point of contact.


A Note About Alumni Interviews

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, a 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 and Strategies for College Interviews

As you prepare to interview, keep the following tips in mind—and get ready to enjoy the experience! You will survive!

1. Dress comfortably   

Virtual or in-person, you should still dress for the occasion. The student equivalent of business casual is just fine! Don’t over-dress or under-dress or dress provocatively. You want to be comfortable, but no baseball caps! Moreover, you don’t want your attire to detract in any way from the conversation.

2. Be on time (that means early!)

This might seem silly but plan to arrive an hour ahead of your scheduled in-person interview. Having that time cushion will be helpful in the event that you run into delays due to traffic, accidents, or wrong turns—all of which add to the stress you will feel about being late.

If you arrive early, go to a snack bar. Buy a coffee. Drink it. Pick up a student newspaper. Read it. Watch people. See how they treat each other—and you. If your interview is virtual, be at your computer or phone with plenty of time to ensure you have everything prepared to call in. Then, by the time you're ready to begin your interview, you’ll be relatively stress-free.

3. Relax   

Perhaps the best advice that can be offered is to relax. Nothing about this process is designed to hurt you. Be yourself. Be an interested conversationalist. Have fun!

4. Eliminate distractions  

The interview is a time for good conversation. Make sure you are mindful of distractions that might create less than positive impressions. Stow the gum. Be mindful of nervous tics (i.e. shaky knees, etc.) and conversational hiccups (“I was like and you know… and then she goes…”). Resist the temptation to let out tonsil-revealing yawns (at least cover your mouth if you feel one coming!).

5. Focus on positive body language  

The interview starts with the introduction. A firm handshake (if in-person), a pleasant smile, and good eye contact convey confidence and an eagerness to get started. During the interview, sit up straight and maintain a smile and eye contact throughout.

6. Know the basics about the college  

This is not the time to be asking about the number of books in the library. Do your homework about the college in advance. More specifically, be prepared to speak to the synergy that you have found between your objectives and learning style—and the opportunities present at the institution. This type of preparation will make it easier to ask perceptive questions at the right time during the interview. 

7. Be in command of your own information  

Know your stuff! You should not have to look to your parents for information about your courses, grades or extracurricular activities. Moreover, have a few talking points in mind so that, when given the opening (“What have you been up to lately?” or “Is there anything else you want us to know about you?”) you are prepared. One such talking point could address any irregularities that might appear later on in your academic record.

9. Hold your resume for the end

If you have prepared a resume, wait until the end of the interview to offer it as “leave behind” material. Otherwise, it will become a distraction!

10. Breathe! 

Sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, students will start to talk—and talk and talk—until they turn blue and pass out! By allowing yourself conversational punctuation, you can literally catch your breath while allowing the interviewer to interject with thoughts and questions.

With these college interview tips in mind, you can be confident in your ability to ace the interview! For more information on college interview tips and strategies, check out this video.


The video covers some concepts covered in the blog post, including:

  • 3:30 - What interviewers seek to learn about you
  • 5:00 - How your interview provides context
  • 8:00 - Are interviews required?
  • 11:00 - Who may interview you
  • 24:50 - Tips on preparing for an interview


This article was originally published on December 10, 2021. It was updated on June 30, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

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