Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Acing the College Admission Interview

“We convince by our presence.” -Walt Whitman.

interviewgirlIn the adult career world, the interview is pivotal to landing a job. It is natural that parents would expect interviews to play a key role in the college process as well. Client families often come to me feeling stressed about interview preparation. Can I help them? Yes. Should they be stressed? No. In college admissions, the interview is not a key deciding factor, as in employment. In the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admission 2014 Report, the percentage of admissions officers surveyed who attributed “considerable importance in admissions decisions” to the interview was ten percent at private institutions and two percent at state schools.

Public universities do not have the staff to interview thousands of applicants, so they generally weigh “the numbers” most heavily in their admissions decision; for example, almost seventy percent of state school admissions officers attributed “considerable importance” to test scores (versus only half of private school admissions respondents). Private universities and liberal arts college vary greatly in terms of how heavily they weigh interviews. For those schools that require interviews with the admissions department (e.g., Carnegie Mellon, U Rochester, Wake Forest, Hamilton), you simply have to do it. For most private schools, interviews may be encouraged but are optional, non-evaluative, and offered throughout the country (often with alumni) so as to not require long distance travel for applicants.

Businessman offering handshake (focus on face)

So why do an interview? Interviewing with a college, just like with any organization, allows the applicant to put his or her best foot forward in person, and find out more about the school and its programs. Making the effort to interview also shows demonstrated interest. 23 percent of private schools and 14 percent of state schools surveyed in NACAC’s 2014 report attributed “considerable importance” to this factor. As I posted in “Why University of X?”, demonstrated interest has become a hot button in the past decade for admissions officers under pressure to maximize their yield.

So even if the college does not require an interview, but offers the opportunity, and it is feasible for your family to arrange one, it is a good idea. If your teen is confident, poised, and articulate with adults, interviewing will create a positive halo effect. If college admissions is akin to courtship, it’s like a first date. Both parties learn more about each other face-to-face. That can only result in making a better ultimate match.

resumeFamilies want to know whether the applicant needs a resume to bring to the interview. You will get different answers on this, depending on what kind of interview it is. My answer, however, is that an interviewee should always bring a resume. The interview may be taking place before the application has been reviewed or even submitted, so without a resume, the interviewer knows nothing about the student at all. The resume gives the interviewer a general framework to form the basis of conversation (and it will go into the applicant’s file). The resume should be on one page, printed out on ivory-colored, cotton-fiber, watermarked paper (available in Staples). Your student should bring at least two copies, tucked in a leather or faux-leather padfolio (also available in Staples). The padfolio usually has a place for a notepad and pen, and it is fine to have jotted down questions for the interviewer on that pad (to jog the applicant’s memory!). It is even fine to write down answers the interviewer gives, especially if the applicant’s questions are complex and program-related.

The applicant should not be looking at his or her resume during the interview; one should be an expert on one’s own background and accomplishments and should be making eye contact with the interviewer. Looking at one’s resume interferes with effective body language, which is one of the most influential tools in any personal exchange. PS: Don’t underestimate the power of a genuine smile, which many nervous applicants forget.

interviewasiangirlFamilies always want to know how the student should dress. This is not an investment bank, but the student should project the attitude of caring about the interview. Adults call this “business casual.” Jackie Burrell offers great suggestions in her article: “For young men…dress pants with a nice belt, a collared shirt – an Oxford cloth or crisp, striped, long-sleeved shirt, for instance – and dress shoes. A sport coat and/or tie would bump that up another notch. If it’s a very casual campus, where your son might feel peculiar walking across campus in anything super dressy – or if he’s going to be attending a class too – he could probably get away with very dark jeans, and roll up the sleeves of that striped shirt for a more casual look, then throw on a sport coat for the interview itself. Young women should wear dress trousers or a skirt (but nothing too short), and a nice blouse or shell, with a cardigan or stylish jacket, and nice shoes, i.e., no flip flops. Avoid extremely high heels – they’re murder on a campus tour, in any case. But your daughter doesn’t have to forego style here. A stylish jacket and a soft scarf will make even dark jeans or crisp capris look dressy, and that can be a good option on a very casual campus.”

interviewhandsomemanWhat kinds of questions are asked in college interviews? Dr. Allen Grove lists excellent questions in his article; the key question is: “Tell me about yourself.”  It is wise for an applicant to think through his or her personal response to this question, even typing them out and/or creating role play practice. The personal response to this kind of open-ended question is sometimes referred to as an “elevator pitch,”  which is a brief summary of what a person has to offer that could be completed in an elevator ride.

All college applicants should develop and practice an elevator pitch, even if they are not scheduled for an on-campus interview; having an elevator pitch allows the student to comfortably approach admissions representatives at college fairs, regional admissions counselors who give dog-and-pony shows at the high school (likely the exact person who will read your student’s essay), admissions presenters at campus information sessions, or professors your student might want to contact for information on special programs.

interviewwitholderwomanDr. Grove covers a number of other common college interview questions. Encourage your student to think through, write out, and even role play responses to these questions. Your student will be answering similar questions in interviews throughout his or her career, so there is no time like the present to begin practicing the answers. A college interview is NOT an interrogation. Since most college interviews are non-evaluative, the interviewer will bend over backward to make your student feel at ease and try to showcase the school’s offerings. Following ten minutes of applicant questions the admissions interviewer will  shift gears and ask, “What questions do you have about our school?” Prepare your student to take advantage of this opportunity to find out more about the college and its programs. Asking well thought-out questions that exhibit a thorough understanding of the school also demonstrate serious interest. Questions that are too superficial (easily gleaned from the website) might communicate a lack of interest.

There is only one mistake in a college interview: having NO questions.