I have been a college interviewer for twenty-two years. In that time, we have gone from calling candidates on the phone and carbonless paper forms in triplicate to emailing or even texting candidates and conducting all interviews via Skype. The college admissions process is fraught, to say the least, both for the student and the parents. Students are trying to make what feel like life-altering decisions based on very little life experience, and parents are trying to figure out how to pay for it all, whether or not they can contribute.
As someone who has been on the “front line” of the college admissions process for over two decades, I thought perhaps I could share some insights from the interviewer’s point of view. Your student may or may not benefit from knowing the inside scoop, and of course I can’t represent all interviewers. But hopefully it will at least be a comfort to know something about the process.
Have a story to tell and/or sell. This rule has always been important, but its relevance has become stronger over the past several years. When a prospective student comes to me with either a full-to-bursting resume of disparate yet individually impressive pursuits, or with no clear vision of how they want to present themselves, it makes my job harder. I have to try to tease the personality out of these students, who are already nervous and self-conscious. And a super-overachieving student has the same effect on me – I have to cut through a lot of chaff in order to find out the student’s true mission.
When I say “story”, “vision”, or “mission”, I’m not saying that the student needs to know what they want to do with their life. Far from it. What the interviewer wants to see if someone who knows what they like and don’t like. Package that as a story, and that makes the student an excellent candidate immediately.
Focus on what sets you apart. As an interviewer, I don’t have access to the student’s grade and scores, and I don’t sit on the admissions committee. I’m not in the room making the decision, and I think most colleges operate the same way. The admissions committee is looking to the interview for the “hook” that will distinguish this student from the thousands of other applications. You don’t have to be the “best” – having a hook is not about that. It’s about something that makes you stand out. A student could come to me and say that they love cheese sandwiches, and because of that, has taken cheese-making classes in the summer and started a cheese-making club at school. That’s a hook.
Do lots of homework about the school for which you are interviewing. I will never forget one girl I interviewed about five years ago. She showed up for the interview and started on a soliloquy about how great she was. When I asked her about why she thought she would like going to my college, she shut down, as she had done no research or preparation at all – she had never visited the website, had never taken a tour, had never even cracked the glossy catalog. What a waste of my time and hers.
If the student wants to go to the school enough to pay the application fee and take the time to interview, they should be very familiar with the school’s offerings, what sets this school apart from others, and perhaps have taken a virtual tour, if there is no time for a physical tour. With such keen competition for spots, admissions officers want to give the limited spaces to students who are truly interested.
Have a list of compelling questions for the interviewer. Again, I can’t represent all interviewers, but I have a hunch that, like me, most of them set aside time at the end of the interview to let the student ask questions. This time is an opportunity for the student to shine, to show how curious and thoughtful they are. There is nothing more disappointing than offering to answer questions and have the student demur.
What are compelling questions? One good choice would be to ask the interviewer anything about their time at the college – their major, where they lived, what activities they participated in. Another good option is to ask the interviewer’s opinions about campus life, extracurricular activities, the weather at the school. Anything that engages the interviewer is a plus.
Having a student be prepared for their college interviews is better for everyone – students, parents, and interviewers. It’s easy to do and I guarantee it will improve a student’s chances for admission.