A Note on College Interviews

A majority of college applications for competitive schools are due on or before January 1st. While this may seem like the end of a process, you would be dearly mistaken to say so. Yes, the application form itself is the bulk of the application process, but it is not all. The next step is mysterious experience called the “alumni interview.”

Almost every competitive University offers applicants the opportunity to have an interview. They are not mandatory. But always do them. Just like a job, you do not want a résumé to be the sole source information about yourself if you can supplement it with personal contact.

Interviews are not the most important part of the application. I believe that they are pass/fail for most people. A few schools, like MIT, have a “one in a million” box that interviewers can check if a student that they meet is exceptionally remarkable. Unfortunately, the odds are that this will not happen to you. No matter how well you do in an interview, it will not completely sway your application toward that magical acceptance letter. However, you will go towards rejection if you do poorly. The alumni will probably write something good about you unless you are an arrogant jerk. General life advice: don’t be one of those.

Interviews accomplish two things. First, they show the school that you are truly interested in attending. Second, they provide an opportunity to show that you are a genuine human being and not a robot in a schoolroom. This is your time to show off your personality.

These interviews can occur at a variety of places. Some, like Yale, have the option to do them on their campus; this option will not give you an advantage. Only select it if: (A) this is feasible with your school schedule and (B) you have not yet visited the campus and really want to see it. Otherwise, go for the local interview. It will probably be at the alumnus’ office, a coffee shop, restaurant, library, or other public space.

Most interviews are initiated by the school. They will send your contact information to someone in their alumni network who will then contact you, usually by e-mail. Be careful; a few places will require you to contact the alumnus first. MIT is one such example. If this is the case, schedule it as early as possible. For Princeton, the interviewer contacts the applicant.

Scheduling may pose a problem. It is likely that both of your schedules will not align perfectly. Consequently, you will probably have to send a bunch of e-mails back and forth to find the right time for the interview.

The people who conduct the interview are graduates of the school. They probably attended it anywhere from 1 to 60+ years ago. On the young end of the spectrum, I know of a Princeton 2016 graduate and CR alumnae who signed up to be an interviewer this past fall. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I met an MIT interviewer in Ohio who graduated in 1958 (and ironically went to Princeton for graduate school later). Regardless of their age, the alumni are very friendly. Treat them as you would with any other new adult. They are eager to meet the next generation of smart college students. Ultimately, interviewing applicants is a way for them to give back to their school, so they are always happy to do it in whatever way is possible.

In my humble opinion, an interview for college should be no different than one for a job. There are a few simple, timeless rules that apply to all interviews.

  1. Relax. Be the best version of yourself.
  2. Wear a suit. I don’t care if they say it’s in a casual setting, wear it. This shows that you are serious about applying.
  3. Come a few minutes early. No one likes waiting for you.
  4. Give your interviewer a firm handshake.
  5. Know how to make small talk and casually converse. Although the interviewer will guide the conversation, you always want to avoid those awkward empty pauses.
  6. If your interviewer offers to buy you food, do not get the most expensive item on the menu. Pick something cheap and light. The focus of the occaision should be on the interview, not the food. Be sure that you know table manners.
  7. Always thank your interviewer for their time at the end. Send a thank you e-mail the next day. (This would usually be a thank you note for a job)

Practice interviewing with friends and family. From my experience, the interviewers ask straightforward questions about your interests and experiences, though a few have been known to throw in some wild cards. Do not fret if you get one of these. Give it your best shot and have fun. There shouldn’t be any litmus test questions. This is merely a college interview, not a Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court. Here are some questions that I received from all of my interviews:

  • Why are you interested in applying to this school?
  • What would you like to study? Why?
  • What have been your favorite classes in high school and why?
  • What advice would you give to a new freshman coming into your high school?
  • What extracurricular activities have you participated in and why?
  • What wakes you up in the morning?
  • Why do you want to go to college?
  • What is your greatest accomplishment?
  • What is something that you would like to tell me that does not necessarily appear on a résumé or you application?
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • If I asked your friends to describe you, what would they say?
  • What three words describe you best?
  • If you could go back in time and meet anyone, who would it be and why?
  • Who inspires you and why?
  • What is your favorite book?
  • Will you do anything differently in college than you did in high school?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What about college most excites you?
  • If you could switch places with any person in the world for a day, who would it be?
  • How do you express yourself?
  • What makes you unique?
  • Who do you most respect?
  • What core principles guide your life?
  • If you could invent anything, what would it be?
  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
  • What do you like about yourself?
  • What do you not like about yourself?
  • How do you improve yourself?
  • What kind of career do you want to go into?
  • What is your dream job?
  • What does service mean to you?
  • What is the meaning of life? (Just kidding)

You can’t really predict what they’ll ask you. There is one question that is always asked for Princeton interviews: “Will you uphold the Honor Code and why?” Briefly read through the Honor Code. Your answer should be “yes,” but think carefully about the second part. What compels you to tell the truth and not cheat on exams?

Questions, like the application essay prompts, should be answered with a focus on “why.” Dig into the question to expose a deep part of yourself. Watch this Ted Talk again.

Do your research on the school beforehand. Memorize a few programs or features that interest you. Mention them during your interview. This will show that you are drawn to the school for academic reasons and not simply prestige.

To look even better, ask some questions about the school or your interviewer at the end. Don’t ask about acceptance. This will only make you look desperate to get in. Instead, focus on the aspects of the school such as coursework, research, study abroad, and distribution requirements. I would even advise that you ask about your alumnus’ career or their greatest lesson from college. These are ways that you can show interest in the school without having to do much talking.

At the end of the day, don’t get too nervous about the alumni interview. As I said, it will probably not make or break your application. Go into it with a smile on your face. Enjoy the occasion and learn something about college from your interviewer.


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