How to Make the Most of Your College Interview
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Contextualizing the College Interview:
The interview is arguably the most nerve-wracking part of the college applications process. Unlike your personal essays or standardized test scores, you haven’t had months to strategize, revise, and perfect your performance in your interview. The interview process can feel startling in comparison to the measured and tactical pace of the rest of a college application. Usually, when students think about their interview, anxiety is more common than excitement (and understandably so!). However, an interview shouldn’t consist just of a stone-faced alumni asking you to clearly and eloquently explain why you’re a perfect fit for their school; it’s an opportunity for you to learn whether the school is the right fit for you, and it can be as informative for you as it is for the interviewer.
What Are the Stakes?
Though they may seem daunting and massively significant at the time, interviews are not actually an extremely important component of the applications process. Yes, an abysmal interview can significantly harm your chances of admission, and yes, an outstanding interview can give you a boost, but unless your interview is exceptional in some way (good or bad), it likely will not be a make-or-break factor in your admissions decision. That being said, the interview is certainly not inconsequential.
Interviews provide admissions committees with the opportunity to meet you by proxy. While your personal essays are the most important piece of subjective evidence in your application, the interview fulfills a similar purpose. It allows colleges to read between the lines of your application, focusing on how you answer questions as opposed to your answers themselves. Similarly to how applicants are encouraged to focus on “showing” rather than “telling,” the interview is an opportunity for the committee to take initiative in “seeing”– to really experience your personality in action.
So, what are the stakes? Well, “fit” is a significant aspect of any admissions process. Most top 10 colleges could fill their freshman class several times over with only valedictorians if they wanted to. However, committees are designed to bring together a cohesive, balanced, and impassioned class of students. In accordance with this, fit signifies not only how well you fit the school in general, but how well you fit the mould in any given application cycle. Don’t get us wrong here: this doesn’t mean that your interview is a be-all-end-all moment for your application. In fact, every part of your application contributes to your general fit as a school. The real message is this: be as authentic as you can be. Your fit is largely out of your control. While there are definitely ways to capitalize on and prepare for the interview (and ways to flunk it) you should focus on using the interview as an opportunity to conduct a self assessment of fit. How does the school align with your values? What are the specifics of student life and how will they stunt or promote your growth as a scholar and citizen?
Understanding the Interviewer: What Are They Looking At?
In an interview, more is under examination than simply the responses you give to interviewer’s questions. Because interviewers are human, a large portion of what influences the recommendation they write (or their decision not to write a recommendation) for you is their general impression of your intellectual curiosity, your interest in the school, and your personal engagement — a metric not easily assigned a numerical value. Asking questions demonstrates a desire to learn more about the school and gives off a clear impression of interest and engagement in the school and the interview process. Interviewers are passionate about the school they attended — why else would they go through the process of becoming qualified to conduct interviews and donate their time to speaking with potential students? Interviewers want to make the student body as strong as possible, and they’ll appreciate the opportunity to speak about their school, inform applicants, and ensure that this years’ class will be comprised of students best suited to and most passionate about that school.
While fit is inherently vague, qualitative, and largely out of your control, demonstrating enthusiasm is an important part of demonstrating fit. Remember the moment in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry convinced the sorting hat not to sort him into Slytherin House? It’s a bit like that. The sorting hat knew that Harry was inherently matched to one of a couple different houses, but it was Harry’s enthusiasm that pushed him into Gryffindor. A student that’s a perfect fit but lacking in enthusiasm and drive will most likely not receive a glowing recommendation from their interviewer.
“So, Let’s Have Some Questions from Your End”
At the end of your interview, and perhaps even throughout it, your interviewer will ask if you have any questions regarding the college in question. Even if you’ve been dreaming of attending this school since you were 10, having researched every available detail online, it’s strongly advised that you come prepared with at least a couple of questions.
Asking questions at an interview is important for myriad reasons: it demonstrates strong interest, provides you with a former student’s perspective, gives you a unique opportunity to learn more about the school, and helps you determine whether this university is actually the right place for you to spend the next four years. The knowledge you gain from an alumni can be vastly different than that touted by the school on their website, in brochures, or during presentations. You can ask your interviewer about anything from academics to athletics to student life, and you’ll usually receive a response with a level of candor and a unique viewpoint not often conveyed through school-sanctioned promotional materials.
While the information you may read about a school through promotional materials or in official presentations is often quantitative in nature, boasting major specifics or impressive admissions statistics, an alumni’s point of view will provide more qualitative insights. As both a student who has attended the school in question and an alumni who has been qualified to interview applicants, they have an intimate knowledge of not only the numbers and figures you read about in pamphlets, but what life is actually like at the school. While it’s probably not advisable to ask your interviewer about whether you can rely on grade inflation to boost your GPA or what fraternity has a reputation for throwing the best parties, you can ask questions that you might not find answers to on the polished homepage of your top choice school’s website. For example, if you’re interested in participating in protests on campus, you can ask whether the culture of the school is generally geared towards activism or whether students keep more to themselves on political issues. You might also ask how the school’s administration usually responds to cases of student protests, or what their institutional memory looks like with regards to such events.
You can also take advantage of your interview to ask specific questions about student life, academics, extracurricular activities, or any number of things about which information may not be readily available through provided promotional materials. As former students, interviewers have a wealth of knowledge about the school and can speak to a certain student group’s influence on campus, things to do off-campus, and what dorms have the best reputation. If your interviewer has a similar academic background as you, it can be good to ask about their experience with certain departments, professors, clubs, or classes.
The knowledge provided by an alumni can significantly inform your ultimate decision on where to matriculate. An interview can allow you to realize the school you were always sure was perfect for you may not actually be the best fit, or that the school you were applying to just because your parents wanted you to actually aligns perfectly with your interests and passions. Many of the unquantifiable aspects of a school – the general culture, the political leanings, the level of school spirit – are best learned from an alumnus who has experienced life as a student.
Given that a school’s statistics and ranking are largely communicated by the calibre of their students, looking at a school’s numbers can feel like looking into a series of mirrors. If you don’t take initiative to look past this reflection, your impression of a school’s fit is only going to be an indication of your placement on a bell curve. Alumni can help you to see past the surface and appraise the ways in which students like yourself are actually affected by, supported throughout, and take charge of their education. The interview process does not need to be a panic-inducing hour of interrogation and examination. Rather, it can be an incredibly valuable opportunity for you to gain exposure to a perspective that extends past impressive figures and statistics.