What to Say in a College Interview: Responding to ‘Tell Me About Yourself’
- Setting the Tone
- Topics to Cover
- 4 Examples of How to Respond
- Topics to Avoid
- 5 Tips to Prepare for This Prompt
Are you worried about your admissions interview? If so, you’re not alone. Many students are like you and want to be as well-prepared as possible, which means anticipating and practicing responding to the questions you will be asked ahead of time.
While there’s no way of knowing exactly what you’ll be asked, there’s one question you can always prepare for — the classic, “Tell me about yourself.” Although this question may seem open-ended (and daunting), there are some tips and tricks you can rely on to ensure your response is informative, personal, and natural.
In this post, we’ll outline why this question is important, the topics you should cover in your answer, and a few example responses to inspire your preparation!
Setting the Tone
You should see the “tell me about yourself” prompt as an opportunity to show the interviewer your most important qualities and give them an initial sense of how you might contribute to the school’s community. In any interview you have over the course of your college years and beyond, this prompt is meant to give the interviewer an idea of what you would bring to the position at hand — in this case, as a member of the college’s matriculating class.
Unsurprisingly, you want to talk about yourself and your background, but in a focused way that paints an accurate portrait of yourself as a productive, insightful member of the incoming freshman class. Stand-alone details and dead-end stories are rarely relevant in answers to this kind of question. Additionally, this is not an invitation to share your life story or overly personal information with your interviewer — doing so will make you appear unprofessional and unprepared.
That being said, you won’t want to sound like just another drone looking to fulfill pre-med requirements at any old college with a good biology program. So, you also want to be careful to not just rattle off a bullet-point list of repetitive or generic information. Rather, you should work to connect your unique past experiences with your future goals, and to explain why this institution is the perfect place for you to achieve those goals.
You should also be aware that this will often be the interviewer’s first question, which means it will set the tone for the rest of the interview. Starting strong is especially important since most college interviewers are alumni volunteers who haven’t, and won’t, see your grades, essays, or anything else in your application. Since they won’t have any prior familiarity with your profile, part of your responsibility when responding to this question is to lay a solid foundation for the rest of the interview, by having a thoughtful, cohesive, but not overly rehearsed answer at the ready.
Topics to Cover
There’s no one right way to respond to this question, because for different students, certain aspects of their lives will be more or less relevant to understanding who they are. That being said, here is an initial list of topics that many students end up discussing in their answers:
- Where you grew up
- What you want to study (and why)
- Unique personality traits
- Academic interests
- Extracurricular activities
- Why you want to attend the college
Keep in mind that you probably don’t want to talk about every single one of these things, as you don’t want your answer to be too long — about 2-3 minutes maximum. While this question is important, you have a whole interview to go, so you don’t need to jam every single thing you want to say into your first answer. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to discuss things you don’t get to in this first response. Plus, your interviewer may feel awkward if you start off by monologuing at them for 10 minutes, or confused if you mention dozens of unrelated things.
In general, though, it is a good idea to begin by mentioning the area in which you grew up, or some other foundational aspect of your upbringing, like your parents’ professions or your cultural heritage. Don’t spend too much time discussing the intricacies of your hometown or home life, but try to connect where you’re coming from to your interest in the college’s location, size, or campus culture.
You’ll also want to tell the interviewer about your prospective major, if you have one, or, if you’re undecided, what some of your main areas of interest are. While laying out your academic background, describing two or three of your most important broader personality traits will give your interviewer a clearer sense of why these subjects are important to you. You may also touch on a key extracurricular that further illuminates who you are. End your answer with a quick explanation of why you want to attend this particular college.
Since you should have researched the school thoroughly before the interview, you will hopefully already have a good idea of how your personality, as well as academic and extracurricular interests, will fit in there. Your response should concretely connect your personal strengths and experiences to the school’s offerings and overall culture.
Crucially, you shouldn’t assume that your interviewer can figure out how your background aligns with the school’s culture on their own. While they are obviously familiar with the school, colleges and universities have hundreds if not thousands of different opportunities available, so they may not have heard of the offerings in your particular area(s) of interest. Be clear about why and how your past experiences have set you up to succeed at this institution.
Finally, admissions officers want to be confident that you’ll accept your offer of admission, if you receive one. So, you should make sure to express how interested you are in attending this particular school, rather than speaking about broad goals for college that you could achieve anywhere.
4 Examples of How to Respond
“I grew up in a small town in Connecticut and have lived there my whole life, so I’d really love to experience city life in college. Since I live relatively close to New York, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few times, and it has so much to offer, especially in terms of the literary scene. I love reading and writing, so I’m thinking of majoring in English or journalism. Journalism seems like a good fit because I’m good at noticing details and know how to dig to the core of an issue.
My attention to detail is something I’ve been able to rely on to help me overcome challenges. Junior year, I was having a hard time in trig. When I met with my teacher outside of class, though, we were able to determine that I had a solid grasp of simple concepts like sine and cosine, but was struggling with bigger picture concepts. Moving forward, breaking down tricky problems into their core ideas and solving them one step at a time proved to be an effective strategy for me, and I ended up earning an A in the class.
In general, though, my interests are more humanities leaning. I especially enjoy writing and foreign languages, which is why I’m a columnist for my school newspaper and the president of the Spanish club. I also tutor English and Spanish at an after-school program in my town.
NYU seems like the perfect school for me because it has such strong English and journalism programs, including honors programs in both fields, and amazing study abroad programs through its campuses all over the world–I’d love to learn Italian, Chinese, or Arabic to become tri- or even polylingual!”
This interviewee touches on her interests in a way that shows her qualifications to attend NYU. She references her passion for English, journalism, and foreign languages several times throughout her response, and explains what she has done to explore them both inside and outside school. At the end of her response, she also identifies specific attributes of NYU that appeal to her (honors programs in English and journalism; campuses around the world), which clearly fit with the details she’s provided about her own background.
Additionally, she reveals some of her key personality traits, such as her attention to detail and her resilience, and provides examples that illustrate these attributes. These examples make her response memorable, whereas if she were to just say “I’m a resilient person with good attention to detail,” it would come across as cliché or generic.
“As a kid, I frequently visited family in Los Angeles. During those trips, my aunt would take me to see musicals at the Orpheum Theatre, which sparked my love for drama. Since then, I’ve been in over 30 musicals at my school and through my local theater, although my favorite role still has to be Georg von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” I’m planning to major in musical theater because being in so many productions has made me a talented singer and dancer, and I’m confident in my own skin, both on-stage and off-stage.
I wasn’t always confident, though. Despite my passion for theater, I was incredibly shy as a kid. It took me several years to work up the courage to even audition for a show. I am grateful for how my involvement in theater has helped me become more secure in expressing myself. I also work as an instructor for elementary-aged students at a local dance studio, and I try to bring out that same confidence in them.
Aside from theater, I’m really passionate about reading. I started a book club at my high school that meets weekly, and I also run a book blog, where I analyze and review novels I read. I find that this side project helps me connect more deeply with the characters I play on stage.
I’d love to attend UCLA because the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program will give me the opportunity to grow and develop my skills as an actress. As an avid reader, I’m also extremely interested in UCLA’s Comparative Literature minor. Plus, Los Angeles is the ideal location for an aspiring actor to launch his career.”
This response is centered on one of the interviewee’s particular interests, his associated professional goals, and how the school could help him achieve them. He highlights his major of interest (musical theater), and explains how his involvement in theater has helped him become more confident and better and expressing himself — some of his key personality traits.
This interviewee’s discussion of his academic and extracurricular interests frames him as someone who is prepared to thrive at UCLA. Most importantly, though, he doesn’t leave that to be inferred by his interviewer. Rather, he gives relevant, personal reasons for why he’s interested in attending UCLA related to the university’s programs and location.
“I come from three generations of farmers. My family lives on a corn farm in a small town in Nebraska. I always thought I would be a farmer, just like my dad, until my family took a vacation to Hawaii after my freshman year of high school. We went snorkeling almost every day, and I became fascinated with marine life. When we returned home, I started researching marine biology majors, and since then, I’ve been set on studying marine biology at the University of Maine.
As part of my pursuit of this goal, last year I became scuba certified, and I started bi-weekly diving lessons at the nearest scuba diving school. It’s a 75-minute drive from where I live, so I’m proud of my determination to continue attending the classes, even when they conflict with my busy schedule. I also play on the football and basketball teams, am the student council secretary, and help my dad on the farm on the weekends.
I’d love to attend the University of Maine because it has such a large concentration of professors who specialize in marine sciences, and access to two research centers, the Darling Marine Center and Aquaculture Research Center. And after spending 18 years of my life landlocked in Nebraska, I am excited for the chance to live near the coast!”
This interviewee tells a compelling story about how he unexpectedly became interested in his intended major, marine biology, and how that in turn led him to apply to the University of Maine. He also shares a story that showcases one of his best character qualities, determination, and how it has helped him advance towards his goal of becoming a marine biologist.
The student also shares some of his on-campus and off-campus extracurriculars to showcase that he is well-rounded. He ends by describing why the University of Maine is a great fit for him, and the unusual perspective he could bring to campus.
“I grew up in Atlanta, but my family spends every summer at Tybee Island. I love that Savannah offers a similar small-town feel with plenty of history, art, and culture. It’ll be a refreshing reprieve from the big city, while still providing ample opportunity for an aspiring artist.
I’ve been artistic for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was always painting, sketching, or drawing. When I was young, my dream was to move to Paris after high school to be an artist. So I started taking French in eighth grade, and now, I’m nearly fluent. However, as college neared, my pragmatic side convinced me to get a degree that led to a more secure career path. Graphic design seemed like a great option because it would give me an avenue to still pursue art, while leaving plenty of professional doors open.
SCAD’s graphic design program is particularly appealing to me because of how many events the program hosts for students to learn from graphic designers who have been successful in the world of business. The cutting-edge technology and facilities available to students will also ensure I’m ready to use all the tools I’ll need as a professional. Maybe most importantly, I’m also interested in studying abroad at SCAD Lacoste to practice my French and finally fulfill my dream of creating art in France!”
In this response, the interviewee explains how her background led her to discover both her major, graphic design, and SCAD. The student highlights her qualifications as an artist, while also giving her interviewer a more nuanced understanding of who she is by describing her practical side.
One unique, especially satisfying part of this response is that the student connects a life-long dream of hers (creating art in France) to a specialized study-abroad program offered by SCAD. Thanks to this connection, her answer comes full circle, which makes it feel like a single, cohesive unit.
Topics to Avoid
Although the “tell me about yourself” prompt may seem entirely open-ended, there are specific things the interviewer does want to learn about you as a candidate, while other aspects of your life may be irrelevant or even inappropriate to mention. Your interviewer does not need to learn everything there is to know about you.
For example, don’t tell your interviewer about personal hobbies that aren’t relevant to the school or interview, or talk too much about friends, family, and other aspects of your life that don’t show your potential as a college student. You should also avoid saying anything negative about the school, or indicate that you are not particularly invested or interested in attending it.
Weak Response #1
“I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, but I don’t want to stay here. It’s just a little too small. I’m not entirely sure what environment I want to live in as an adult, though. Mainly, I want to enjoy myself while I figure it out, and some neighborhood friends of mine have told me the weather and school spirit at USC are unparalleled!
I definitely want to study Hotel Management, though. My mom’s whole family works in hospitality, so I’ve seen firsthand how many great perks there are if you’re in the industry. For example, my parents don’t make a lot of money, but we’ve been able to travel a lot thanks to discounted stays. I’m looking forward to further broadening my horizons in college, maybe through a study abroad program or just meeting peers from other places in the world.”
While this interviewee comes across as well-intentioned, there are several red flags. First, he doesn’t seem to have any personal connection to USC, and only chose to apply based on others’ recommendations. Feeling uncertain about your future is completely normal, and even something you can discuss in your college interview. However, you want to provide personal, specific reasons why this school will give you more direction, not give only vague or shallow reasons for applying.
Another, related issue is that USC doesn’t have a hotel management major. While the interviewer may not know every program offered off the top of their head, they are going to write a report for the admissions committee after your conversation. Admissions officers are incredibly well-versed in what their institution offers, so they’ll immediately see that this student isn’t genuinely interested in USC.
Finally, even if USC did offer hotel management, this student’s reasons for wanting to study the field come across as superficial, and not rooted in genuine intellectual curiosity. Wanting to travel isn’t inherently a bad goal, but the student should have connected it to his interest in the history of other parts of the world, a desire to learn another language, or something else with more of an academic focus. He also should have been more specific about how USC will help him broaden his horizons, as studying abroad or meeting peers from different backgrounds are things you could do at any school.
Weak Response #2
“Because I grew up in Seattle, my summers were always full of camping or backpacking trips, and I became a total nut about the outdoors as a result. So, when it came time to apply to college, I knew Dartmouth was the place for me.
Dartmouth is also a good fit for me academically, because of the unique possibility of modifying your major. I love economics, but I also have a humanities lean and enjoy learning about American history, so it’s great I won’t have to pick one or the other. And, even though it’s far from home, both my parents went to Dartmouth and I have an aunt in Vermont, so I don’t think I’ll have any trouble making Hanover my home away from home.”
The biggest issue with this response is that the student is making her interviewer do her work for her. While Dartmouth is indeed known to be an outdoorsy school, she doesn’t mention anything specific that tangibly captures that general reputation. Her response would be much stronger if she mentioned something like the First Year Trips program as a means of building community, or her desire to get involved in a Dartmouth Outing Club sub-club to learn a new skill like canoeing.
Similarly, the modified major is unique to Dartmouth, but the student doesn’t explain how she would take advantage of it. Just stating that she has multiple interests isn’t sufficient, because that will be true of just about every applicant to Dartmouth — she needs to describe the intersection(s) she sees between economics and American history, and how the modified major will help her explore them more productively than, say, just double majoring, which you can do at nearly any school.
Finally, while it’s okay to mention connections you have to the school or surrounding area, you need to illustrate how they’ve shaped your own perspective on the institution. For example, this student could talk about how she was originally apprehensive about attending school in such a small town, but attending reunions with her parents showed her that the strength of the Dartmouth community fends off feelings of isolation. Right now, though, that personal element is missing, and thus saying her parents are Dartmouth alums just comes across as name-droppy and braggy.
5 Tips to Prepare for This Prompt
It’s almost guaranteed that this “Tell me about yourself” question will come up during your interview, often as the very first question. To ensure you aren’t caught off-guard, here are some tips for how you can prepare:
1. Reflect on the Past
Brainstorm at least five important events in your life that have helped shape you into who you are today. Ideally, these events will align with your major and broader goals for the future. Sift through them to decide which story is most relevant to understanding what you have to contribute to a college campus.
It’s especially wise to choose an event that connects to some of your most important character traits. That way, your interviewer will start to get a sense of who you are not only as a student, but as a whole person.
2. Evaluate Your Interests
What are your favorite classes? What clubs or teams are you a part of? Did you start an organization yourself, or do you have a leadership position? What hobbies do you have when you’re not at school? Do you have a part-time job you love?
Your academic and extracurricular interests are given a great deal of weight by college admissions officers. In your interview, you want to be able to easily reference specific examples of how you’ve pursued your passions, as well as how you developed them, so that your interviewer gets to see your eyes light up, so to speak, and gets a clearer sense of what sets you apart from other applicants.
3. Pinpoint Your Major
If you’ve decided on a major, highlight why you’re interested in this major and why the university is ideal for this area of focus. If you’re still undecided, that’s perfectly fine, but you should be able to discuss your broader academic interests and why this college is a good place for you to hone in on one particular area.
For example, maybe you’re interested in medicine, but also love animals, and don’t know if you want to be a doctor or a veterinarian. You might talk about how Washington State University has excellent graduate schools in both fields, with plenty of courses and extracurriculars available to undergrads as well, and thus is the perfect place for you to figure out which path is right for you.
4. Research the University
One of the best ways you can stand out from other students while answering this question is to connect your background to programs, classes, professors, and other unique offerings at the college, and explain how these resources will launch you into your future. These school-specific details will not only make your answer more thorough, but will also demonstrate that you are well-prepared and genuinely interested in attending the college.
Make sure, though, that you aren’t just saying something generic that could apply to any institution. Perhaps you’ve heard that a school has great professors, but that’s true of most colleges. So, you’ll want to instead zoom in on one or two particular professors whose work aligns well with your own interests, so that your interviewer can clearly see what sets this school apart in your mind.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
After thinking about how you’ll answer the question, it’s important to run through your response with family and friends. Although you don’t want to sound too rehearsed, as you can then come across as stiff, you also don’t want to be stumbling over your words. Plus, those close to you may have suggestions for details you might include that you didn’t think of yourself.
How Much Do College Interviews Matter?
College interviews matter, but they won’t make or break your application. In fact, they account for only around 5% of an admissions decision. That said, they are a great way to showcase your personality and character, your ability to engage in conversations and answer questions, and your overall maturity and professionalism. Your college interview is unique in that it allows you to put a face, personality, and voice to your name, so you still want to take it seriously and prepare thoroughly.
You can also use your interview as a way to determine if the university is the right fit for you. After all, you’ll likely be matched with an alum who will be able to answer questions about their experience at the school — their insights could be invaluable if you’re eventually accepted and need to decide between this institution and your other options!
That being said, other factors such as academics and extracurriculars will have a much larger impact on your chances of acceptance. If you’d like to know how your profile stacks up, we recommend using our free chancing engine. This tool will give you personalized odds of acceptance at over 1500 schools in the US, based on how well your profile aligns with that of an average accepted student!