You’ve probably heard a great deal about the admissions interview, including various perspectives on its relative importance as part of your college application. It’s a good idea to look into interview options at the colleges on your list, because not only does it provide a good opportunity for the admissions committee to learn more about you as a person, but also gives you a chance to learn more about the school itself. Once you’ve scheduled an alumni or on-campus interview with a college, how do you prepare? While you have no way of knowing exactly what an interviewer will ask, you can—and should—expect and be prepared for certain types of questions.

Starting the interview: what your interviewer wants to know

The interviewer generally will most likely begin with some form of the question, “Tell me about yourself.” While this may seem like a fairly open-ended prompt, and perhaps even a bit daunting, there are certain ways to answer effectively, as well as topics to avoid.

Setting the tone

You should see the “tell me about yourself” prompt as an opportunity to show the interviewer your most important qualities and describe what you can contribute to the school community. Just as with any interview you will have over the course of your career, college and beyond, this prompt is meant to give the interviewer an idea of what qualities you offer that are relevant to the position at hand—in this case as a member of that college’s matriculating class. Because this may well be the interviewer’s first question, it will set the tone for the rest of the interview, so be ready with a strong, but not overly rehearsed, answer. Keep in mind that 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.

Topics to cover

In general, it is a good idea to begin by mentioning the area in which you grew up. Don’t spend too much time discussing the intricacies of your hometown and home life, but mention if you’ve lived there your whole life or moved around a lot, and, if possible, connect it to your interest in the college’s area, size, or campus. Tell the interviewer about your prospective major, if you have one, or what your main area of interest is and what you hope to study. Also describe a few personality traits (roughly three), which will allow you to segue into your academic areas of interest and extracurricular activities and why they are important to you. End your answer with why you want to attend that college. Since you should have researched the school thoroughly before the interview, you will have a good idea of how your personality and academic and extracurricular interests will fit in there, so make an effort to connect what you know about the school with your personal strengths and the topics you’ve covered in your answer. Keep in mind that, if the school offers you admission, the admissions officers want you to choose them as much as you wanted them to choose you, so you should express how interested you are in attending.

Example:

“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 planning on majoring in English or journalism. Journalism seems like a good fit because I’m good at noticing the details and know how to dig deep. I’m proud of my ability to persevere and overcome challenges. This year I was having a hard time in Trig, but I met with the teacher outside of class and committed to studying for it for two hours a day, and ended up with an A in the class. I’m also really passionate about my interests, especially writing and foreign languages. That’s why I’m a columnist for my school newspaper and the president of Spanish club. I also tutor English and Spanish at an after-school program in my town. I’d love to attend NYU because it has such strong English and journalism programs. I’m also interested in foreign languages, and I hear NYU has an amazing study abroad program. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, New York is such an amazing city, especially for an aspiring writer.”

In this response, the interviewee touches on the topics relevant her interests and qualifications for the school. She discusses her background a bit and connects it to why NYU and the candidate are mutually good fits, explaining her interests in English, writing, and foreign languages, what she has to done to explore them both inside and outside school, and how she can continue to pursue them in college. She also makes it clear what attributes of NYU appeal to her. Additionally, she reveals some attributes that make her unique, and avoids offering cliché personality traits. She provides examples that illustrate these attributes, such has her ability to persevere and overcome obstacles in a challenging course, also demonstrating her ability to turn a negative into a positive.

Topics to avoid

Although the “tell me about yourself” prompt may seem vague, there are specific things the interviewer wants to learn about you as a candidate, while other aspects of your life may be irrelevant and even inappropriate to mention. Your interviewer does not need to learn everything there is to know about you. 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 how you might contribute as a student. You should also avoid saying anything negative about the school, or indicate that you are not particularly invested or interested in attending it.

Example:

“I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, but I don’t necessarily want to stay here. It’s just a little too small. Connecticut College is really my safety school, because my parents went here. I’m thinking of majoring in Hotel Management because I’m really friendly and open. Do you guys have that? Outside of school I like to go to the beach and watch a lot of Netflix. I’ve been binging House of Cards lately. It’s so good. I also hang out with my boyfriend, mostly on weekends because my mom doesn’t like it when I go out on weeknights.”

In this response, the applicant spends no time explaining what she might bring to Connecticut College. Instead, she focuses on irrelevant hobbies like watching television and spending time with her boyfriend. While your interviewer wants to know about your interests, he or she doesn’t need to know about what kinds of things you do for fun that don’t demonstrate how you will contribute to the college. The interviewee also expresses a negative attitude towards the school. Even if the college at which you are interviewing is not your first choice, you still need to show that it interests you. Your interviewer doesn’t need—or want—to know if it is your backup school. It is also rude to the interviewer, who has taken the time to meet with you. The candidate also appears uninformed, since she does not know whether or not the college has her chosen major. Do your homework for the interview, making sure you research the school thoroughly beforehand. Additionally, the attributes she offers, while pleasant, are not particularly revealing or demonstrative of what sets her apart from other candidates.

Preparing for the prompt

While you don’t want to appear too rehearsed, it’s a good idea to develop some ideas and jot down some notes about what you want to say about yourself. You may also want to practice a bit to make sure you know how you will answer the question. This is a topic that is very likely to come up in some form, so it’s important to be prepared with your answer. And since it will probably come up early, it is essential to start off on the right foot.

For more information on the in’s and out’s of your college interviews, check out the posts below.

How Much Do Interviews Matter? 

How to Prepare for Your College Interview

How to Make the Most of Your College Interview

4 Interview “Do’s”

What Not to Do At Your College Interview: 4 “Don’t’s”

3 Questions Your Interviewer Doesn’t Want to Hear

4 Great Questions to Ask Your College Interviewer 

What to Wear to Your College Interview

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine