It’s college admissions season, so I thought I’d share a few pieces of advice about what to do–and not do–if you find yourself in an interview. I’m writing this with high school seniors in mind since that’s where I have experience, but all of these things should be applicable in any interview that isn’t focused purely on technical skills or knowledge.
1) Be confident! The main reason I come back to do interviews year after year is that it means I get to hear the fascinating stories that led students into the chair in front of me. It might be hard to believe this through the nerves, but I actually want to know more about you and what makes you tick. This is also going to be true for the vast majority of people who conduct interviews: we do it because it’s fun, and we do it because we get to learn things. In my own case, I’ve been able to get an inside perspective on how a political ground-game is organized in a local office, hear how an aspiring film critic judged likely Oscar nominees, and learn what it’s like for a young woman to play varsity football, to name just a few. Even though not all of those things map onto my own interests, there’s always a thrill in spending a few minutes living in another world through the candidate’s account of their own experiences. So it really doesn’t matter what it is you enjoy, even if you think it’s silly: when you walk into the interview, own whatever you love most or are most proud of and let your natural enthusiasm for it shine.
2) Be yourself! This follows naturally from the first point. I haven’t had any applicants try to deceive me outright (at least not that I know of!), but there have been a few who’ve told me what they think I want to hear instead of what they actually think or believe. Any time I suspect this is going on, I quickly ask questions that probe their depth of knowledge in the area to find out if they’re as committed to an ideal, a form of community service, or a school activity as they made themselves out to be. Usually it’s clear pretty quickly if they aren’t. The easiest way to avoid this is to be yourself! Worst case scenario that will mean there are no discrepancies between how you say you spend your time on your resume and what you discuss with your interviewer. Best case scenario your passion for what interests you will come through and you make a good impression. Just remember the opposite is also true: if you get caught trying to mislead or misrepresent yourself (and I promise you won’t really know if you’ve been caught), your interviewer is unlikely to write a positive report.
3) Be smart! The point of an admissions interview isn’t just for the school to figure out if you’re right for them, it’s also a chance to find out if they’re right for you. Accept that this is the dynamic in play and use it to your advantage. The general topics the interviewer raises will come from a set of questions that he or she is obligated to ask. Pay attention to those questions and how much time is given to each! They can tell you a lot about the institution and what it values. If the things they’re concerned with match what you think your college needs to deliver for you to achieve your goals, then you’ve likely found a place you could thrive. On the other hand, if it seems like your needs and the school’s interests aren’t a match, you’ve also learned something extremely valuable–that the institution probably isn’t for you.
4) Ask questions! Your interviewer is usually going to be a wealth of information about a school, and you should definitely use them as a resource. But also use your questions to promote yourself and indicate what matters to you. Are you interested in law school? Ask about LSAT prep classes or pre-law courses of study. Do you want to build your own robots? Ask about engineering clubs or competitive teams. It doesn’t matter if your interviewer doesn’t know the answer, or even if you already know the answer yourself. Use your questions to reiterate the things that make you unique or shed new light on interests that you weren’t able to bring up earlier. And if you’re having doubts that the school is right for you, definitely ask as many things as you can to figure that out for sure. Most of all–and this is the big takeaway of this section–don’t view an opening to ask questions as a polite offer from your interviewer. Instead, treat it as an obligatory “phase two” where you get to control the conversation and demonstrate how you think and what you care about. If you do it even moderately well, your interviewer will definitely notice!
5) Know your audience! Before you go in for any interview, research the person you’ll be meeting with in addition to the institution they represent. Having a little bit of knowledge will help you develop good questions (see above) and–even more importantly–decrease the odds that you put your foot in your mouth. If you’re meeting somebody at their office in a humanities department at a local college, for instance, it’s a bad idea to say you’re applying to the business school because you know the institution in question is a serious place and business is more serious than literature. The inverse is also true. Telling a CFO you want to organize political groups at the grass-roots level because you hate capitalism or corporations is unlikely to get you very far. Of course, none of this means you should avoid expressing your opinions (again, see above). Instead, you should simply take care to frame your statements in a way that won’t insult the person who’s been tasked with evaluating you. Doing research ahead of time will let you do that with greater ease on the fly.
In the end, there’s no real secret to surviving a college admissions interview. Most people are going to do just fine even without extensive preparation. That said, there’s some advantage to be drawn from recognizing the interview’s unique rules of engagement and using them to your advantage. Doing this will increase your likelihood of having a good experience regardless of the outcome, and may just impress your interviewer enough to tip the scales in your favor.