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Winning Strategies for College Interviews

There are two types of interviews: Evaluative and Informational.

  • The evaluative interview: intended to help the institution assess the student’s candidacy. The interviewer asks questions, takes notes, and typically fills out a report afterward.

  • The informational interview: intended to give the student more information about the school. This can be one-on-one or in group format.

If the interview is optional, should I do it?

In most cases, the interview is not make or break, though different colleges value it differently. Interview-required and interview-recommended schools will take it into greater consideration compared to interview-optional schools.

That said, if you have the option to interview, do it, and take it seriously. It is a chance to show off your unique personality traits in a less formal setting and build a relationship with the admission gatekeepers.

What are admissions interviewers looking for in an evaluative interview?

1. Evidence of genuine interest in the college

2. Demonstration of the school’s values and spirit (such as leadership, collaboration, interdisciplinary mindset, etc.)

3. Insights into your academic, intellectual, and personal interests, including short- and long-term academic goals, hobbies, extracurricular activities, volunteer experiences.

4. Insights into your personal characters and qualities as supported by specific anecdotes

5. Your ability to “think on your feet”

6. Any background stories unspecified in your written application that help paint a better picture of who you are as a student and as a person

Check out our tips and action items below for guidance on how to communicate this information!

Interview tips for evaluative interviews

1. Do your research

It is crucial that you do careful research into the school. Being genuine matters. Instead of copy pasting from Google, search for your own answers. You can do so by studying the college’s website carefully, speaking to a current student or graduate of the school, reading informational posts on social media, etc.

When preparing, keep in mind some big-picture questions you should prepare answers to in advance: What academic and non-academic opportunities at the school most interest you? How do you plan to make the most out of the resources offered? How does the school’s mission, vision, and values align with yours? How will you be able to add value to their community?

Some more specific questions include: What are some classes in your intended major that interest you? What are other opportunities outside of classes, including research opportunities, study abroad exchanges, internships, etc., that you want to pursue? How about extra-curricular activities? On-campus communities?

Action items:

1. Find out about the school’s history, values, vision, and mission by reading the “About” section on their website carefully. Most colleges and universities have a specific page outlining this information, such as this example from Northwestern. Highlight points that interest, surprise, or excite you.

2. Summarize your findings into a statement like: School’s top three values are: ______. For example, by studying this page , I can identify that: The University of Pennsylvania values inclusiveness, innovation, and social-minded action.

3. Read the website section dedicated to life on campus, often aptly titled “Student Life” or “Life at ____.” Take notes of a few co-curricular activities and residential experiences that you like and why you like them. Try this format: I like ________ (activity) because it aligns with my interest in _______. Or I like _______ (space on campus) and can easily imagine myself _______ (activity) here.

4. Organize your research findings in a spreadsheet or document. Bullet points are encouraged.

2. Practice, practice, practice

Make time to practice in advance! You can practice with a friend, a family member, or even with yourself.

Action items:

1. Make a list of potential interview questions and prepare your answers to those questions. Take a look at this article for common interview questions and how to answer them.

2. Every interview will involve a version of “Tell me about yourself.” Prepare 3 versions of your answer to this question: one that is 30 seconds, one that is 1 minute, and one that is 3 minutes. The 30-second version should tell you what you think are most important for people to know about you, while the 3-minute version will go in much greater depth about yourself. Now pick out 5 things from these introductions that you absolutely want to mention and make a new introduction from those 5 things.

3. Write down 3 things you absolutely want to say at some point in the interview. This preparation is especially useful, as interviewers often conclude the interview with “Is there anything else we didn’t discuss that you would like to share?”

4. Record yourself with your phone camera or a webcam. After a practice run, view your recording. Take notes of what went well and how you can improve. Take it slow. Pay attention to body language.

3. Have a conversation

The benefit of doing an admissions interview is that you get to interact with a member of the school, be it an admissions officer or a graduate, in a less formal setting. Instead of robotically memorizing long answers or reading off your screen, you should make this interview as much of a conversation as possible. This will allow you to build a personal connection with the interviewer and often reflect positively on your candidacy.

Pro tip: If the interviewer asks a question that you don’t understand, it is good to ask them to repeat or clarify the question. If you don’t have an answer off the top of your head, you can and should feel free to ask for some time to think and organize your answer instead of rushing into a ramble. Interviewers expect this as part of a conversation.

4. Give detailed answers and specific examples

When you provide specific answers, you allow your interview to understand you better, which is helpful when they write their evaluative report. For example, when addressing what you like about the school, avoid generic statements like “I like that the school offer many clubs for a wide variety of interests.” Instead, tell them what kind of clubs you are interested in. “I look forward to becoming part of the Women in STEM club and promoting gender equity in research on campus” would be a much better answer, as it illustrates not only your interest in a specific opportunity but also your motivation behind that interest.

Similarly, some interviewers ask behavioral questions or questions about experiences, which often have telltale openings, such as:

1. Tell me about a time when…

2. What do you do when…

3. Give me an example of…

In these cases, you should also provide concrete examples as well as a brief explanation of how those experiences helped you cultivate some of your best qualities. The STAR interview method provides an excellent structure for these questions.

Action items:

Write 3-5 statements like:

I like __________ (school feature) because _________ is personally meaningful to me.

I’m most excited about ___________ (school feature) as it will allow me to __________.

Write 3-5 anecdotal statements like:

My life would have been completely different if _________ hadn’t happened.

I impressed/ surprised myself when __________.

When _________ happened, it was really challenging for me. But I overcame it by _______.

Reframe your 3-5 anecdotal statements above following the STAR interview method.

5. Send thank-you notes

The general advice is to always maintain a respectful and timely communication with your interviewer both before and after your interview. This includes responding to their emails within 48 hours, keeping them apprised of any changes or unexpected circumstances, and addressing them by how they prefer. Within 48 hours after the interviewer, make sure to send them a short email to thank them for their time.

Pro tip: Keep your thank-you email short and sweet. You should also mention a highlight of the conversation and reiterate how you would be a great fit for the college.

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