How to Ace Your College Interview Part 2: The Process
Learn what to do in every step of the college interview process. From scheduling your interview to sending the follow-up letter, this article has got you covered.
By ALEX LOVELESS
This post is a little more in-depth than my first one, which talks about your mindset and just general tips on how to do well on your interview. For anyone preparing for an upcoming interview and wanting more insight, here’s a more in-depth explanation of the whole process.
Scheduling your interview
In most cases, highly competitive schools will have an alumni interviewer contact you a few weeks after you’ve applied. But some schools require you to schedule your own interview weeks before the application deadline. For example, Harvey Mudd states on their website that they “highly encourage” students to schedule an interview before their application deadline. This can happen during a campus visit or scheduling online here. The point is that you need to check the school’s admissions website to see what their policy is. If they tell you that an alumnus is going to contact you, then you wait for an email after your application is submitted. If they want you to schedule the interview yourself and they “highly encourage” an interview, then you need to find the correct channel through which to schedule it.
When you are scheduling the interview, whether online through a portal or via email with alumni, consider the timing of the interview itself. You want to be accommodating to the interviewer’s schedule, as they usually also have full-time jobs. But if it seems like they’re open, you should avoid early mornings (traffic issues), end of the day (interviewer could be tired), or lunchtime (interviewer could be hungry). To effectively be flexible and judicious in your time slot, I would proactively send the interviewer at least three times in the week that fit both your schedules and meet the above criteria. But make sure to always prioritize the interviewer’s schedule, as they are usually busier than you are. The interviewer will usually choose a public location to meet, like a coffee shop or library, so make sure to research where it is and how to get there.
Preparing for the Interview
Like I mentioned in Part 1, it’s important to properly prepare for your interview through research and practice. In particular, you want to prepare answers for questions that are most likely to be asked in your interview. When I say preparation, I don’t mean memorization of a specific script. This can backfire, causing you to come off as robotic in your answers or get flustered if you don’t remember the exact phrasing you had in your mock interview. Just have the main talking points ready to go for the following questions:
Tell me about yourself. This is where just about every interview will start and represents a softball for you to get warmed up. The answer here isn’t too important, but it can be a great time to show some personality, quirkiness, and unique hobbies. I usually tell my students to talk about their background a little (where they’ve grown up, the school they go to, family, etc), some hobbies they have (the more specific and strange the better), and academic interests (again specific is better here). Don’t give EVERYTHING away about yourself here because you’ll have plenty of time to talk about your achievements and best qualities, but also don’t be afraid to show a little about who you are.
Why do you want to attend our school? This question probably requires the most research, but luckily, you may have already done this research in your “Why Us?” supplemental essay for the school. If so, just review the reasons in your essay as to why you wanted to attend the school. If you wrote the essay properly, the reasons should be well-researched, specific, and connect to your Admissions Angle.
If the school didn’t require a “Why Us?” essay, then you have some work to do. You’ll have to go to the school’s website and find the specific department that you’re applying to. There, you want to try to find any specific courses, professors to research with, student organizations, scholarships, or overall educational philosophies that you can connect with. The best details to use are ones that allow you to talk about some of your extracurricular or academic achievements.
For example, have you already done some convolutional neural network research at a summer program or with a research mentor? Try to find an undergraduate research program and professor that specializes in CNN research and talk about how you wish to work with them and bring your own experience to the table. If you’re unsure whether the detail you researched is sufficiently specific, ask yourself if it is something that makes THAT particular school unique or if it’s something that other schools may have as well. Good food, good weather, an urban setting, etc. are not good reasons, as these things apply to many schools.
What will you contribute to the community? This question is the ideal place to talk about your leadership roles and experiences during high school. You want your answer here to be supported by contributions that you’ve already made to your current community because it demonstrates that you’ve already had success in following through with your contributions.
I like to suggest that my students choose one general personality trait or perspective and then at least one specific student organization that they want to get involved in. For example, a student might say that they want to spread positivity to everyone they interact with at Brown, in their discourse, discussions, collaborations, and relaxation. Then, they might say that they especially want to bring their positive energy to the engineers without borders chapter there, where they can leverage their engineering education to help build crucial infrastructure and machinery for communities in developing countries.
What makes you unique? This question is tough for students because it’s difficult to pinpoint a single attribute that makes you unique. There are plenty of people with your ethnic background, even if you’re mixed race. Plenty of students interested in entrepreneurship or creative writing. But in my opinion, it’s not a single attribute that makes you unique, but usually a certain combination of attributes. There are probably very few applicants that are mixed race AND started their own business AND write creative fiction. Explore the intersection of your interests and you’ll usually find something compelling to talk about.
In addition to preparing your answers to interview questions, you also want to prepare every other aspect of the interview to make you feel prepared and confident:
- Come up with questions that you want to ask your interviewer. For suggestions, refer to Part 1.
- Arrange your transportation to the interview meetup spot ahead of time. If you’re driving yourself, make sure you’ve driven there at least once before the day of the interview.
- Update your resume. Unless your interviewer specifically asks you not to bring one, bring a couple of copies of your resume for you both to look at during the interview. At the very least, you will appear well-prepared.
- Bring a bottle of water or breath mints. These things can help you feel comfortable and confident.
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The Day of the Interview
On the day of, you want to make sure to dress the part. When choosing an outfit, go for something business casual or just a little bit nicer than your everyday clothes. I’d refrain from showing up in a full suit and tie or really formal dress because the interviewer will probably just be wearing whatever they wear at work. But you do want to look good and feel confident, so wear something that you think makes you look professional.
If you have a polished resume, I recommend bringing a couple copies along in a folder. It can be a good tool for the interviewer and even yourself to guide the conversation. Even if the interviewer doesn’t use it at all, you’ll at worst come off as well-prepared. If the interviewer explicitly tells you not to bring a resume at all, which does sometimes happen, then you should listen to the interviewer and leave the resume at home.
For the timing of the interview itself, make sure to double-check your email correspondence to confirm the time, location, and date. Don’t rely on memory. If you have an interview set for 4 PM at a local Starbucks, make sure to leave early enough to account for any unexpected traffic or emergencies. The farther the location, the more time you should leave as a cushion. If you get to the location early, I would refrain from messaging the interviewer that you’ve arrived 45 minutes early. It will put unnecessary pressure on the interviewer to get there early as well. Spend the time in your car reviewing your supplemental essays and your research on the school.
For nerves, think about doing some power poses. No seriously. Your physical posture has a dramatic effect on your mental state. In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy famously gave a TED Talk entitled “Your body language may shape who you are.” In her talk, Cuddy discusses the “power pose”, which can be used to physically boost your confidence before a nerve-wracking task like a job interview. You put your hands on your hips and essentially make a Superman or Wonder Woman pose. Simply by assuming a stance of confidence, you can trick your mind into following your body. It sounds strange, but in her research, Cuddy discovered that by spending a few minutes in the power pose, study subjects were able to boost their own feelings of confidence and perform better in job interviews. A private space like the bathroom is the perfect place to do this right before the interview.
Once the interviewer arrives, greet them with a handshake, look them in the eyes, and introduce yourself. If you prepared enough, the rest should be a piece of cake. Remember to ask at least a few questions at the end of the conversation. This is how you can show demonstrated interests.
The day after an interview, you should send a quick thank you message to your interviewer to let them know that you appreciate their time and that you genuinely want to attend their alma mater. Here is a template:
- Greet the interviewer by name
- Thank them for their time and express some enthusiasm
- Mention something specific about the interview, such as a specific piece of advice the interviewer gave or a particularly interesting topic you discussed
- Encourage them to reach out if they have any questions
- Thank them for their time again
Here’s an example letter:
I wanted to reach out and say thank you for taking the time to talk with me about (university name). I particularly enjoyed hearing about your freshman experiences on South Campus and our discussions on the role of AI in education.
If you have any further questions for me, please do not hesitate to reach out. Thanks again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet me!
Good luck on your interview! Remember to be yourself and you’ll do great.