7 Tips for Acing Your College Interviews

Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

The college interview is a time-honored tradition, and yet most people are uncertain as to its exact purpose and how to approach it. Caricatured in countless movies and television shows, it often gets a bad rap, reinforced by older friends and relatives quick to share stories of their own awkward encounters. An overly intense interviewer peppers the applicant with impossible questions. An enthusiastic interviewee puts their foot in their mouth and immediately sinks their application. In reality, the college interview is rarely that rough, and, while certainly not irrelevant, it is not nearly as important as grades, activities, test scores, and essays. However, in a world of increasing competition and inflated credentials, the interview can be an important factor. It may not alone determine your chances for admission, but it remains an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Some colleges require an interview and have a very formal process built into their application process; others do not require it but do encourage applicants to interview with an admissions representative or alumnus, on-campus or in a student’s hometown. Either way, it is important to take the process seriously. It is a chance to showcase the less tangible aspects of your application, interests, and character, have a conversation with someone knowledgeable about the school, and build a relationship with an admissions officer or alum. Here are seven tips to make sure you are college-interview ready.

1.  Practice

Everyone gets jittery and nervous during interviews—and rightly so. They’re scary! Most of us are not used to being on the hot seat in a one-on-one setting, but fortunately interviewing is a skill that can be learned and honed with practice. I cannot stress this enough: before you embark on the real thing, find a trusted adult to administer a mock interview. It’s best if this adult is a college counselor, since they’re more likely to know what types of questions will be asked during an interview. But if that’s not possible, ask an adult and have him or her look online for typical questions to ask. Treat the mock interview as seriously as you would a real one, and, if feasible, do it again with someone different. Then explicitly ask each mock interviewer for honest feedback. Better to hear it from them if you say “um” too much, ramble, or appear too stiff. The more you practice, the less awkward your interviews will be, and the better you will perform.

2.  Review commonly-asked interview questions

Most college interviewers will ask the same basic questions of every student. Their goal is not to trip up students, but rather to get a better understanding of the student as a whole. Think through and come prepared to answer these common interview questions:

  • Why do you want to attend this college/university?
  • What do you want to study in college?
  • What do you enjoy doing outside of class?
  • Tell me about a time when you faced an obstacle and how you overcame it.
  • What are three things you would like me to know that weren’t on your college application?

While you definitely don’t want to come across as overly scripted, having a few mental notes in your head about the kinds of things you want to highlight when answering the questions will help calm your nerves and prepare you to give the best answers possible. It’s always better to come off as an overly prepared applicant than as someone who has never considered the above questions at all.

 3.  Dress for success

As you might imagine, first impressions are crucial. Research shows that it takes only a tenth of a second for people to start making judgements about you! One of the easiest ways to make a good first impression is by dressing the part. The right outfit can help boost confidence as well as demonstrate to interviewers your maturity and seriousness in attending their college. This takes a bit of finesse: on the one hand, you don’t want to overdress to the point that you look like you’re wearing your parents’ clothes; on the other, you shouldn’t be too casual to the point of disrespect. “Business casual” is best for interviews—something that is comfortable but which also makes you look put together. At the same time, if you lean toward the more funky, don’t feel pressure to completely suppress your own style. Just find a middle-ground. Purple hair is fine. Ripped jeans, not so much.

4.  Be yourself

Like so much of the college admissions process, the college interview should be an opportunity for you to learn about yourself and embrace your unique qualities—quirks and all. It’s important that you be yourself. As I’ve discussed elsewhere (see: 5 Ways to Optimize Your College Process), the key to having a great college experience is finding a school that fits you. Again, balance is needed. In an interview, you’ll certainly want to highlight your strengths and minimize attention to your weaknesses. But if you’re not being yourself, you’re essentially trying to sell a false product. And not only is this often obvious to the interviewer, but it can also lead you to a place that is not a good match for you. Remember: in a lot of ways, you’re interviewing the school as much as they’re interviewing you. It’s all about the match! While you might be tempted to stretch the truth, that will not serve you well. Answer questions honestly. Put your best foot forward, but also be sure to remain true to who you are.

5.  Come prepared with questions

In addition to asking you questions, your interviewer is there to answer the questions you might have about the college. This is an opportunity to not only learn about the school, but impress him or her with how serious you’re taking this process and how interested you are in that school. Again, it’s about preparation and authenticity. Come prepared with a few questions about which you’re genuinely curious. Be ready to be asked “Do you have any questions?” (The only wrong answer here is “no.”) Generally, you’ll want to ask questions that cannot simply be answered on the school’s website. Ask about things specific to your interests, or things that might spark an extended conversation. This is an opportunity to further distinguish yourself and develop the bond between you and the interviewer.

6.  Show your enthusiasm

This is an obvious one, but still worth saying. Make sure you show the interviewer how interested you are in the school! And try to show that enthusiasm in highly specific rather than generic ways. Referencing a particular program or unique qualities at that school is much better than emphasizing things that all schools have. Is there an unusual major or curriculum that excites you? Or something special about the school’s location or environment? Maybe you’ve even found a class that you think sounds amazing. Do some homework. The more you can make a detailed case for why that school is the perfect match for you, the better. From the college’s perspective, one of the primary purposes of the interview—especially where it is not mandatory—is to see which applicants “demonstrate interest.” (See our blog post for more information demonstrating interest.)

7.  Say thank you!

Always, always, always follow up with a thank you. The more personal and specific the better. If possible, send a physical card to your interviewer. If not, email is fine. Keep it brief, but treat this as an opportunity to again show your maturity, respectfulness, and seriousness, and also to reiterate the things you most want him or her to remember about your time together. Did you have a particularly memorable discussion about a topic? Mention it. Did something he or she say stick with you after you left? Tell them that. And again show your enthusiasm!

Follow these tips, and you should be on your way to a successful college interview. Try to remain calm and collected. Keep your jitters at bay by doing some deep breathing or other relaxation exercises right before. And plan out the day in advance. Leave early enough so you’re not rushed and can take a bit of time to get acclimated to the interview location. College interviews are always stressful—especially if you’re really gunning for that school. Do what you can before and during to mitigate that stress and put yourself in a position to shine.