Preparing for a College Interview: Make a Bunch of Lists

November 08, 2013

By the time a high school senior applies for college, he or she is usually already an accomplished (or at least experienced) essay writer, an expert in one or two extra-curricular activities, and capable of handling various real-life responsibilities. But the interview is something that many students have little experience with, and as an admissions consultant for Hong Kong-based Ivy Gate and a former alumni interviewer for Brown University, I definitely have some thoughts on this issue. Even students who run debate clubs or are voted Most Outgoing have difficulty answering interview questions effectively or answering them in a way that does not sound scripted. 

A college interview is different to many other types of interviews – a medical school interview, a job or internships interview, or even a first date, just to name a few. Your number one goal – some would say your only goal – in a college alumni interview is to make the interviewer like you. While a bad interview cannot harm your application too much (a 2011 article from The Choice reveals that “unless a student fails to show up or refuses to speak, the meetings certainly do not make or break a decision”), a good interview can encourage an alum of your target college to give you his or her very own stamp of approval. I have written glowing reports about students who have managed to entertain and engage me, and spent less time on those who have frustrated me by swiveling in their chairs. 

So here are some of my quick thoughts on how to prepare: 

 1. Make a list about the questions. Write down common interview questions that will almost certainly be asked in your interview. Prepare answers to these questions, but don’t just say something generic – write a topic sentence for each response that reveals something important about yourself. Include references to your classes, activities, and social life where necessary, and highlight your role in all of these. 

2. Make some groups within the list. Find some links between the questions on your list so that you can steer the conversation in a direction that you are most comfortable with. If you are an athlete who has participated at the state level, you may want to answer the questions “What is a time that you have experienced failure?” and “What is your biggest triumph?” one after the other. You want to be able to steer the conversation as much as you can – the longer that you are in control of the interview, the fewer questions you will be asked. 

3. Make a list of sound bites. Do you want the interviewer to say that you are determined, detail-oriented, caring, and a risk-taker? If so, you need to make sure these messages are clear sound bites in your responses. Say the things – verbatim – that you want your interviewer to write in your report later on. 

4. Make a list about your qualities. If you do get a ridiculous question such as “Tell me a joke” or “What would you do if you were a pencil,” how will you answer? Interviewers do not care about how sophisticated your pun is or what color pencil you are, they are looking for the qualities and values that you care about. A student once replied to the pencil question, “I would first look for a box of other No. 2 pencils to join up with and help someone do well on her SAT next week.”It’s a simplistic answer and she was definitely thrown off-track by the question, but an interviewer can extrapolate that she is community-minded and helpful – both good traits! 

5. Make another list about the interviewer. Make another list of the things you want to ask your interviewer about that specific school. These can be question to which you already know the answers (they may be things that you have written about in your college supplements when applying) or they can be more specifically about the interviewer’s own experience in college. Depending on the interviewer’s age and/or professional life, you may want to tweak your questions to ask about favorite classes and hangout spots to college traditions and career prospects. 

As a bonus, remember these two fun facts about interviewers themselves: 

  • Many of them are not that much older than you! You shouldn’t be imagining your interviewers sitting there in their underwear, but you can definitely imagine them in college sweatpants and a hoodie, holding a large coffee after pulling an all-nighter. It’s ok to be a little less formal, ask about what students do for fun, and crack a joke once in a while. 

  • Interviewers loved their college experiences and can’t wait to share their thoughts with you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have volunteered to be interviewers. Use this opportunity to get the best possible first-hand information from a credible source. Keep up an email relationship after the interview and make use of this resource. 

 Good luck – and have fun!

Browse Successful Application Files

Vanderbilt ‘20

Accepted to Florida, Vanderbilt, Duke, Emory, UPenn, Miami, Northeastern, UVA, UNC, Georgetown, Rice

Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholar at Vanderbilt and art enthusiast
MIT ‘20

Accepted to MIT, Princeton, Duke, Stanford, UGA, GA Tech, UNC

I'm a current sophomore at MIT who loves all sorts of things: from engineering and biology to music and dance.
Stanford ‘19

Accepted to Stanford, MIT, GA Tech

STEM outreach enthusiast. Poet. Programmer. Advocate for women in STEM.
Duke ‘18

Accepted to UGA

I am a current junior at Duke studying biology, marine science, and markets and management studies

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