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How To Prepare for an Amazing College Interview - 10 Effective Tips

Many students are aware of the college application process – essays, extracurricular activities, test score – but less is known about the college interview. Each college slightly differs in how they conduct interviews, and some students may never receive an interview request at all. Indeed, it may be very confusing to figure out how exactly an interview fits in with the entire process. 


If you’re a high school senior who recently received an interview request, or is simply curious to learn more, continue reading to learn more about the importance of the interview and how to excel at it.


What is the college interview?

Like the term implies, a college interview is an opportunity for students to meet with an interviewer (usually past alums) and display their personality or describe their accomplishments in more detail. The interviewer will most likely be located locally to you, so they’ll have knowledge of your area or region. 


In the past, most interviews were conducted in person, but due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, interviews now should often be conducted on the phone or through Zoom. The average interview will last around 30 to 45 minutes in length. 


The most selective schools will usually have an interview process, which includes most of the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford. 


How do I set up an interview?

There is no way to set up an interview on the student’s end after they submitted their application materials. You should be keeping a vigilant eye on your email inbox, since after your application is submitted, you may receive an email from a college alum who will request for your availability. Checking your Spam folder will ensure that you don’t miss any requests that were erroneously labeled as junk. 


Does an invitation for an interview mean I’m getting accepted?

It is a good sign to receive an interview request, but does not necessarily mean that your chances of acceptance have risen significantly. Most colleges in the Ivy League, for example, conduct interviews on the majority of their applicants to evaluate them on a deeper level (Cornell is the only Ivy that does not, which only interviews Architecture, Fine Arts, and Urban and Regional Studies majors). 


However, an interview is a great chance for you to highlight the best aspects of yourself that a written resume cannot. 


How important is the college interview?

Your performance on the interview will have a direct impact on your application. The interview will score you on a pre-established criteria, which your admissions officers will view. While it is likely that your extracurriculars or essays will be more heavily weighed in the college decision process, getting great feedback in your interview can help tip the scales in your favor if the admissions officers are on the fence. 


On the other hand, just like how an interview can elevate your standing in the process, it can just as well eliminate you entirely. Being rude, making crude jokes, and appearing sloppy or unhygienic can remove you from the selection pool. Little mistakes can be forgiven, but showing abhorrent behavior is not.


How do I prepare for the college interview? What should I do?

Keep reading to learn about the 10 effective tips that we recommend, for both in-person or virtual interviews:


1. Prepare your answers for commonly asked questions. 

In every interview, you’ll be asked different questions, but throughout, you’ll likely notice that similar questions are frequently asked. Being able to prepare in advance to answer them will greatly aid in making the interview an easier experience.


Some questions to look out for and how to answer them:


“Why did you apply to [College]?” 

This is an easy one – you should already have an answer, more or less, from answering the supplemental questions in the application. However, make sure that answer is well-polished, such as listing specific cultural or academic aspects of the school that pertains to your interests. Simply saying that “[College] has a high ranking” will not cut it.


“What are you looking forward to doing in [College]? What do you hope to study here?”

These questions are aimed for the interviewer to understand your college dreams and what you hope to achieve. Your answer should be a natural progression based on your interests and passions in high school, such as your intended major and activities you aspire to pursue. As always, stating details specific to the school that you’re interviewing for will make you appear more favorable.


“Tell me about a challenge that you had to overcome.”

The interviewer is looking for a specific example from your high school experience (middle school and earlier is too long ago, since you must have developed significantly since then). The example should be powerful and answer the following questions: Why was the problem important? How did you use creativity or resourcefulness to resolve it? What was the lasting impact of the challenge? 


“What are your biggest strengths? What are your weaknesses?”

Listing your strengths should be easy enough, since you can mention a couple that would be relevant to your area of interest. For example, if you’re applying for a journalism major, you can state that you’re “inquisitive” and “curious.” Weaknesses can be trickier, since you don’t want to give away too much information to make you seem like a bad candidate. If you don’t have a clever response, try to think of a skill that would not be heavily relevant to your area of interest. Referring to the past example, an aspiring journalist might not need the best math skills, for example. 


“What is a book that you’ve read recently?”

Colleges are looking for intellectually active students, who are often well-read. You want to pick a book that isn’t cliche, such as those that are commonly read in high school curriculums like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye.” You should also talk about your impression of the book, since the interviewer would want to hear your thoughts on it and how well you can discuss literature. 


“Who is your role model?”

Everyone’s role model is different, so it’s difficult to recommend an answer here. Some students may talk about an admired expert in their field who has or had lasting impact in their career. Others may opt for a more personal figure to talk about, like a close family member or friend. Whoever you talk about, it should be deeply specific to your life or your goals. 


“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

No interviewer is expecting a high school student to have it all figured out, so you shouldn’t feel nervous about answering this question. However, you should more or less have a plan in mind after graduation and describe your ideal career trajectory. While you are free to change this plan any time, you should not appear unsure and remain confident in telling your answer.


“Talk about an experience that you’ve exhibited leadership.”

A stellar student in many colleges’ profiles is one that exhibits leadership, and you should have an experience in mind that can relate to this topic. A good answer will not simply rely on a position that you’ve been appointed or elected for, but will go into depth about what influence you’ve had and how you contributed to the betterment of your team. 


“What is your proudest accomplishment?”

Similar to the leadership question, your proudest accomplishment should have a clear impact on you or on a community. It helps if the proudest accomplishment is related to your area of interest, such as a project that successfully addressed a social issue. However, if this accomplishment is deeply personal to you and can leave the interviewer with a greater understanding of who you are, that is a perfectly acceptable answer as well. 


2. Be well dressed and set up the proper environment.

Preparing the proper outfit for the occasion serves as the foundation for a great first impression. You may not need to pull out a three-piece tuxedo, but you should dress business casual or business formal. If you need ideas on what to wear, you may consider wearing:

Men’s

Women’s

  • Suit and tie

  • Button-down

  • Sweater

  • Dress pants

  • Chinos or khakis

  • Dress Shoes or loafers

  • Blazer

  • Blouse or knit top

  • Simple dress

  • Dress pants

  • Modest skirt

  • Trousers

  • Heels or flats

If the interview is on Zoom, you may only be visible from the shoulder up, but wearing a full outfit can put you in the interview mood and help you feel more confident. Plus, you may want to avoid any accidents, such as when you need to get up and the interviewer sees you in your pajama pants. 


Make sure to avoid the following:

  • Graphic t-shirts

  • Jeans

  • Hoodie

  • Athletic wear

  • Sneakers

  • Flashy jewelry


3. Start with a strong introduction.

One commonly-asked question that was not included in Tip #1 is “Tell me about yourself.” This is particularly important, because this is often the first question that interviewers will ask. However, despite how simple it may appear, this question often takes students off guard if they’re unprepared.


A mistake that students will frequently make is to take too long in answering the question. Because of how broad the question is, some will take it as an invitation to tell their life story, from birth to present. Don’t do this! It’ll only bore the interviewer, which will only put you in a bad starting point.


Instead, you need to focus on giving away the most important and pertinent information about yourself to give the interviewer a good jumping point to ask more interesting questions. To make sure you’re not rambling, give yourself 30 seconds to a minute of speaking before you cut yourself off. 


A format that I personally used is to divide my answer into the Past, Present, and Future to effectively summarize my high school career and beyond. Let me give you an example of how that might look like:


“Hello, my name is Jane Smith. I’m deeply passionate about computer science, so I’ve been taking coding classes since ninth grade and won several awards in national competitions, such as becoming a Gold medalist in the USA Coding Olympiad. (Past) I’m currently serving as the president of my high school’s Computer Science For Social Good club by helping students become better programmers and develop their skills for community initiatives. (Present) I hope to continue my passions at MIT, where I’ll join the Computer Science Society and pursue real-world projects in a team-based environment. (Future) I hope that gives you a bit of info about me!”


An introduction like that gives your interviewer a lot of information to work with and ask more questions, without being too overwhelming. 


4. Smile, and be friendly.

It’s only natural to feel nervous in an interview, and naturally, your interviewer will know this as well. However, you should take a moment to breathe, calm your nerves, and flash a bright smile to signal that you’re open to discussion and happy to meet with the interviewer. The feeling of comfort and reliability can go a long way to a lasting great impression of you, which can translate to a more positive score on your interview evaluations. 


In addition to making your interviewer feel more at ease when meeting you, it can also help you feel more confident. Studies show that people who smile often tend to feel more confident and happy about themselves, so smiling can be a great psychological boost to your performance in an interview. 


Don’t forget to be friendly – while you are in an interview setting, think of the situation as a place of discussion rather than interrogation. The interviewer wants to learn about you, not to grill you or make you feel uncomfortable. If you feel anxious, try to trick your brain into thinking that you’re meeting an old friend who you’ve known for a long time – this will help you respond better and regard the interviewer in a more friendly manner. 


5. Don’t brag, but don’t be humble either.

Some students feel the need to describe their extracurricular activities and accomplishments overly positively, but that’s a big mistake. More often than not, interviewers can sense when a candidate is exaggerating, and they’ll label that candidate as disingenuous or fake. Therefore, refrain from bragging about your past activities and showing arrogance. Accomplishments don’t need to be embellished to be impressive. 


Others may find themselves in the opposite position by playing down their accomplishments. Often, this occurs because students perceive that their accomplishments aren’t “good enough.” The interviewer will view this as lack of confidence, or, worse, a sign that they are not academically rigorous or passionate enough to become a student of the college.


The best plan of action is to remain objective in describing your past works. You can do this by answering the following core questions: What was the purpose of your activity? How did you contribute? What was the impact of you or your team’s efforts? How did this contribute to your college passions? As long as you focus on the facts of the accomplishments, you can move away from personal bias. 


6. Maintain eye contact.

Consistent eye contact will engage your interviewer and exude confidence, but looking down or shifting your eyes will hurt your performance. This is a hard skill to master for many, as eye contact is perceived as scary or confrontational for many people.


While you may be wondering how important eye contact is if your interview is held on Zoom, “eye contact” through the camera is still powerful enough to hold someone's attention through a conversation. Think of news anchors or YouTube stars who employ this technique by maintaining eye contact with the camera when they’re speaking – they’re actually holding eye contact with you, the viewer!


You can practice eye contact by having practice interview sessions with the people around you, or even through a video aimed to help you improve your eye contact. You can also tape “eyes” next to your laptop camera to keep your gaze locked into that area, instead of looking down. Therefore, when you’re speaking, you can appear as though you’re talking directly to the interviewer. 


7. Show off your personality and describe your hobbies. 

The interview should not be a time for you to boringly describe your resume to the interviewer. Likely, the interviewer already has an idea of what your activities are, since they may have been provided a copy of your resume. Therefore, reciting your past works won’t help you stand out. 


Instead, to leave a strong impression on the interviewer, you should emphasize your “human” aspects. While that sounds weird – after all, aren’t you already human? – it’s all too easy to treat applications like another data point rather than the works of a living being. By the end of the interview, your interviewer should know something substantial about your life, like what you love to do, how you spend time with your family, or moments that impacted you as an individual. Ultimately, these impressions can help your interviewer determine what roommate you will be in college, and help them place you into the incoming college class. 


Throughout it all, you should let your personality shine through. Put emotion into your voice. Crack a funny joke here and there. Give a light laugh if the interviewer says something funny in return. You’re not a robot, so don’t act like one! 


8. Expect the unexpected. 

There is no one way to conduct an interview. While these tips can help you prepare, they don’t address everything. There is always the chance for an absolutely wild question to knock you off your feet, or for you interviewer to change the entire format of the conversation. 


Whatever happens, don’t panic. You’re allowed to pause and ask “Can I take a moment to think about it?” Rushing into a situation will make you miss critical aspects of the question or situation at hand and heighten your nervousness. 


Don’t forget the foundation you’ve set your interview upon – the professional outfit, the strong introduction, and the confident smile will serve you well even if you don’t feel as confident on the inside. 


9. Leave time at the end to ask your interview questions. 

Once an interviewer has asked all the questions they had in mind, they’ll usually turn it back to you and say, “Do you have any questions for me?” If you don’t ask any questions, you’ll be making a big mistake!


Questions are the perfect opportunity to showcase your curiosity for the college, and if your interviewer is an alum, they can be the perfect person to ask about the college’s culture, academics, and communities. In contrast, if you don’t have any questions, you may appear uninterested in the college. 


Another thing you can do is, prior to the interview, look up who your interviewer is. You will most likely have access to their name if they are the one who emailed you, which will help you find their online profiles like on LinkedIn or portfolio websites. Interviewers will regard students who look into their careers fondly, since they’ve taken the initiative to know more about who they’re interviewing with. A great question to ask is, “How did [College] fit into your career in [industry / company]?”


Other great questions to ask might include:

  • What are some things you’ve known before going to [College]?

  • What advice do you have for incoming college students?

  • Would you change anything about your college experience?

  • What are some of the most interesting classes that you’ve taken at [College]?


Really, any question that is not too broad (“Is [College] good?”) and gets your interviewer thinking is a good one!


10. Send a thank you email or letter after the interview. 

An interview is not done at the moment the meeting concludes. If you want the interviewer to have the highest opinion of you, you need to leave them a well-written thank you note to show you’re grateful for their time spent with you. 


The thank you email does not need to be long, but it should at the very least contain sincere gratitude and something specific to the interview. For example, if you’ve enjoyed the conversation you and the interviewer had on a shared hobby, then mention how you had a great time talking about that topic. Little details like that show your engagement in the interview, and leave a lasting impression.


When you send that email can be up to you, but I would recommend not waiting more than a day after the interview. Sending a thank you email immediately after the interview might also appear disingenuous. Writing the thank you note to send later that day or the morning after may be best for most cases. 


Final Thoughts

While the interview isn’t the most crucial aspect of your process (after all, you should make sure your application is solid first), it can be a great addition to helping your application stand out. 



One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research in STEM or other subjects, which can become a topic to talk about in your college application, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Lydia is currently a junior at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Economics. In high school, she was the captain of her high school’s Academic Decathlon team and attended the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. She aims to become a life sciences consultant after graduation. 


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