5 Tips and 4 Things You Should Never Do During a College Interview

It’s application season! Many of you are working away on your essays, application portals, and wrangling test scores. But it’s not too early to start thinking about the next step! Although not the case for all schools, some, especially more selective, universities want to have another way of filtering the many applicants they receive each year. Interviews are typically conducted by alumni volunteers, although sometimes admissions officers will handle this, themselves. This year will likely see the vast majority of these interviews moved to online platforms like Zoom and Skype.

But what should you do to prepare for these interviews?


#1: Dress well and set up your background

For a lot of students, this may be your first interview - you should know how to dress for the occasion. Although it may not tell the interviewer anything about you as a candidate, dressing appropriately shows that you respect them and the process. For a college admissions interview, the baseline should be business casual, but you should err on the side of business formal. For men, that means a suit and tie. Women have a wider range of options including pantsuits, suit and tie, or skirt and blouse. Generally speaking, you want to match or exceed the level of formality that your interviewer is wearing. If you feel underdressed, you’ve messed up.

In these days of remote instruction, telecommuting, and the like, we’ve all become aware of the importance of setting up your background. Although that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from making the mistake. Go ahead and look up some compilations online, laugh, and then come back to this article. I’ll wait.

Before your interview, turn on your computer’s camera and make sure there isn’t anything embarrassing behind you. You don’t need to be set up in front of a bookshelf full of classic literature (although that couldn’t hurt!) but you do need to make sure that the space behind you is clean and orderly. Finally, stay away from the virtual backgrounds Zoom offers - they often make your outline clip in and out of focus and generally look unprofessional. It’s better be seen in a clean, if modest room than to be green-screened in front of the Library of Congress’s reading room.

#2: Do your research

There’s really no trick to this one. I only include it because it’s so important: do your research. Come to your interview having looked over the school’s website and the pages for your program(s) in particular. Look up professors at the school who teach classes you are interested in and familiarize yourself with their research specialties by going to their contact pages. Even take the time to look over the layout of the school on Google Maps. Do everything you can to go into the interview knowing all about the school, the programs, the classes, the clubs, the town, and community events. Then mention these specifics in your responses. This will help you to answer questions and even chat with your interviewer about the campus atmosphere!

#3: Think of 3~4 themes for your application and work them into multiple answers

All of us have a wide range of interests, abilities, and personality traits. However, when presenting yourself for an interview, focusing on a couple relevant aspects of yourself and your application will do wonders to help your interviewer remember you. When preparing for an interview, sit down and draft a number of themes for your application that are relevant to the school or program you are applying for. If you are applying for an Engineering program, be sure to mention your CS Club experience. If you’re applying for Foreign Policy, talk about the international background of your family and friends. For aspiring Psychology majors, emphasize how you have been working on building your communication and crisis management skills.

Once you have your list, make sure that these items are included in your opening statement and that you reference them at least once again in the question-answer section. By mentioning them early on, you will prime the interviewer to remember your supporting examples and stories later in your interview. Each interviewer conducts so many interviews that being memorable is half the battle - help them remember you by presenting the themes of your application in an organized way!

#4: STAR

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the STAR structure, it stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. It’s a great little mnemonic for remembering how to organize your answers. This system is good when you are talking about a specific achievement that you made in the past. Let’s break it down:

Situation: This is the setting of your story. You should give a (very brief) overview of when and where you were for this story.

Task: This is where you set up the problem. What needed to be solved and why were you the one who had to solve it? What difficulties did this particular problem present? You should build up the stakes by explaining why the problem was important or particularly difficult.