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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.

Action: After you have described the context and specifics of the problem, you should give a clear, concise, and specific summary of the actions you took. Don’t go too deep into the details, but describe your actions sufficiently so that your listener can understand why what you did was impressive.

Result: This is when you describe the specific results of your actions - were they a success? Did you learn something? Who benefited as a result? Although this seems like the most important part of any story about your accomplishments, I find students often skip or heavily abbreviate this section. You need to drive the story home by talking for a couple of sentences about the positive impact your actions had, otherwise why were you even talking about it?

#5: Ask follow-up questions

An interview is, at its core, a conversation. This is actually something of a problem for you because an interview is a highly unusual and artificial conversation. You don’t talk to your interviewer because you want to get to know them, you do it so that they can get to know you and make a judgment about your application. And although both parties are intellectually aware of the nature of this relationship, we still feel an emotional need for the kind of connection we typically get out of a conversation.

In a typical conversation, someone will speak for an average of two minutes before prompting their interlocutor to take their turn. But this isn’t how interviews work - you have to speak far more than the person asking the questions. And studies have shown again and again that people like to be listened to. So how can we create this atmosphere in an artificial setting like an interview?

One way is to ask your own follow-up questions of the interviewer. This is a difficult skill to master and you shouldn’t be doing it with every question the interviewer asks you. However, if you can find opportunities after answering a question to briefly ask for the interviewer’s opinion or perspective, that will make them feel valued in the conversation. Make sure to limit these questions to asking for personal insights from your interviewer, rather than school policy. More on that below.

Avoid at All Costs

#1: Never ask questions you can find on the website

At the end of the interview, your interviewer will often give you a chance to ask them any questions you have. Although this is a good opportunity to learn more about the college, it is an even better opportunity to show the interviewer that your interest in the college is serious. You should take the time before each interview to prepare 3-5 questions that you would like to ask the interviewer and then ask 2-3 of them during your interview, depending on time and how interested the interviewer seems in your questions.

However, these questions absolutely should not be anything you could look up for yourself on the website. First, the kind of questions that are easily answered by looking them up yourself (does the college have a ______ club / course? Can I choose my roommate? What time during the day do classes start?) are questions with uninteresting answers. If your interviewer can answer your question in 10 words or less, choose another question. Second, asking a question like this tells the interviewer that you value your own time more highly than theirs - you are asking them to spend their time to save you the effort it would have taken to look it up. And that’s never the impression you want to give.

#2: Never show up on time

Don’t plan to show up on time - plan to show up early. There are lots of reasons for this. First, it’s just good planning. You might run into problems with your computer, internet, or traffic or directions for in-person interviews, and you want to have some cushion time in case something goes wrong. There’s nothing worse than spending half an hour preparing for an interview only to have it start off on a bad note just because you didn’t realize your operating system was going to be updating right as the interview started.

But even if nothing does go wrong, showing up early (within reason) is never a bad thing. As I referenced above, it shows that you value the interviewer’s time by making plans to be available as soon as they are. For an online interview, I would say logging on anywhere from 5-10 minutes early is ideal, while you should plan to be ready for an in-person interview 10-15 minutes early. If you find yourself ready before then, don’t worry, just spend 5 minutes relaxing and looking over your notes before you turn on that camera.

#3: Never talk for more than 10 minutes at a time

Try to keep any responses you have to no more than 5 minutes. Never hit the 10 minute mark without a response from the interviewer. People don’t like being run over in a conversation, and this still applies to interviews. Generally speaking, if you have more information to present than can be included in this time frame, you probably need trim down your answer. If your interviewer finds your answer interesting or wants more information about some of the details, they will definitely ask a follow-up question - remember, that’s their job!

Talking too much can be hard to avoid because when you’re in a high-stress situation like an interview, time can seem to behave in weird ways. That’s why you should always practice beforehand and time your answers. Look up a list of sample college interview questions and time yourself responding to them. Better yet, record it! Then, identify any questions that are tempting you to monologue and practice them until you can answer concisely. Your interviewer will find you much more engaging if you give them a chance for a word in, edgewise every once in a while.

#4: And, yeah…

Imagine an Olympic sprinter, at the peak of their field, performing for the world stage, the culmination of years of training and discipline displayed on the field... before tripping at the finish line. That’s what it’s like to present a beautiful and well-crafted answer during an interview and then finish it with some variation of “and, yeah…”

Students often feel the need to include something like this because they’re afraid the interviewer won’t know that they’ve finished with an answer. First, let me assure you that even if there are a couple of seconds of awkward silence after you’ve finished an answer, that is far preferable than “and, yeah,” “so um, yeah,” or “that’s it.” Avoid these and phrases like them at all cost.

But if your answer is constructed well, there shouldn’t be any question of when you’ve finished. Your answer should tie up the themes you spoke about during your response and it should be delivered confidently. Use the tone of your voice to indicate you’ve finished speaking: ending on a tone which goes from high to low and emphasizing the final syllable will cue your partner that you’re ready to move on to the next phase of the conversation.


I hope some of these tips help you with your interviews! As schools move towards more holistic applications, both out of necessity due to COVID and out of preference for more well-rounded students, interviews are having a greater influence on an admission committee’s perception of applicants. So, don’t forget to research, practice, and most importantly - relax. You’ll do great!

If you are looking for an experienced trainer to help ace your interview, contact us at today!

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