College interviews: when the bill arrives

I got an interesting question from a senior the other day. The alumni interviewer from one of her potential colleges contacted her and scheduled the interview at a local café (which is totally normal). Her question:

“Should I offer to pay after we meet, or will that look like I’m just trying too hard?”

This is an opportunity to showcase the most important trait you can demonstrate during an interview—that you can have a mature conversation with an adult.

Before I explain how to handle this scenario, here’s an important disclaimer. I think that over-strategizing the college admissions process is almost always a misguided idea that just leads to more stress. What I’m about to describe here is not a college interview-specific strategy. In fact, it’s the same thing I would tell a young working professional meeting a colleague, potential client, or future employer in a similar situation. Students transitioning from high school to college are preparing for life in the real world. This is one of those times when you can get a head start.

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Show up with cash, and be prepared to pay for both of you.

This doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to pay—in fact, you almost certainly won’t have to. But my grandfather used to say that you should never dine out with people unless you’re capable of paying the bill for the table (whether or not that’s what ultimately happens). It’s classy and it prevents you from any awkward bill-related conversations.

2. Let the interviewer order first.

I suggest that you plan on ordering a beverage only, no food. Food just increases your distractions as well as the chances of ending up with parsley in your teeth or ketchup on your nice shirt. And if you just order a lemonade, you’re controlling the cost of your meal nicely.

But it’s polite to defer and let the interviewer order first. And it lets you gauge the interviewer’s order. If he or she orders a steak sandwich and a salad, you might feel uncomfortable just sipping your lemonade. An order that doesn’t match the selection or quantity of your interviewer’s choice isn’t going to hurt your chances of getting into college. My only strategy here is to keep you from feeling awkward.

3. When the bill arrives, just reach for it and say, “I’d be happy to get this.”

Any reasonable interviewer will refuse to let a teenager pay the bill. But let’s stay on theme here—this is a polite thing that mature adults do at the end of a shared meal.

Your interviewer will likely thank you but decline to let you pay, at which point you just say something akin to,

“OK. Well, here’s five dollars for my lemonade.”

And if the interviewer rebuffs you again, just say, “Thanks—I really appreciate that.”

It shouldn’t feel like a scripted dance. This scenario is just something that happens when you dine out, particularly with people you don’t know well. Show up with money, offer to pay (and mean it), and if your offer is refused, be gracious. I’ve met people twice the age of the average college applicant who don’t bother to do these things. If you do them at 17, you’re bound to make a good impression.

And in the spirit of lowering stress, here’s a bit on this topic from my favorite comedian.