How to handle pre-interview panic

It happens to even the most successful, most confident applicants. You schedule a college interview. You mentally prepare and choose a good outfit. And then moments before the interview, the stress kicks in and your mind starts racing with the worst kind of negative self-talk.

I’m going to blow this.

He’ll ask me something I can’t answer.

She knows about that C in geometry freshman year.

So many kids are more accomplished than I am.

I have no business even applying here.

I’m a fraud and she knows it.

I just want to run away.

Sound too dramatic? Just wait. It will happen to many seniors reading this, even the valedictorian with perfect test scores and too many awards to count.

I’m not bringing this up to stress you out. I mention it now because it’s terrible to be surprised by these thoughts two minutes before game time. And by addressing it preemptively, I can give you a few ways to deal with it.

First, you should know that these thoughts don’t pop up because they’re real. They appear because your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for avoiding danger and staying alive, is firing. Early humans didn’t need to take a class to know that they should run away from that dangerous predator, to do what they had to do to get food and water, or to reproduce. That primal part of their brain just told them to do these things, no questions asked.

We’ve evolved, but the amygdala is still there. Intellectually, you know that a college interview is not akin to being stalked by a predator. But the most primal part of your brain can’t make the distinction. So all those thoughts you’re having are its way of telling you that you’re in danger, that you can’t survive this, and that you need to protect yourself by getting the heck outta there. You’ve probably felt it before when walking out to the pitcher’s mound, asking someone on a date, or sitting down to take the ACT. It’s trying to protect you even when you don’t need protection.

If you’d already done a dozen college interviews, this wouldn’t be a problem. The same could be said for the all-state pitcher who’s already got a contract lined up, or the student who’s never been turned down for a dance, or the test-taker who’s never seen a result below the 99th percentile. Do something well enough for long enough and your brain will find something else to irrationally worry about. But most of you won’t have that luxury with college interviews.

So, what to do about it?

First, it’s important to understand that it’s nearly impossible to catapult yourself to admission or to sentence yourself to a denial based on the interview alone. This is the least important part of the college admissions process. Your three years of hard work, your application, the essays, the letters of rec—all of them say a lot more about you, and carry more weight, than a short conversation with someone you’ve just met does. Of course, don’t blow it off or act like the interview doesn’t matter. It does matter. Just not enough to ruin anything unless you really work hard to ignore, offend, or injure the interviewer.

And while you can’t remove your amygdala, you can quiet it down by acknowledging it and expecting it to show up. When you feel those thoughts start to creep in, don’t panic. Just say to yourself, “Here it is—I’ve been expecting it.” That action alone will make you feel more in control and will reinforce that you’re ready for what comes next.

Here are two past posts that will also help you deal with these thoughts when they arrive. The first explains that it’s useful to remind yourself that stress is often a sign that your body is rising to a challenge. And the second will help you embrace the right self-talk.