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.

Unconventional college interview advice

As I’ve written many times, college interviews are much more conversations than interviews. An interview is one person firing questions at you, waiting for you to answer, then responding with a new question. But college interviewers use questions as a way to not just learn about you, but also get a conversation started. Where it goes from there depends on your answers, your ability to engage, and whether or not you both find some common ground. Put bluntly, a college interview is your chance to prove that you can have a relaxed, mature, interesting conversation with an adult.

So if you want to prepare for your college interviews, don’t rehearse answers. Don’t ask a counselor to do a mock interview so you can practice perfect responses. Instead, find a way to sit with an adult that you don’t know well and actually have a conversation.

One way would be to have your parents connect you with a friend or colleague who would be willing to pitch in and help. But an even better way would be to approach adults and ask on your own. I don’t recommend that you do this with strangers. But you could ask a neighbor, a boss you aren’t exactly chummy with, a teacher whose class you’ve never taken, or even a friend or colleague of your parents that you don’t know (and are willing to approach on your own).

Most adults with good hearts will respond positively to a teenager who says something like,

“I’m trying to get ready for my college interviews, and I think I need to get better at having conversations with adults that I don’t know that well. If I bought you a cup of coffee, would you be willing to just chat with me for 15-20 minutes? I promise I’ll do my best to make interesting conversation—in fact, that’s exactly what I need to practice.”

You might feel really uncomfortable asking. You might feel even more uncomfortable actually going through with it.

But if you stumble, at least you won’t be stumbling in front of an actual college interviewer.

If you did this several times, imagine how much more comfortable you’ll get, and most importantly, how much more confident you’ll feel when you sit down for the real thing.

College interviews at their homes?

Most college interviews used for admission don’t take place on campus. They’re handled by graduates of the college who volunteer to interview applicants who live in the same geographical area, usually at the interviewer’s work, at a coffee shop, a restaurant, etc.

But what if your interviewer invites you to their home?

It’s not something that happens often, but in the last couple years, I’ve noticed this question appearing frequently enough that I want to address it here.

Some students and parents are understandably uncomfortable with this scenario. Your college interviewer is a person you don’t know and haven’t even met. And many applicants to college are still minors, which is precisely why I’ve never heard of a college asking their interviewers to bring students to their homes. I’m not suggesting that such an invitation is in fact cause for alarm. But you also shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything that makes you or your parents uncomfortable.

So how should you address it?

1. Call the college. As usual, this call should always be made by the student, not the parent.
2. Tell the person your name, that you’re applying for freshman admission, and that you’d like to speak to someone about your upcoming meeting with your interviewer. The person will likely have you speak with the admissions rep who coordinates interviewing in your area.
3. Explain that you’ve been invited to meet at your interviewer’s home, and ask if this is something the college encourages. You can do this in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re being paranoid (you’re not), or like you’re trying to get anyone in trouble (you’re not doing that, either). For example:

“I had a question about my upcoming interview. My interviewer has asked that we meet at his home. And before I do, I thought that I should call and at least ask if this is something you encourage. I’m really looking forward to interviewing, and I’m happy to do whatever you suggest. But I’d feel a little more comfortable if I checked with you first.”

What will almost certainly happen is that your admissions rep will tell you that they would prefer that interviewers not meet at home. They will either assign you to someone else, or they will speak to the interviewer themselves and ask that they not meet with applicants in their homes. Either way, this will not reflect badly on you.

And here’s what else will probably happen. Your admissions rep will probably make a note in your file about this entire interaction. They’ll know that the interviewer put you in an awkward position and that you handled it in just about the most mature, responsible way a high school student possibly could have. You didn’t have your parents call for you. You made it clear that you were simply asking how the college wanted you to proceed. You reiterated that you were looking forward to meeting with your interviewer. And you’ll have demonstrated to the college that you’re exactly the type of student who can navigate your way smartly and safely without Mom or Dad making every decision for you.

What if you had to present this conversation?

I included a chapter in my book about how to meet people and make a good first impression. But here’s a technique to help you have a good first conversation once you get past the initial introduction and pleasantries: Imagine that within 24 hours of completing the conversation, you’ll be asked to give a 5-minute presentation about this person.

If you knew that you’d later have to tell a room full of people about the person you’ve just met, you’d genuinely want to learn about them. You’d ask questions and listen to the answers. And most importantly, you’d look for interesting things to discuss now so you’d have interesting things to present later.

One of the most respectful, engaging things you can do when you have a conversation is to actually take an interest in what the person has to say. Ask sincere questions and pay attention to the answers. If the person seems to enjoy talking about it, ask a follow-up question. That’s where things usually get more interesting anyway.

You play the oboe?

I’ve never met an oboe player. What made you choose that instrument?

Really, your mom plays, too? Was she happy that you chose it, too? Ever have an oboe jam together?

Now, I’m not suggesting that you turn your first conversation with someone into an interrogation where you fire as many questions as possible like a reporter for a gossip website. It’s a conversation, after all. That means the talking needs to go both ways. And if the person isn’t reciprocating and doesn’t seem all that interested, don’t just plod ahead. Unless you’re stuck on a first date or otherwise committed for a short period of time, just give a polite “It was nice to meet you” and move on.

But most people enjoy talking about things they care about as long as the listener seems genuinely interested. Making the effort to learn about someone is like paying them a compliment. And hopefully, they’ll return the gesture—and the conversation—and try to learn more about you.

Teens who are good conversationalists have better college interviews, too. Many students understandably wait to be asked questions, then answer politely and wait for the next question. If you can be the one student your interviewer meets that day who actually makes an effort to turn your time together into a dialogue, you’re demonstrating that you’re comfortable having a mature conversation with an adult. And you’re giving your interviewer something positive to say when they later present your conversation to the admissions committee.

Nervous, comfortable, and just right

The most frequent comment I hear from college interviewers: most applicants are far more nervous than they need to be.

The truth is that college interviews almost never make or break an applicant’s chances. In fact, interviews are the least important part of the process. Colleges that offer them do so to inject a small touch of personal interaction into an otherwise impersonal process and to gather one more piece of information to hopefully confirm or deny what an admissions committee has already decided about an applicant. But the results of those interviews almost never make or break an applicant’s chances. So an interviewee whose discomfort produces stilted answers, who just can’t relax and have a mature conversation with an adult, is letting unnecessary nerves affect the outcome.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should be too casual.

Respond promptly when your interviewer contacts you. When emailing, obey the laws of grammar and punctuation. Show up on time. Dress appropriately. Be polite and respectful. Try to make a good impression by showing your best self. This is your college interview, after all. You should never be blasé about something that’s important to you.

But once you’ve done those things, relax. Be yourself. Have a natural, enjoyable conversation. You’ll enjoy yourself more, and have better results, when you’re not too nervous, not too comfortable, but just right.

“Tell me about yourself”

“Tell me about yourself” seems like a simple request. But when it comes during an interview, it can be surprisingly difficult to give a sharp response. And it’s not just true for high school kids. A friend of mine who recently interviewed for a graduate program said that this was the first question, and in retrospect, he felt that he could have given an even stronger answer.

I’ve written about this before. But for high school students who might be preparing for college interviews, I’d like to add something to that previous entry.

When they ask this question, your college interviewers don’t want you to recite your resume. They don’t want to know your GPA. They don’t want to know how many awards or community service hours or other accolades you’ve acquired. Those are on your application, and they might well come up as part of your discussion. But you can’t tell someone about yourself without talking about you.

For example, “My GPA is 3.8” is a statement about your GPA.

But, “Math is my favorite subject, which makes sense—both of my parents are mechanical engineers”—that’s about you.

“I’ve completed 88 hours of community service” is about the accomplishment.

But, “I really enjoy volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club. In fact, I actually stopped running cross country because I wanted to spend even more time helping there”—that’s about you.

Your objective during a college interview is to have a relaxed, mature conversation with an adult. And this won’t be the last time in your life that someone, perhaps even an interviewer, asks you to tell them about yourself. So this is good practice for the future.

Pick a couple interesting parts of your life that you’d be comfortable discussing in more detail. Interests, hobbies, work, family, etc. Share a couple sentences of detail about each to give the interviewer enough information to decide whether or not to dive deeper into one of those topics. Then let the interviewer decide where to go from there.

When you put candidates at ease

When we interview candidates for a position at Collegewise, we don’t want the exchange to feel like an interrogation. Our interviews have structure and are focused on specific outcomes, but our hope is to have a relaxed conversation with this person. The more comfortable a candidate is, the more likely they are to share candid thoughts rather than polished, rehearsed answers that they pulled from an article on LinkedIn. And everything from our communication to our demeanor to our questions is designed to put a candidate at ease. It makes the interviews more valuable for both parties.

College interviewers, please remember that not only will your interviewees likely not have much experience in this capacity, but many of them will also be carrying with them years of stress about—and hope for—gaining admission to your school. Do what you can to put them appropriately at ease before and during the interview. Even a short email exchange ahead of time can make all the difference.

“This won’t be a test to see if you can give me good answers—we’ll just have a conversation so I can get to know you a little better. And I hope you’ll bring some questions about XYZ University—I graduated a decade ago but my enthusiasm is still going strong!”

It won’t just help the applicant. It will also help you do a better job as an interviewer.

You’re not running for office

The first question in the recent Republican presidential debate was, “What is your biggest weakness, and what are you doing to fix it?”

Imagine if a candidate had answered:

“It’s a constant struggle for me to stay organized.”

“I tend to start a lot more projects than I finish.”

“It’s difficult for me to admit that I was wrong.”

I’m not a political strategist and this isn’t a post about politics. But if presidential candidates admit a real weakness during a televised debate, it will be dissected and analyzed and even used against them by their opponents. That’s politics, especially in the age of the Internet where sound bytes and video travel fast.

Teenagers don’t have this problem.

Everyone has weaknesses. The college admissions process might send a message that you have to be great at everything, but the truth is that college applicants who see their own weaknesses and can even be open about them project a self-awareness and confidence that even many adults struggle to embrace.

If a college essay prompt or a college interviewer asks you about your weaknesses, don’t panic. Don’t be ashamed. And don’t try to spin your answer to something that’s actually positive like, “I’m too committed to community service.”

The question isn’t designed to trick you. And admissions officers aren’t going to point to that weakness as a reason not to admit you unless you reveal something concerning like, “I have a very bad temper,” or, “I get very depressed when things don’t turn out as I’d hoped” (neither of which bode well for students entering a college environment).

Instead, think about your weaknesses. What makes them challenging for you? Is it something you’re trying to improve or something you’ve just had to accept about yourself?  Then just tell the truth.

You’re applying to college, not running for office.

It’s not a job interview

If you arrive precisely on time at my brother-in-law’s house for a dinner party, he’ll admonish you with the phrase,  “It’s not a job interview!”  He’s usually not prepared for on-time arrivals.  After all, a dinner party is an informal affair. No need to operate with down-to-the-minute precision.

College interviews aren’t job interviews, either, but for a very different reason.

You should absolutely be on time, maybe even five minutes early, to a college interview. But unlike job interviews, you shouldn’t expect to be asked prepared questions where your only goal is to give the right answer. Instead, your college interviewer is really evaluating whether you can have an engaging, mature, relaxed conversation with an adult.

Don’t be nervous. Relax and have a nice chat. Yes, you should expect to be asked why you want to attend this college, what you might like to study, and whether or not you have any questions. But as long as your answers show that you’re sincerely interested in the school and you aren’t afraid to discuss that interest with an adult, you’ll do just fine.

It’s not a job interview. College interviews should really be called “college conversations.”