College interviews: starting well is half the battle

You can substantially improve your entire college interview—and really any interaction you have with someone you’re meeting for the first time—in the first five seconds. Just do two things.

1. Say hi, then say your name. Example, “Hi, [I’m] Kevin McMullin.”

The “I’m…” (or “My name is…”) is implied. Add that prefix if you feel more comfortable doing so. But there’s a subtle implication of confidence and maturity if you go with the just-the-name approach.

2. Simultaneously smile, look the person in the eye, and shake their hand.

First impressions matter. When you demonstrate—right away—to your college interviewer that you are a confident, self-assured, engaged teenager who’s comfortable interacting with an adult, they will immediately assume that this conversation will be a lot more enjoyable than so many of their other interviews with petrified teens who struggled to build a rapport or to contribute to a good conversation.

And even more importantly, you’ll be acting like a student who will engage with faculty and staff in pursuit of your goals while you’re in college.

Sure, you’ll need to do your part during the ensuing interaction to substantiate that first impression. But starting well is half the battle.

Interviews conducted at their homes?

In the last few weeks, several of our Collegewise students have been invited to attend their college interviews at the interviewers’ homes. Not surprisingly, many families have some reluctance sending their teenager to a stranger’s home. But they also don’t want to do anything that would reflect negatively on the student’s candidacy.

It’s certainly not standard interview operating procedure to invite a student to the home. That doesn’t necessarily mean such an invitation is a signal of inappropriate behavior, but it’s not common practice and generally not something colleges endorse. If you’re presented with a similar scenario and would like some guidance on how to navigate it, here’s a past post with my recommendations.

Add some *you* to your interview responses

Almost every strong answer in a college interview focuses on the same subject—you.

Don’t recite an accomplishment off the resume. Talk about how it made you feel.

Don’t list features and benefits to describe your interest in a college. Describe yourself and why you would thrive there.

Your favorite subject, your intended course of study, your hobbies or influences or challenges—every question is designed to learn more about you.

So give the interviewer what they’re looking for and add some you to every response.

Three interviewing tips

Marcus Buckingham, author of several best-selling books about developing personal strengths, spent 10 years at the Gallup Organization helping companies design better interviewing processes. In this short video, he shares three tips for those being interviewed. It’s pitched to those applying for jobs, but the tips work just as well for students applying to college.

Greatest hits: college interview edition

For seniors who will soon be meeting with college interviewers, here are five past posts to help you prepare, feel more relaxed, and make a good impression.

  1. Five ways to make a great impression on college interviewers.
  2. What should you wear?
  3. How to handle pre-interview panic.
  4. Five questions you should be ready to answer.
  5. Five potential questions to ask your interviewer.

And here’s a bonus tip from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post: Pretend your interviewer is Grandma’s friend.

Five questions for your college interviewer

Students often wonder what questions they should ask their college interviewers. It’s a good instinct to think about this ahead of time. If you’re genuinely interested in the college, it stands to reason you’d have a question or two of your own. And the best questions are those that are genuine, that come from a place of real curiosity, interest, and a recognition of the opportunity before you to speak with someone who went to the very college you’re applying to.

Here are a few question suggestions that could open up some interesting conversations with your interviewer. Don’t jettison genuine questions of your own to replace with these—they’re not inherently better than what genuinely interests you. But if you just can’t come up with any questions of your own, these are good bets.

1. When you picked this school, was it an easy choice for you?
What a great opportunity to learn about your interviewer’s college process. Maybe this school wasn’t their first choice. Maybe they were wavering between two schools and didn’t know they’d made the right decision until a semester or two into their time there. Maybe they transferred, or chose it because of the financial aid package, or their parents imposed their college choice on them. Your interviewer was once where you are today, a college applicant who didn’t necessarily have all the answers. Take them back to that time and see what you can learn from their experience.

2. What role did your college play in helping you get where you are today?
It’s always interesting to learn how a successful, engaged person ended up where they are today in life. Invite your interviewer to show you the connection between their time in college and their life today. The answer will give you a real glimpse into the influence colleges do—or do not—play in shaping life after college.

3. Are you still close with anyone that you met in college?
It would be weird to ask your interviewer, “Are you married?” or “Do you have a best friend?” But asking about their connections to people they met in college is a different—and totally appropriate—story. Connections made in college are one of the most common reasons people look back fondly on those years. And there’s nothing wrong with showing an interest in the personal side of their college memories.

4. Do you think students you speak with are interested in this school for the right reasons?
There is no short list of “right reasons” to choose any school. But your interviewer probably has strong feelings about what makes this college so special, reasons that may not be clear on the website or in the college’s presentations that they make at college fairs. This question invites them to share those thoughts. And it never hurts to get your college interviewer to talk about what they think is important about this school.

5. If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything differently in college?
This question just hits all the right notes. It shows you’re interested in the interviewer’s perspective. It shows you’re thinking not just about getting into college, but also about making the most of it once you’re there. And it shows you’re not just like every other applicant who waits passively for the interviewer to ask all the questions. Your most important goal in a college interview is to have an interesting conversation with an adult. That means answering and asking questions, talking and listening. When you ask a good question that gets your interviewer talking, especially one about their time in college, sit back, listen attentively, and know that you’re doing your part to accomplish your goal.

Bad luck, not a bad sign

The first step to having a great college interview? Relax. Most college interviews that are part of the admissions process are conducted with someone who has exactly two qualifications: (1) They graduated from that college, and (2) they volunteered. And that’s not the same as someone who will ultimately be in the room casting a vote to admit or deny.

Do those interviewers share their impressions of you with the committee? Sure. But that information—positive or negative—rarely reverses an admissions decision. It’s secondhand information gathered from one short conversation that likely took place in a coffee shop. Don’t blow it off. You might as well have a good showing and give yourself an edge, no matter how small. But your chances of making a great impression go up considerably when you stop worrying quite so much about making a great impression. Relax, be yourself, and have a mature, engaging conversation with an adult. That’s what a great college interview looks like.

If you’d like more evidence that your interviewer isn’t a vetted, highly trained, voting representative of the admissions committee, see The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent piece, “When Alumni Interviewers Screw Up, Things Get Weird.” There are plenty of alumni interviewers who do an admirable job for their schools (a few of them work with us as counselors at Collegewise!). But if yours doesn’t exactly represent all that you were hoping a representative of that school might, consider it bad luck, not necessarily a bad sign.

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.