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.

Do you have any questions?

Students often ask our Collegewise counselors, “What questions should I ask during my college interview?”

Our answer is almost always the same—are there things about this college that you’d genuinely like to know more about? Those are your questions. You’re sitting with someone who knows much more about this school than you do. If you’re genuinely interested in the college, you almost certainly have questions.

Don’t worry so much about whether or not the questions are good. Just make sure they’re sincere. No, you shouldn’t be inappropriate (if you wouldn’t want your parents to hear the question, it’s probably inappropriate). But asking sincere questions is a good way to demonstrate sincere interest in the school.

For interviews, prepare but don’t rehearse

I’ve often said that college interviews are a lot like first dates.  Bathe beforehand.  Dress well but comfortably.  And most importantly, do your part to have an interesting conversation.  Don’t just sit there and make the other person do all the work.

But it’s worth mentioning that like first dates, when it comes to college interviews, it’s not a good idea to over-prepare.

Before a first date, you might consider potential areas of conversation and what you’d like to say if they come up.  But nobody writes out a script before a date to plan exactly what to say.  You want to come off like an interesting human being, not a robot.   For your college interviews, you should be prepared for questions like, “Why are you applying here?”  But that preparation should reveal itself in the form of relaxed and interesting conversation, not stilted and rehearsed answers. 

Remember that most college interviewers are asking questions that don't have right or wrong answers [apologies–I'd left the "don't" out of that sentence in the original post].  They’re just trying to see if you can have a comfortable conversation with an adult.   Prepare, but don’t rehearse.  

Five interview tips

Whether you’re interviewing for a job at Baskin Robbins or an admission to Princeton, here are five interview tips to help you do your best.

1. Consider ahead of time what you’d like to talk about.

What would you like to talk about if it were up to you?  If you were given that opportunity, what would you say, and how would you say it?  Be reasonable—you’re not going to talk about how cute your cat is for 20 minutes.  But if you’d like to talk about your work in the Key Club, how you take care of your little sister, or how you’ve experimented making your own ice cream, chances are, one or more of the questions will give you an opening.  And you’ll be ready when it does.

2. Get to the location 15-20 minutes early. 

The worst way to start an interview is to be late.  The second worst way is to be almost late but still perspiring because of nerves and a last-minute sprint from the elevator.  So get there 15-20 minutes early.  Then wait in the car or grab a bottle of water.  That will leave you a good ten minutes to collect yourself and get ready.

3. Make a good first impression.

Shake hands.   Make eye contact.  Smile and say, “It’s nice to meet you.”  Sounds simple, but a lot of teenagers (and adults) get this part wrong.  Practice if you have to.

4. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t panic.

People get stumped all the time.  Nobody has ever gotten penalized for thinking for 15-20 seconds before giving a great answer.  So if an employer asks, “What’s something risky you’ve tried that paid off?” and you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, sit and think about it before you fumble through an answer.  Buy a little time and tell your interviewer what a great question it is.  And if you can’t think of anything, ask if it would be OK to come back to it.

5. Bring (good) questions.

Have some good questions for your interviewer.  It shows that you’re engaged and not just going through the motions.  But don’t ask just to ask.  Really think about what you’d like to know.  The person in front of you went to this college, manages this store, or is on the committee for this scholarship—they’ve got the information about something you want.  It shouldn’t be a stretch to think of a few questions you’d really like answers to.  Consider them ahead of time so you’re ready when asked, “Do you have any questions for me?”

On college interview scheduling

Good tip from Arun.  If a college on your list:

1. Is relatively close to home

2. Offers on-campus interviews that are evaluative (the kind that count during the admissions process)

Schedule the interview now, but pick a date in October or November, if possible.

You don’t gain an advantage by interviewing any earlier. And if you wait until later this fall, you’ll have had a chance to work on your “Why this school?” essays, and you’ll probably be able to discuss your interest more thoughtfully.

(It works just as well for colleges that aren’t close to home, but you may not have as much scheduling freedom if you’re traveling.)

A Harvard interviewer’s advice to eighth graders

Andy Doctoroff interviews applicants for Harvard, and he's got a good piece in the Huffington Post today, "Dear Eighth Grader: So You Want to Apply to Harvard? Some Words of Advice…"

The central message is that good grades, high test scores, and impressive activities alone aren’t what impress him during an interview.  “Intellectual ambition, drive and zest for discovery” are, especially when they’re genuine, not just being forcefully presented in an effort to get into Harvard. 

And make sure you don’t miss this part near the end (and remember, this is a guy who went to Harvard).


Frankly, it's not really that important whether you go to Harvard. There are a lot of Harvard graduates who do not lead productive lives. And, of course, Harvard and other comparable schools have not cornered the market on success."

Putting college interviews in perspective

The first step to having a great college interview is to relax.  And the best way to do that is to recognize that the interview is the least important part of the process.

Interviews aren’t unimportant; you’re sitting face-to-face with another human being to talk about your college future. But as long as you’re engaged, mature and you don’t say anything stupid like, “I did community service because my mom thought it would help me get into your school,” it’s unlikely that anything you say will be held against you in the office of admission.

Colleges have three years' worth of information in your file, with transcripts and grades, lists of activities and awards, essays and letters of recommendation from your teachers.  A college interview is just a little snapshot from one meeting.  It’s not trivial, but good or bad, your interview isn’t going to trump the high school career you’ve summed up in your application.

So relax.  Have a good conversation and be yourself.  If you can just be a mature kid who’s pleasant to talk to, you’ll do just fine.  And if you want a little more advice, check out our college interview video here.  Good luck! 

Time to get ready for your college interview

If you’ve recently submitted your applications, it’s likely that colleges who offer evaluative interviews will soon be scheduling those for their applicants. This is the perfect time to visit the admissions sections of your colleges’ websites and find out 1) if interviews for applicants are offered as part of the admissions process and 2) how you schedule one.

In most cases, interviews are conducted by graduates of the college who live in your area and will contact you to schedule them. But don’t just assume you’re supposed to wait for that to happen. Colleges will be very clear what you need (and don’t need) to do to schedule your interviews. It’s important to find and follow those instructions from each college.

Once you get your interview scheduled, here are two ways we can help you prepare:

1) I’ve written plenty of blog posts about interviews, which are all grouped together here.

2) All of our Collegewise seniors come to my 1-hour “College Interview Seminar,” which is now available as a streaming video for just $12.99. You can find more information and the link to buy your own copy here.

College essay, interview and financial aid videos are now in the Collegewise store

Videos of my three most popular Collegewise seminars are now available in our online store

  • “How to Write a Great College Essay”
  • “Financial Aid and Scholarships”
  • “College Interviews”

Each video is 1-hour long and sells for $12.99 as a streaming download here.

Seminars have been a Saturday morning tradition since I founded Collegewise in 1999.  We serve up some muffins and coffee—then I spend an hour preaching the Collegewise way and making complicated subjects simpler.  We want everyone to leave feeling more confident about their college planning, and I always encourage them to take the leftover muffins so I don’t eat them myself.

But we thought the seminars might appeal to a wider audience of people who don’t live near one of our offices.  So we brought in a film crew, they set up their lighting and cameras, and I gave our regularly-scheduled seminars to the Collegewise families (who graciously signed release forms to appear on the video).  There’s no scripting here and these aren’t polished infomercials—just me teaching Collegewise families how to write college essays, apply for financial aid, and have memorable college interviews.  It’s what you’d see if you were attending live as part of our Collegewise program (minus the muffins and coffee).  And for families in our counseling programs, you’ll now have free access to the videos to view if you’re unable to attend a seminar. 

Later this month, we’ll also be releasing these videos as hard-copy DVDs for teachers, counselors, non-profits and anyone else who works with students and wants to share them with a class.  But for now, go here to learn more or to purchase your download.  And if you have questions or feedback, feel free to email me at kevinm (at) collegewise (dot) com.  Our Collegewise families have always enjoyed these and I think you will, too.

Don’t worry about the wrong things at your college interviews

Too many students worry about the wrong things at their college interviews. 

Your college interview is not about giving perfect answers.  It’s not about whether you’re dressed like a Wall Street professional.  It’s not about selling yourself, highlighting your most impressive accomplishments or explaining away what you think are your deficiencies.

Your college interview is all about whether or not you can have a relaxed, comfortable, mature conversation with an adult.  Most kids can as long as they’re not worrying about the wrong things.