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.”

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.)