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.

Should you do an on-campus interview?

For seniors planning college visits this summer, you'll find that many schools offer an on-campus interview.  And while on-campus interviews are almost always optional, a lot of eager students jump at the chance for some face time with the admission officers (or are thrown into spending aforementioned face time by an eager parent).

So, should you do an on-campus interview? Here are few things to consider before you make that decision.

1.  Figure out if the interview is informative or evaluative. 

Informative interviews aren’t used for admissions evaluation purposes.  They’re just an opportunity for you to learn more about the school and ask questions of an admissions officer (or current student).  Here’s how Johns Hopkins describes their informative interviews:

"Interviews typically address your academic background, goals, interests, and what you would contribute to the campus community. More informative than evaluative, these conversations will also allow you time to ask questions of your interviewer and learn about his/her Johns Hopkins experience."  Full text is here

Evaluative interviews, on the other hand, mean that what you say can and will be used to judge you in the court of admissions. Yale offers evaluative on-campus interviews:

"An interview is not a required part of the application process, but we encourage you to meet and talk with a Yale alumnus/a or student interviewer when possible. An interview will let you learn more about Yale and have a further chance to share information about yourself. All Yale interviews, both those with alumni and those with current Yale seniors, are evaluative. We read interview reports along with all your other application materials."  Full text is here.

2.  Ask yourself if you really want to interview.

You should never interview just because it’s offered.  Interview if it's something you want to do.

An informative interview can be a great way to learn more about a school you’re really interested in.  But it can also be a great way to torture an admissions officer when you don’t know much about the school, can’t think of anything you want to know about, or just aren’t all that interested.  If you’d be excited to learn more about the school from someone who can really answer your questions, great.  But don’t do one just because you think you should.

And just because an interview is evaluative doesn’t mean that every interested student should do one.  To have a good interview, you need to have something to say.  You need to be comfortable having a relaxed conversation, telling someone more about yourself, and asking questions to which you sincerely want to know the answers.  If you don’t think you can do those things, don’t beat yourself up.  That’s why interviews are optional—they’re not a good idea for everyone.  And it’s better to have no interview than to have a bad one.

Of course, if you have questions about interviews that aren’t answered on the college’s website, don’t be afraid to ask.  Most admissions officers are happy to answer those questions when you’ve already taken the time to read what they’ve shared for you on the website.

An easy way to get extra emotional credit

Sure, you only get a little credit for ignoring a call or text message when you're in the middle of talking or meeting with someone.  But when you divert your attention to look down to check your cell phone, it's like telling that person, "Wait, this might be more important than you are."  And if you take the call or respond to the message, well, it's clear who won the face off.

If you want to get extra emotional credit, turn the phone off and tell the person that you're doing it.

If a kid sits down with us at Collegewise and says, "Before we get started, I'm going to turn my phone off," he goes up a couple notches in our book.  It's like he's telling us, "This meeting is important to me–everybody else can wait for the next hour."

Please don't tell me that you have to be reachable all the time.  Unless you're on the transplant list, no seventeen year old needs to be reachable all the time.

So the next time you visit a teacher to ask for help, or go see your counselor, or have a conversation with a friend who needs your advice, or meet with your tutor, say, "I'm going to turn off my phone" and then do it.

Not a bad way to start your college interviews either, by the way. 

What should you wear to your college interview?

We get the "What should I wear to my college interview?" question a lot from our Collegewise students.  Here's what we tell them.

Imagine your parents were making you dress up for Thanksgiving dinner at your grandparents' house.  What would you wear?  A t-shirt and jeans is too casual.  A full suit or formal dress is too much.  Anything in between those two will probably be fine as long as you use good judgment.

That's a good rule of thumb for your college interview attire.   

On the one hand, you need to show the interviewer that you appreciate the importance of this meeting.  Making an effort to look nice conveys that.  A college interviewer once told us that a student showed up to meet her wearing yoga pants and looking like she'd just come from the gym.  No good.

On the other extreme, if you dress up so formally that you feel awkward and uncomfortable, you're going to ooze tension during the interview.  It's never going to make you look bad to be the best dressed person in the room.  But if it affects your ability to relax and be yourself, it's just not worth it.  

And remember, you're not dressing up for a date here.  It's fine to be fashionable, but you don't want your outfit (or an overwhelming application of perfume or cologne), to speak for you. Wear something that would make your grandma say, "You look nice, dear."

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.


Ask Collegewise: How should I address my college interviewer?

Zack asks:


I got an email from the alumni interviewer at one of the colleges I applied to asking to set up a time to meet.  My question is, what should I call him?  Should I use his first name or call him Mr. Smith (last name changed by the editor)?  He signed the email with both his first and last name, so I'm not sure what to do." 

Good question, Zack.  Stick with "Mr. So-and-so" until he says otherwise.  And if you hear from female interviewers, go with "Ms."  Nobody has ever been offended by being referred to as Mr. or Ms., and they'll appreciate that you're being respectful.

When and if the interviewer tells you it's OK to use their first name, start doing that.  Don't make them tell you twice.

Five ways to make a great impression on college interviewers before you meet them

You start to make an impression on your college interviewer before you ever sit down and answer your first question.  Here are five ways to make that impression a good one.

1.  Relax.

A lot of students panic when their interviewer first contacts them to schedule the interview.  Relax.  Nerves ruin conversations.  And you're not going to say anything that will destroy your chances of getting into college.  I'm not suggesting you should refer to your interviewer as "Dude" on the phone, (there's a difference between being relaxed and being disrespectful).  But if you can just be yourself, the interviewer will probably look forward to meeting you even more than she was before.

2. Be genuinely appreciative.

College interviewers deserve to be thanked (most are volunteer alumns who aren't getting paid to do this).  So why not lead with that and say, "Oh, thanks so much for calling"?  Or you could start your email reply with, "Thanks so much for getting in touch with me."   It's surprising how many students neglect to do this.

3. If you receive a voicemail or an email, return it promptly.

I've heard several college interviewers tell stories about leaving voicemails or sending emails to kids who don't respond for 3 or 4 days.  That doesn't send a very good message to your interviewer.  I'm not saying you need to be on high alert and respond within 15 minutes.  But during the college admissions process, it's a good idea to check (and reply) to your email at least once a day.  And if you get a voicemail from an interviewer, return it the same day if you can.

4.  Be excited about this opportunity.

Interviewers don't have enough power to torpedo your chances of admission unless you really do something stupid like admit how much you like to beat people up.  So be excited about it.  A college interview is a great thing.  You're going to sit with someone whose only agenda is to learn more about you and answer any questions you have about the school.   If the interviewer can hear in your voice that you are excited about the opportunity to meet, it's a validation of your engagement in the process.

5.  Say thank you.

I know I already told you to be genuinely appreciative, but it can't hurt for me (or for you) to say it again.  Thank the interviewer at the beginning and at the end.