How to spot a smart person in the room

Here's a good way to spot someone who's smart and engaged.  When the conversation turns to something they don't understand, when there's a term or concept that's unfamiliar to them, that person doesn't sit there and nod his head.  He doesn't pretend to understand when he doesn't.  He doesn't disengage and become less interested just because he's no longer following.  He confidently and politely says,

"I'm sorry.  I was with you until just a second ago.  What does that mean?"

High school teaches you to believe that you should always know the answer.  When you're doing a problem in trig, answering a question on the SAT, or being called on by your Spanish teacher and you don't know the answer, it's bad.  There are points deducted and penalties to pay.

But here's the thing about smart people–they don't always know the answer.  Nobody does.  And how you handle yourself at those times says a lot about you and your desire to learn.

The allure of the unexpected

One of the best ways to keep someone interested in your story is to lead with something unexpected.  This is not an example of that:

"The marching band practices every day after school for two hours.  It's very arduous, but necessary if we want to perfect our formations." 

Nobody would be surprised to learn that. But if you said,

"A polyester band uniform actually doubles in weight when it's wet.  Every time we practice in the rain, I gain 10 pounds for the next two hours."

Now you've got my attention.

When you share something people didn't know yet, it makes them want to know more.  It's like an intellectual itch they need to scratch.  That's what being interesting means–people want to hear and learn more from you.

Of course, there's an art to recognizing what people might be interested to know about and how much they can take.  If you drone on for twenty minutes about how to get to the expert levels in your favorite video game, a non-gamer is going to lose interest.  But if you told me about life as a game tester, when you're paid to do nothing but play video games 8-hours a day, I'd be intrigued because that's something I could never imagine doing.

So when you're writing your college essays, doing a college interview, or even just having a conversation with someone you've just met, get them interested by sharing something they probably wouldn't have guessed.  Give them the unexpected part of the story.

A simple but crucial tip for college interviews

Stefanie in our Irvine office offers this college interview tip–make sure you listen to the question.

Don't scoff.  That might sound obvious, but a lot of students are so concerned about their answers that they forget to listen to–and consequently don't answer–the question. 

Stefanie interviewed over 400 students while she was an admissions officer at USC.  And the first question she asked most of them was,

"Tell me a little bit about your high school, maybe one thing you like about it, and one thing you wish was different."

She asked it as a general question to help students feel comfortable and ease into the interview.  But a lot of students would go right to detailed descriptions of their activities.  They were so anxious, they couldn't wait to start talking about what they'd accomplished.  But that wasn't the question they'd been asked.

None of those kids torpedoed their chances of admission with those answers alone, by the way.  No college interviewer is out to get you, to trip you up and find the reason to reject your application.  But it certainly would have been a stronger start if they'd carefully considered the question and given a thoughtful answer.  

So during your college interviews, just relax and listen carefully to the question.  If you don't have an answer right away, that's OK.  Stop for a second and think about it.  That's what thoughtful people do when posed with a good question.

But most importantly, remember that your college interview is a conversation.  Good conversationalists are just as good at listening as they are at talking.

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

Should you interview if it will have no bearing on the admissions decision?

There are really two types of interviews in college admissions.  The "evaluative" interview in which what you say can and will be used during the admissions process.  And the "informational" interview, which is your non-threatening chance to learn more about the school from someone who's an expert (like an admissions officer, a student, or an alum).  The admissions sections of colleges' websites usually tell you if interviews are offered and, if so, what kind they are.

So, is it in your best admissions interest to schedule informational interviews?

A lot of students (and just as often, their parents) are quick to
schedule an informational interview, especially when they're planning to visit
the college's campus.  It's hard not to think that making a good impression could still help in some small way.  And the idea of making a personal connection is pretty alluring in the college admissions process.

Still, I think a student should only do an informational interview if you:

1)  Are sincerely interested learning more about the school, and…

2)  Have questions you would like to get answered.

A lot of the informational interviews are very awkward for the interviewer.  Some students don't have any questions because it was actually their parents' idea to visit the school in the first place.  Or the student is already completely sold on the school and doesn't have any questions he needs answered.  So the interviewer has to sit there and try to fill the time.  It's like going on a date with someone and finding you have nothing to talk about.    

Think of informational interviews like a first meeting with a tutor.  A tutor can lecture you if you want her to, but it's much more effective to make the meeting collaborative.  Tell the interviewer what you know already about the school.  Then use the time to get a better mastery of this subject (the college).  What could you use help understanding?  What have you not been able to learn from the website, your counselor or the college guidebooks?  Be engaged and interested.

If you're not feeling engaged or interested, save both parties the time and don't schedule the interview.  And never do an interview just because you think you should.

Pretend your college interviewer is Grandma’s friend

Jay Mathews of the Washington post and author of Harvard Schmarvard wrote a blog post today with some good college interview advice for students (he interviewed Harvard applicants for 20 years, by the way).

“My favorite piece of advice for nervous interviewees is to pretend that you are not at a college interview, but at your grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. One of her good friends, a woman you don’t know, is sitting next to you at the dinner table. She asks some friendly questions. You have fun answering, and ask her some questions, too. Do the interview in that spirit, and your best self will emerge.”

5 questions you should be ready to answer in college interviews

Most college interviewers aren't trying to test you; they're really just trying to get to know you better.  If you're ready to give *good answers to the following five questions, you will almost certainly be prepared for just about anything you're asked.

1.  Why are you applying to this school?

2.  What's your favorite subject, and do you intend to pursue this in college?

3.  What do you enjoy doing when you're not in class?

4.  What are three interesting things about yourself that I wouldn't know from your application?

5.  What's an example of a mistake you made, a failure you endured, something you aren't good at, or anything else that you probably wouldn't bring up unless somebody asked you about it?

Your motivations for college, your intellectual interests, your interests outside of class, your personality, your level of humility and self awareness, those are the kinds of things interviewers want to get a sense of.  Be comfortable discussing them and you'll probably have a great interview.   

*A good answer is one that's honest, that's not contrived to sound impressive, that reveals something about yourself and that has a personal anecdote to back it up.  You're just trying to help them get to know you better.  You're not weaving a tall tale.

Why a college interview is like a first date

Have you ever been on a first date where the person you were
with was a terrible conversationalist?  It’s just about the most agonizing thing in the world.  You sit there at a table in a restaurant
trying desperately to think of things to say so you can avoid the excruciating
silence that you know is going to come unless you keep talking.  And after about twenty minutes of trying, you
want to pull an imaginary ejection handle and catapult yourself away from the
table.  

If you sit in your college interview waiting to be asked
questions and then give short answers without any details, it's like putting the interviewer through a terrible first date. 

Don’t confuse the college interview with a job interview
where you will be asked difficult, probing questions about your experience and
what you can bring to the company.  This
is a first date (without the chance for romance at the end). The initial conversation could be awkward until you find
common ground.  You’ll need to call upon
your personal characteristics that you think make you likeable.  You’ll probably want to bathe
beforehand.  But ultimately, you and the
interviewer are going to try to get to know each other.  You’re going to have to find something to
talk about.   

If you want to be impressive, make the interviewer’s job
easier and try to find some common ground. 
Be a good conversationalist. 
Don’t just sit there.   

A simple tip for college interviews

Want to do something simple that will help you have a great college interview? 

Look like you're enjoying yourself. 

It’s hard for an interviewer to
relax and enjoy your company if you are twitching, sweating, and appearing to be
on the verge of complete respiratory failure. 
So relax.  Smile.  Don’t be afraid to be yourself.  The more relaxed you are, the easier you will
be to talk to, and the better the interview will be.   

What if parents are invited to college interviews?

What should you with your parents while you have your college interview?  Simple.  Leave them at home.  Or send them to dinner.  Or send them to Jupiter.  Interviewers are far more interested in what kids have to say about themselves (after all, it's the kids–not the parents–who will ultimately be attending college).  So we tell our Collegewise students not to bring their parents unless the interviewer explicitly asks you to do so (or if it's just an informative interview taking place at a college you haven't actually applied to yet). 

So, what if the interviewer does specifically ask you to bring your parents? 

We've started to see this happen occasionally at some schools, and our Collegewise parents (wisely) ask us if they should take the colleges up on the offer.  A college who asks parents to attend the interview is likely doing so not only to get to know even more about the applicant, but also to get a sense whether or not you have the support of your parents in applying to this particular school.  That's a good opportunity to show colleges that your family is engaged in a thoughtful college search together .  So for parents who are specifically invited to attend college interviews, here are a few tips. 

1. Relax.

Our first tip for parents is the same tip we give to students–relax.  Very few students (or parents) have single-handedly torpedoed the chances of admission with one less-than-stellar answer.  College interviews are usually a relaxed affair.  Kids should treat them as a legitimate opportunity to make a good impression, but they shouldn't worry about this like they do the SAT or the calculus final.  The same holds true for parents. So relax.  Smile.  Enjoy the experience. 

2.  Resist all urges to jump in and answer for your student.

Just because you were invited does not necessarily mean it's a good idea for a parent to jump in and answer questions directed at the student.  Believe us, we understand why you'd want to do so; part of a parent's job feels like you should be a publicist for your kids.  But budding in and answering for them just makes kids nervous and makes the interviewer wish she could hear more from the student.  We recommend you wait to answer questions until one is directed at you. 

3.  When asked to comment about your student, answer candidly.

You are allowed–encouraged, actually–to brag about your student when asked.  Be specific about which accomplishments made you the most proud.  Don't hold back when asked what his strengths are.  Let your pride show.  Just remember not to take over the interview with an answer that takes up the allotted time.     

4.  Consider how excited you would be for your student to attend this particular college.

Colleges know that while many students might apply to schools without outright approval from their parents, they won't get to attend unless Mom and Dad support the choice.  A parent who's invited to attend a college interview should expect to be asked how you see this school for your student, whether or not you think it would be a good match.  There's no need to lie.  In fact, if you have concerns about the fit, be honest.  Express your concerns, but let the interviewer know that you trust your student to make good decisions and that you'll support her choices (if that is actually the case).  An interviewer would be impressed by evidence that the student and parent have had some thoughtful dialog about the college even if they disagree. 

5.  If you're already butting heads about college choices, consider letting your student interview by him or herself.

The teenage years can be stressful on parent/teen relationships.  And the pressures of the college admission process can exacerbate this.  If you've found that the subject of college and how to get there seems to cause immediate conflict in your family, rest assured that it is entirely normal and like many of the trials and tribulations parents go through with teens, it won't last.  But if that's the case, a parent probably shouldn't attend the interview.  Agree to disagree, go to your neutral corners and let your student interview on her own.  That's better than risking a parent/teen flare up during a college interview.