Tell Me About Yourself: How to Master the Admissions Interview

Posted: April 3, 2016

It’s college visit season for juniors (and even sophomores!) As part of a smart admissions campaign, you should always sign up for a formal tour and information session at the colleges you visit. If you are visiting a campus far from home, you should also consider requesting an interview with an Admissions officer.
What? Why? What if I decide I don’t want to go there?
As The Grinder would say, “But what if you do?” Take Zack as an example. Zack took a trip to Colorado to visit colleges, primarily Colorado College in Colorado Springs. It was summer and he hadn’t really thought about where he wanted to apply, but CC sounded interesting (they have a block schedule, so you only take one class at a time), so he put it on his visit list. He chose not to request an interview because he didn’t know if he wanted to apply.
Early November rolled around and Zack decided, “Sure, I’d like to go to CC.” Because he knew that CC is highly selective and would require a full admissions campaign, he visited the school website to request an alumni interview.
But there were no slots left for interviews in his area! In early November!
The College Interview is an important tool in your admissions toolbox. Remember, the Admissions Committee is trying to get to know you better, to understand what kind of roommate you’ll be, what kind of student in the classroom, what kind of leader on campus. What better way than to sit down with you and have a friendly conversation?
Your interview is often the first time you have a real, adult conversation. I’m not talking about chatting with your boss or your friend’s parents. Talking to teachers doesn’t really cut it. This is like a business interview, one where you’ll want to prepare in advance with some good stories to share that make you look good.
Some common interview questions, and answers:
  1. Tell me about yourself: The perennial favorite, this question is designed to learn what is unique about you. DON’T Give a 2 word answer (I’m a hard-worker.) DO give an interesting response, one that only you can tell. Do you play the bagpipes while riding a unicycle dressed as Darth Vader? Great! Did you train your cat to walk on a leash? Amazing! If your short answer has a story behind it, so much the better. Then you have something to talk about for the next five minutes, which means fewer questions to answer.
  2. Why are you interested in our college? This can be a tough one for those who are undecided, like Zack. But you should have had some reason to come to their campus, other than “We were on vacation in the area.” DO Check out their website before you visit. What is interesting or unique about the school? “You have a top-ranked neuroscience program and that’s what I want to major in.” Or “I like your service-learning requirement.” Again, be ready to elaborate a bit. The more you control the conversation, the less likely you are to be nervous.
  3. What can I tell you about our college? This is tricky because it requires some research. DON’T ask a question you can easily answer by visiting their website like “When is the application deadline?” or “Do you have a psychology major?” (Spoiler Alert: They do.) DO ask for opinions: “What is your favorite campus tradition?”; “How would you describe the personality of your campus?”; “What is the one thing graduates appreciate about going to school here?”
  4. What do you want to major in? Why? Being undecided is tough enough without feeling like you have to justify it to a college interviewer. DON’T freak out. You are not committing to your perfect ultimate major at this exact moment. DO share your thoughts about majors. “I like math and history, so maybe economics?” or “I’m really looking forward to trying a lot of different classes before I decide.”
  5. What do you do for fun? Oh, how I hate this question! In point of fact, I watch TV for fun, but that’s not an answer that moves the conversation along unless you phrase it well. DON’T say “Netflix and chill.” DO give a specific answer that opens the door for a follow-up question. “I don’t have much free time outside of school/sports/volunteering, so when I do have a few moments, I like to binge-watch Project Runway. I find it relaxing and I’ve always wanted to be able to make my own clothes.” or “To be honest, I love those 'Irish people try X for the first time' videos on Youtube. I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. Do you offer any study abroad programs there?”
  6. Who is your hero? What historical or fictional figure are you most like? This one you should be sure to prepare for, so you have a good answer. DON’T mention Hunger Games or Divergent. Everyone is using Katniss and Triss. Everyone. DO be creative here. Pick someone unusual who shares a particular trait with you. Your hero does not need to be someone famous. You will have plenty of time to explain your choice in the interview, unlike in an essay with a specific word count.
  7. Tell me about a challenge you overcame. The key here is to focus on the overcoming, not the challenge. You might be tempted to play up how difficult the challenge was but try to resist. The interviewer wants to hear how you overcame it. DO be positive and enthusiastic about your abilities. DON'T discuss challenges like depression, substance abuse, etc. These set off alarm bells for colleges because they know college life will be even more stressful than high school, and they don’t want to put a fragile student into jeopardy.
  8. Recommend a good book to me. Like "who is your hero" and "tell me about a challenge," this is a question you want to anticipate and have a great answer for. DON'T just blurt out the title of the most recent book you read or pick a book you read in school just because it sounds intelligent. DO be ready to discuss your choice. Recommend a serious book to make the best impression, but even something frivolous will work if you have a thoughtful reason behind it. “Actually, I just finished re-reading Harriet the Spy. It’s a kid’s novel, but I really appreciate her curiosity and sense of adventure, even though her home life isn’t the greatest.”
As you can see, many of these questions are best prepared for ahead of time. You can find other great practice interview questions and suggested answers at Practice a bit with a parent, teacher or counselor before you go on campus visits. This is actually the best reason to interview at a school you’re not sure you want to apply to. It’s perfect practice, so when you interview when it really counts, you’ll be polished and confident.
Not interviewing is not the end of the world—simply asking for an interview shows interest—but getting in there and making a good impression goes a long way toward getting you some positive buzz around the Admissions committee table. At highly-selective schools, a good interview can be the difference between an acceptance and a spot on the waitlist. Be prepared.

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