6 Tips to Ace Your Middle or High School Interview

Most adults feel a degree of trepidation when they face an interview — and for children, the fear can be mixed with anxiety about the unknown. Check out these six tips by an admissions expert to help your child prepare for a middle or high school interview.

The school interview. It can create anxiety and fear, especially for children who may still be in elementary or middle school. What is the purpose, and is there anything you can do to help your child more effectively prepare?

Most private and even some selective public schools use the interview to get to know a child — that is, the actual person — beyond the qualities and achievements that are revealed on paper, in grades, and in test scores. This interpersonal interaction gives the admissions representative an opportunity to learn more about a student, less as an assessment per se, but as a means to evaluate if the fit between student and school will serve the child well. The ultimate goal of the interview, indeed, is often misinterpreted — it is primarily for the benefit of the applicant and the family.

The Interviewer’s Job

Unfortunately, with younger children (and even some older ones), there is often a conflict between the interviewer’s objective of getting to know the student, and the child’s anxiety about the interview — a clash that may stand in the way of meeting this goal. Having said that, it is important for families to remember that it is the interviewer’s job, as a professional, to make sure that the child feels comfortable and to draw her out.

Quiet or shy children are not inherently at a disadvantage, as many parents worry, since most schools are looking for more than just outspoken or gregarious children. So, remember that it is the interviewer’s job to help the child shine, whether that student is quiet or voluble.

If the school also asks for interviews with prospective students' parents, check out this article with tips for the parent interview.

The Child’s Task

At the same time, it is worth reminding kids that the interview is not an opportunity to talk about information that they already provided in the application. In other words, the purpose of the conversation is not to rattle off a list of accomplishments to serve as a verbal cover letter. On the contrary, this session is a unique opportunity to help the interviewer get to know the applicant as a person — what makes her tick, what her true passions are, what experiences have made her into the person she is today.

From a practical perspective, there are six key tips that will help your child get ready for her admissions interview.

1. Do your homework.

Get to know the school a bit, particularly those aspects that especially appeal to you. This can be as simple as spending 15 (quality!) minutes on the school’s website, looking through its guide, or even better, speaking with other kids, parents, teachers, or counselors who know the school well. Get a sense of the school culture, its mission, and what it values. Pay attention to what the school emphasizes on its website and what it says it is looking for in a student.

Many students go into interviews without having taken this simple step, and they wind up appearing as if they don’t care about being there or as if they know nothing about the school. This, in turn, can create the impression that a student is careless or lazy, and what enthusiasm she may be able to express for the school can come across as insincere — as if she’s only there because her parents made her apply.

Ask about the interview format ahead of time; it’s fine to call the school or check its website for this information. Will it be a group interview? Do parents sit in? Will you get to tour the school first (an experience that can provide great material to talk about in the interview!)?

Be sure to have a couple of questions ready to ask — and note that the best questions are not about information you can easily find in the school’s print guide or on its website. Thoughtfulness counts; reflect on these areas ahead of time and be ready to explore them with your interviewer:

  • What about the school culture resonates with you?
  • Do you have a passion for something the school offers?
  • How could you contribute to the school community if you were to attend?

These sorts of inquiries will help the interviewer — and you! — get a sense of whether or not you genuinely consider the school to be a good fit and have what it takes to add something unique once you are admitted. And probing questions like these will create a much more lasting impression than if you ask about the cafeteria food or which foreign languages are offered — both of which are probably noted on the school’s website.

2. Appearance and behavior count.

This may sound entirely obvious, but first impressions matter — after all, these are people conducting the interview. And just as with having done your homework about the school thoroughly, dressing appropriately and behaving politely will go a long way toward projecting a sense that you truly care about being there. Check with friends and neighbors, and even the school, on the most suitable dress, but remember it’s always better to err on the conservative side rather than take a risk.

Don’t leave logistical details to chance either — know where you’re going, show up on time (or rather, a few minutes early), and remember that you are creating an impression from the moment you arrive on school property.

3. Actively listen to the interviewer, and answer questions concisely.

The interviewer is trying to get to know you, so it defeats the purpose if you don’t hear each complete question or fail to answer it entirely. And, of course, interrupting the interviewer isn’t polite (admissions representatives understand that as you behave at the interview, so shall you behave once accepted).

Still, there is no need to rattle off eight or 10 examples in response to a question. It’s better to pick one or two things, focus on them intently, and provide greater depth. Once you’ve answered the question, it’s OK to put a period at the end of a sentence. That is, silence isn’t taboo; in fact, it’s the interviewer’s job to keep the conversation moving — not yours.

4. Interviewing is not an academic exercise.

By that, I mean there is typically not a right or wrong answer. What matters most is that you have an opinion and can back it up. And certainly don’t give a response because it’s what you think the interviewer wants to hear; it’s much better to give a thoughtful, honest answer, even if it’s contrary to what you think the representative wants you to say.

Still, while creativity and honesty are good, getting too risky with your answers can work against you — so keep it conservative. And if you are tripped up by a question, take a moment to think, ask for clarification if necessary, and give a response that comes most naturally. Remember, there is no correct or incorrect answer.

5. Think of what you would regret not mentioning.

Before the interview, pick out one or two things about yourself that you feel are key to understanding who you are. Write them down on an index card, keep it on you (but don’t take it out during your interview), and have it on your mental agenda. Usually, these factors are core personality traits that truly matter and define you, that illustrate what makes you tick, and that can be described through an experience or story. These can be mundane events, memories, or routines — it’s how you dealt with them and their impact that truly matters (and that you will want to communicate), not the particular example or topic itself.

6. Be sure to get the full names and emails of the people you meet with.

Whether you thank your interviewer(s) via email or postal mail, what’s most important is the content of the note. Generic messages will mean very little; put some thought into what you write, and ideally include something you haven’t already shared or contributed. It’s also helpful to relate these ideas directly to your visit. Keep it short and sweet, though — your interviewer still has a lot of paperwork to sift through.

A Final Piece of Advice

A week or two prior to the interview, try to do at least one mock interview with an adult other than your parents. This isn’t meant so much to script your answers — indeed, that’s the last thing you want to do. Rather, the goal is to become accustomed to the interview format, procedures, and an unfamiliar situation. You can even record the session so you understand the impression you’re making.

And be sure to ask your mock interviewer what she learned about you — because that is the most important thing you can accomplish, after all!

As part of your first step, use the Noodle search tool to learn more about NYC high schools — or, if you are studying elsehwere, great middle or high schools near you.

You can also learn more from Maurice Frumkin about the NYC high school admissions process.

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