How to Nail Your College Interview

If they’re offered, college interviews can be a vital opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants.

As a professional “head hunter,” I deal with interview processes on a daily basis. After years of preparing job-seekers for their interviews, I turned my know-how to my children and their friends as they prepared to apply to colleges.

Many an evening we would sit around the dining room table with some cookies and notes to talk about interviews and practice answering some common questions together. They learned how to evaluate a given school’s fit for them (and vice versa). As we worked together, I saw their confidence levels rise.

Here’s some of the advice and information I shared with them:

Why Interview?

Despite a strong essay, good grades, and stellar teacher recommendations, we found interviews, on or off campus (with alumni), to be influential. The advice we got from college counselors was to call before a campus visit, and ask for an interview with an admissions officer.

The in-person meeting had several goals and outcomes. By meeting with someone from the school, we were all able to learn more about the college and see if it was a good fit. The conversation also gave the admissions officer another perspective on the student. When admissions officers select their new freshman class, the impression they gained during an interview can sway them in the selection process. It can also be helpful when negotiating financial aid once a student is admitted.

Remember, any opportunity to meet someone in person is more powerful than an essay delivered electronically. Make a good impression by selecting an appropriate outfit, being on time, and demonstrating that you are prepared. Take this opportunity to show the interviewer who you are and what a great addition you would be to the student body.

Preparing for The Interview

When I am helping prepare someone for an interview, I like to put things in perspective. You would never present a paper or a project without doing your homework and preparing your presentation, so why show up to an interview without practice? An interview is a marketing presentation of yourself, so here are some important considerations.

Study The University’s Offerings

What you like and what you do best are often the same. Look for colleges that match your interests and have student-life characteristics that aligns with your values. Being able to speak to why this university fits your personality will come in handy as you answer questions from the admissions officer.

Remember that an interview is also a chance for you to learn about the university. Make a list of what you’d like to ask. What you ask should demonstrate that you’ve done some research. If the question could be answered by searching the school’s website or Google, then you shouldn’t bring it up. Instead, ask questions that give you new information and show you’ve already done preliminary research.

For example, a question like “What are the challenges that students seem to struggle with the most at this school?” will give you a new perspective on the college. Questions like “As an aspiring architect, I would love to have professor X as my advisor, but I know she works in the graduate school. Would it be possible to work with her as an undergrad?” show that you’ve researched the school’s academic program.

Brainstorm Possible Questions

Anticipate the questions that the admissions officer may ask, and create some possible answers or scenarios to field them. You can expect questions that fall into these categories:

Questions about the university

The interviewer wants to find out if you are truly interested in this institution. These questions will try to determine if you did your homework about the school/programs, and if you really want to attend. Some examples:

  • “What attracted you to this specific college?”
  • “How do you feel about fulfilling our requirements?”
  • “What do you imagine that going to this college would be like?”

Questions about how you stand out

The admissions officer would like to find a diverse student body and identify who will be successful at her school. These questions will try to pinpoint the characteristics that make you unique. Some common examples include:

  • “What are you passionate about?”
  • “What was your proudest moment?”
  • “What do you hope to accomplish in the future?”

Questions about your opinions

These questions try to make you think on your feet and asses your critical thinking skills. For example, “What is your opinion about X current affair?”

FAB Presentation

With these questions in mind, it’s time to craft answers that will showcase your Features, Accomplishments, and Benefits, or FAB.

A feature is a fact about you. Think about your abilities, skills, and experience. A feature should be factual and objective and answer the question, “What?” For example, “I excel at biology” or “I play soccer.”

An accomplishment is a significant achievement, such as high grades, publications, awards, or projects that stand the test of time. Accomplishments should include quantitative measures and brief stories that illustrate a feature and answer, “How well?” For example, “I won an award at my district’s science fair,” or “I was selected as the MVP of my soccer team.”

A benefit is an example of how you would contribute to the college community. The benefit takes into account your previously-stated features and accomplishments, and translates the facts in terms of what you have to offer. They answer the question, “How do you add value?” For example, “I’d be interested to work with Prof. X on her research about mitochondria,” or “I would love to be a goalie on your college’s soccer team.”

Before an interview, create at least 10 FAB statements. Write them down, and practice saying them out loud. Identify how you could use these FABs to answer the possible questions you brainstormed. You’ll gain confidence by recognizing that you have concrete skills and abilities to share. You’ll also be more succinct and less likely to forget an important idea or example.

Thank You Notes

Make sure you get a business card from the person who interviews you. Send a follow-up thank-you email. And don’t make it generic. This is another opportunity to differentiate yourself from others. Remind the interviewer about something unique or interesting that you discussed during your conversation.