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Preparing for a college admission interview

Suzanne Shaffer

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An interview can be a valuable part of the college application. It may also be your student’s first exposure to what a job interview might be like after graduation. Any interview can cause anxiety, but the college interview is especially stressful. Your student will be wondering:

  • What questions will they ask?
  • How will I answer?
  • Will my answers be "right"?
  • Will I make a good impression?
  • Will they like me?

My daughter's most stressful interview was with her dream college because she wanted to make the best impression possible to influence the admission decision since her test scores and grades put her on the bubble. As it turned out, her interview performance was strong and was the one aspect of her application that placed her in the acceptance pile.

Not all schools offer interviews. For those that do, there are four general types of interviews and your student will choose which one works best depending on timing and circumstances.

On-campus interviews

When your student schedules a campus visit and tour, they should also schedule an interview with an admissions officer if these are available. This is a chance for your student to demonstrate interest, a quality many colleges look for when considering an applicant.

The interview is an opportunity for the college to really get to know your student, and it's also your student’s opportunity to interview the college. The questions they ask are just as important as the questions they answer. In the end, it’s not just about the college’s decision to admit your student, but your student’s decision to accept an offer of admission. Information gathered in this interview can be helpful when making that final choice.

Off-campus interviewsTips for your high school student preparing for a college interview, by Suzanne Shaffer for CollegiateParent

Colleges often send representatives to other regions of the country to conduct interviews with prospective applicants. This can happen on a high school campus or in a hotel conference room. High school counselors are usually notified beforehand, so your student should check with their counselor on a regular basis for scheduled sessions and times. Colleges will also list these opportunities on their website and will email your student if your student has been in touch with them about their interest in the school.

My daughter’s interview for Boston University took place at a local hotel with an admissions officer who was traveling across Texas conducting interviews and attending college fairs. Except for the setting, the experience was just like it would have been if she'd visited campus in person.

Alumni interviews

When a student isn't able to visit campus for an interview, or the school's admissions staff doesn’t have the time or resources to schedule meetings with all their applicants off campus, alumni networks often step in to assist. Your student can request an alumni interview, or the college may offer one. Either way, the alumni volunteer will then reach out to your student to schedule a meeting.

This interview, usually a casual conversation in a public setting like a coffee shop, not only allows an applicant to hear about the college from someone who attended, but it gives the college a more “human” picture of the applicant.

After the interview, the alumnus/a will submit a written evaluation to the college, usually commenting on character, intellectual curiosity and whether they feel the student is a good fit for the school. Even though this interview may be informal, your student should prepare in the same way they would for any other interview and strive to make a positive impression. A negative or even so-so evaluation from an alumnus/a can put an application that is borderline into the rejection pile; a strong evaluation may nudge that same application into the admission pile.

Online interviews

Colleges are now using technology to conduct interviews with students online. This is especially convenient when a student lives across the country from their college of interest or is unable to travel for a face-to-face interview. If your student is interviewing online, there are few additional preparations to consider:

  • If using a laptop, either plug it in or make sure it is charged.
  • Test everything before the interview: internet connection, microphone, camera.
  • Check the background — it should be uncluttered and clean looking with good light.
  • Dress the part — this isn’t a “pajamas at home” opportunity!
  • Choose a quiet environment (home is probably best; a noisy coffee shop will not work).

How can you help your student prepare?

Advance preparation is key and you can help by following these simple steps:

1. Provide encouragement and relieve some of the pressure.

It’s cheerleading time and you know your student better than anyone. Speak positive words that promote confidence and help them keep their cool and perspective. Remain calm yourself; have a laugh or two.

Remind your student that this interview is just one of many they will have to participate in during their lifetime. They should approach it comfortably and openly. The college is looking for a student who is relaxed and able to interact during the interview. The best advice is to “be yourself.”

2. Help them prepare questions and practice interview technique.

Your student should have a game plan for both answering and asking interview questions. Preparing for common questions/themes can help them feel relaxed. Questions usually fall into four categories: your student's fit with the college, their personality and learning style (including about their current coursework), their interests and goals, and broader questions requiring a more thoughtful response. For sample questions as well as tips on how to answer them, follow this link: Can You Answer These 10 College Interview Questions?

The last question a college interviewer will ask your student is, “What are your questions for me?” It's super important that the answer not be, "I can't think of any." Follow this link for examples of questions your student can ask: 5 Questions You Should Ask on a College Interview. Definitely recommend that your student start with in-depth research on the college's website and customize their questions.

If your student isn't comfortable doing a practice interview with you, help them find someone else to play that role: a friend, friend's parent, aunt or uncle, etc.

3. Provide a wardrobe consultation, and help them get there on time.

The college interview doesn’t require formal dress, but it’s not a “come as you are” event either. Help your student choose attire that is comfortable but also professional. Jeans with rips, although fashionable, are not appropriate for the college interview.

Then, remind them to plan their route and commute to the interview well in advance. Maybe they'll even let you drive them!

4. Explain the importance of a thank you note.

Your student should ask for a business card after the interview. The interviewer is a contact for future communication with the college and the card is a handy reminder to write a thank you note (not email). The thank you note demonstrates that your student appreciated the interviewer's time and is seriously interested in attending the college.

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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