Observations on the College Interview, from a Princeton Interviewer

May 7, 2000 (Updated Apr 12, 2004)

The Bottom Line Do your homework before the college interview. Be informed about the school and be prepared to ask questions. Most importantly, be yourself.

It seems like just yesterday when I was walking through the halls of my high school, leading my college interviewer nervously to a classroom so that we could get acquainted. I wore my best suit, and also had an oversized backpack with all of my homework for that night. I had already done most of the work required to get into my dream school, and this was the final piece of the puzzle. As far as I was concerned, this interviewer was the only thing standing between me and the school of my dreams. I had to make sure that I answered everything correctly, and that I put my best foot forward to impress the interviewer. If I could convince the interviewer that I was the smartest and most talented student on this side of the country, then I was a "shoo-in" to gain admission.

That was my thinking in late fall of 1994. In the winter of the new millennium, I took my seat on the other side of the table. After experience four years of separation from the college interview process, I decided that I was interested in helping prospective students make the right collegiate decision. Being on both sides of the table, it is my hope that I can offer a complete picture for all prospective college students so that they can not only approach the interview with the right mentality, but also understand the mentality with which the interviewer approaches it.

1. Be ready to answer the initial phone call.
It is expected that most students will be nervous when answering the phone call and not be as glib as your local politician. This does not mean that it is OK to sound like the lion in Wizard of Oz. The trick is to sound excited and confident. Furthermore, when setting up a time, do not be afraid to suggest a time that is convenient for you or tell the interviewer that a suggested time is bad. The last thing an interviewer wants to do is to re-juggle his/her schedule because a student is not assertive enough to organize his/her life. Finally, remember that this is the only chance a student has to make a first impression, and if that first impression is favorable, then it is very likely that the interviewer will be more excited to meet the student.

2. Unless your interviewer says so, dress up for your interview.
If nothing is said about how you should dress, then business attire should always be the norm. If you cannot afford a business suit, then dress in slacks and a nice collared shirt. Interviewers are usually in the working world, and are accustomed to seeing people on the other side of the table in respectable, professional dress. I have spoken to other friends who interview, and a common remark I hear is that they are surprised that the interviewee arrives to the session in jeans. I am also guilty of noticing this detail. The last thing you want to do is detract attention from your candidacy by allowing the interviewer to focus on what you are wearing.

As a general rule of thumb, if you are interviewing in a private location such as the interviewer's office or home, your home, your school, or on the college campus, wear a suit. I tend to interview in public places such as coffee shops and restaurants, so I request casual clothing. If your interviewer suggests a public locale, don't be afraid to ask what type of dress he expects, as wearing a business suit in Starbucks may not be the appropriate attire. If you are interviewing for a creative school, such as fashion or art, you may be able to get away with something that better reflects your personality and talent, but if you are unsure, always err on the side of conservatism.

3. Be yourself.
The purpose of the interview is for a representative of the school to meet you in person. Remember that everything you wrote on your applications has already been reviewed by an admissions committee, and that this interview affords you the opportunity to express anything about yourself that couldn't be said on the application. With that in mind, you should be thinking about the personal qualities that will set you apart from other students. All colleges are looking for diversity - not only racially but in talents as well.

The last thing any college wants is a homogeneous student body. By trying to play to the interviewer's favor, you may be doing yourself a disservice because your true shining quality may be lost, thus hurting your chances of admission. Keep in mind that most interviewers have interviewed not only other students, but also professionals at all levels of the corporate ladder, so they know what qualities to look for in an interviewee. If all applicants have the same qualifications, then there is nothing to make any one of them stand out. However, if you can bring something different and unique to the table that would be a great addition to the student body, then the interviewer is more likely to remember you and give you a stronger nod.

4. Be prepared.
This is the most important aspect of the college interview. I will not discuss what you will most likely be asked as there are tomes written on what questions will be thrown at you. Most students tend to handle these standard questions well, however fail when challenged to consider why they deserve to attend a particular college, and this is an area, that when properly thought-out, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the college interview.

Interviewers take great pride in talking about their schools. Therefore, you have a better chance of making the interviewer being interested in you if you can show you've done your research. This does not mean remembering every single admission statistic, but it means contemplating how you would fit in at the school. Some good questions for you to consider are:
What academic programs at the school interest you, and why?
Which activities on campus interest you? If it doesn't exist, would you be willing to start one up?
Is there anything unique about the faculty that makes you want to study here?
What personal qualities can you contribute to the student body that another applicant cannot?
What are some of your goals in life, and how will this school help you accomplish them?

While there are a zillion questions you can consider, the key to effectively researching a campus is to really think about why you would be happy at that school, and whether you would succeed there, either because they offer great resources for students, or your strengths are a great match for the school. I take the interview as an opportunity to offer further insights that are not available in the prospectus or in college guidebooks. However, I also take this time to determine if an applicant's interests and talents are a good fit for the school, and if a student is not prepared, then that is usually a strong indication that the applicant is not really interested in attending my school.

5. Ask questions.
It usually makes an interviewer feel good to have questions asked. Not only does this fill in those awkward silences, it also satisfies the interviewer's strong natural desire to convey his/her own experiences upon the typically nave applicant. Applicants who ask questions tend to impress interviewers because it shows not only a curiosity about the school, but indicates that a student has given real thought about whether this is a good collegiate fit. Some good questions to ask interviewers are:
If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same school?
What was your best experience?
What was your worst experience?
What do you think are the best qualities of the school?
What would you change about the school?

I enjoy answering questions asked by applicants because I feel that I have unique knowledge about my school that I believe would help an applicant in the college hunt. Furthermore, I find that candidates who ask more questions tend to be very inquisitive in their academics, which is a highly desired quality among applicants.

6. The interviewer wants you to get in.
I remember feeling that my interviewers were elitists, intent only on giving a glowing review to the next Albert Einstein. This is not true. Most college interviewers do this job as an unpaid hobby outside of their normal careers. They typically interview anywhere from 5 to 10 candidates each year. What this means is that for volunteering their time, college interviewers wish to receive some form of satisfaction in return. This comes in the form of one of their interviewees being accepted by the school.

However, interviewers will not give glowing reports for the sake of giving all applicants equal chances of admissions. Interviewers desire to have their candidate reports mean something to the admissions committee, so exercising discretion in recommendations is extremely important. As long as you are yourself, and can demonstrate why you deserve to attend the school, you will receive a good report.

7. A bad interview is not the end of the world.
If you do not interview well, you can take solace in knowing that compared to everything else you have already submitted to the admissions committee, the college interview is a small part of the overall equation. In fact, most candidate decisions are made by the admissions committee by the time the Candidate Interview Reports are submitted. So why even be concerned about the interview? The interview is often the very last piece of information the admissions committee sees before mailing out decisions. It can also help those students who are "on the bubble." With all other qualifications being equal, a glowing interview report can make the difference between being accepted and being placed on the wait list.

Final Thoughts
I love interviewing prospective students for admission into Princeton University. It reminds me of my high school days when I was going through the same routines, and makes me think about what I can do to help the applicant make the best college decision for him/her. I realize that not every student I interview would be happy at Princeton, so I feel justified if I cannot give everybody a glowing report. But more interestingly, I have discovered that being an interviewer is not about playing the bad guy. In fact, I see myself playing two roles: one as a guidance counselor, and the other as a salesperson.

I feel like a guidance counselor because I feel that no other person with whom the applicant interfaces during the college process can offer advice about Princeton that would be as useful as I can offer, given my experiences there. I feel like a salesperson because I take great pride in what my alma mater can offer prospective students and want to share it with those whom I believe would receive the most benefit from it.

Overall, the college applicant should treat the college interview as the single best resource of information about a school. Adopt this mindset, and you, as a candidate will be able to better predict if the school is a good match for you. Furthermore, you will help the interviewer give a better assessment of your candidacy, which in turn will translate into a better report to the admissions committee.

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