To me, college interviews were so terrifying, especially to put yourself out there and advertise yourself to an alumni at your dream college. But in the past few months, I’ve survived way more college, job, science fair, and scholarship interviews than I thought I would. So, I wanted to share everything I’ve learned from this experience, and give everyone some tips I’ve learned and gathered from these interviews so we can help each other as we trudge on through in this process!
Before the interview…
How do I schedule an interview?
It’s different at different schools! At some schools, like Harvard, they have alumni reach out to you through email after you indicate on the Common App or your application that you would like to have an interview. For other schools, like Duke and Rice, there are priority deadlines for requesting an interview earlier than the normal deadline. At Northwestern, you have to request an interview after you apply.
Please be on the lookout for an email in your inbox or spam folder from an alumni scheduling an interview! They don’t always use their school-affiliated email accounts, so be aware of all emails that come in to avoid missing one.
Prepare your responses—but don’t memorize.
I repeat, please do not memorize your responses, it will sound very robotic and inauthentic. However, you can do your part to prepare! For me, I found a lot of the common interview questions online, wrote a couple bullet notes for what I wanted to say for a question like that, and practiced my answers. If you get time to think about your response and practice your answer, there’s less of a chance that you’ll suddenly wake up in the middle of the night a week later thinking “HANG ON…. I totally should’ve said (this) during my interview!” Obviously, I didn’t get the same exact questions as the ones I prepared for, but I was much better prepared to explain some of the activities and stories that I wanted to explain by preparing. Here are some of the questions that I would recommend preparing for!
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why do you want to go to this college?
- What do you want to study in college?
- What would you contribute to the college?
- Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
- Please explain an extracurricular activity that means a lot to you.
- What were your favorite classes in high school?
- Please describe the community you come from.
- Tell me an instance where you encountered a conflict or a challenge.
- What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?
- What is something unique about you?
- What do you do in your free time?
If there are any slightly specific but common questions that you feel like you would have a hard time answering, you can prepare for that too! For example, I knew that if I got the question, “if you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?,” I would probably just sit there for a couple minutes like “uhh….” But don’t worry, it’s not that common to get really out-of-the-ordinary questions, although I have heard of instances where some students got asked questions about politics, or if the interviewer asked nothing but “tell me about yourself.” In that case, there’s not much you can do, other than to use your best judgement when things don’t go according to plan.
Make sure to prepare questions for the interviewer too that you have about the school! For these questions, try not to ask things like “do you think I’ll get in?” or things that you can easily Google. Instead, show your genuine interest and enthusiasm for the school by asking things about their experiences and student life. For example, I asked about what their dance clubs and humanitarian medicine organizations were like, and whether students were collaborative or competitive. They were questions that I genuinely wanted the answers to, and this is a good time to have a conversation with your interviewer about the school.
How do I research the colleges?
I actually really enjoy researching colleges, because I feel like it gets me really excited about actually going to the school! You can search up keywords for specific programs that you would be interested in. For example, I usually try searching up “humanitarian medicine” with the school name first, to see if they have any specific departments, programs, or clubs that I would be interested in. I also search up faculty and department websites for my major, which is usually computational biology, bioengineering, or biochemistry, and then find the faculty members that I would be interested in conducting research under. I’ve found some really cool research projects and fascinating topics that I’ve love to study that way. Another tip is to search up the name of the school with “student organizations,” where they usually have a database of hundreds of student organizations that you can join. Through these websites, you can filter through the types of groups that you’d be interested in joining, from community service groups to academic groups. Finally, I also love going on the school’s social media and subreddits to find information from the students about what it’s like to be a student at the school. You can search for some really specific information on the schools’ subreddits, whether it’s about food at the dining halls, or if the environment is friendly or competitive.
What do I wear?
Okay, admittedly, I was weirdly stressed out about this. People say “business casual,” but does business casual mean “science fair judging business casual” or “school uniform casual”? In the end, here’s what I would recommend. Firstly, consider where you’re meeting. If you’re meeting at a coffee shop, it would be slightly odd to show up in a full tuxedo or formal wear. For me, I also found my science fair judging clothes to be a bit too formal for the situation, so in the end, I ended up dressing in a nice cardigan with black pants and black ankle boots. This was just a bit more formal than what I usually wear to school, but I do dress quote “business casual” for school sometimes. Sweaters or blouses also work well.
In the end, just try to avoid wearing baggy clothes, clothes with stains, or crop tops, or anything potentially offensive (basically, follow school dress codes)!
Should I “stalk” my interviewer beforehand?
It’s fine to do a bit of light Googling beforehand, maybe look online to try to find their LinkedIn profile or check out their current job and what field they work in. It might be helpful to know what field your interviewer works in, or any large projects that they’ve been involved in. You can also try to find any pictures of them so you know who to look for when you show up at the place. However, it’s a bit creepy to know your interviewer’s entire work history, or every single club and activity that they did since high school. Definitely do not look up your interviewer’s address and show up with binoculars at their house…
Do you need to bring a resume?
Some interviewers don’t even ask for them, but I think it’s helpful to be prepared to hand one over in case they want a resume. For most college interviews, your alumni interviewer knows nothing about your application, so they won’t know what activities you’ve done or awards you’ve won until the interview. Since your interviewer will need to write a report about the interview later on, it’s best to be prepared and have a copy of your resume with you so you can give it to your interviewer in case they would like it for accurately reporting your activities in their report. Some interviewers directly ask for it (mine did) and some don’t, so unless they explicitly say not to bring a resume, I would err on the prepared side and bring one with you.
Some students might have experience making a resume, and some might not, so here are some tips for creating a resume!
- Keep your resume to one page! Yes, you might feel like you have a lot of extracurricular activities and accomplishments that you absolutely have to include, but normal resumes are not meant to exceed more than one to two pages. If you have too many things, just cut out the less important ones. I cut out an entire club president position on mine because I had other things I wanted to include.
- Try to use professional templates, and avoid flashy templates. I use Canva for making my resumes, but be warned, you have to filter through a lot of templates to find one minimalist and professional template that looks good. Some of the aesthetic templates aren’t very professional so choose one that’s as simple as possible.
- Make sure to highlight the activities and accomplishments that you want to showcase most. This was a tip that I got from my counselor, where he told me to shift my activities into categories of research and leadership, moving some of my awards into activities so they would be more prominent, and moving the more self-explanatory ones into a single line on the bottom of the page.
On the day of the interview…
Firstly, show up early! Try to get to the place at least 15 minutes in advance, just in case of any traffic or trouble finding the place. It’s not a good look to show up late to an interview, so better to be really early and have time to get familiar with the feel of the place than to be a bit late. Make sure to turn off your phone and put it on silent mode! It’s quite distracting and disruptive to have your phone dinging during the interview.
Where do you have your interview?
Most interviews take place at coffee shops or other public areas, like a library! I met my interviewer at a boba shop, and we had the actual interview at a library. Interviews aren’t supposed to take place in the interviewer’s home because of safety reasons. Since you should get to the interview at least 15-minutes early, you can find a table to sit down and order yourself a drink, like a tea or lemonade, to sip on during the interview. If you know that caffeine makes you jumpy, don’t order a coffee or anything with caffeine. I wouldn’t recommend ordering food that will require a lot of chewing or eating, since it might be a bit awkward to have your interviewer stare at you while you’re gnawing on some fried chicken. But, if your interviewer orders food, feel free to do the same.
Fun Fact: I have an extreme sensitivity towards coffee where I will get nauseous and throw up if I smell strong coffee. I nearly forgot about this fact, so I’m very glad that I did not accidentally have my interview at a coffee shop, because that would not have been good…
What do I do when it comes time to pay?
If you’re meeting at a coffee shop, you might come to a point where the bill comes. I was really worried about this too—should I offer to pay for my interviewer? Should I let my interviewer pay for me? Here’s what you should do.
- When the check comes, you can say, “I’d be happy to get that.” Usually your interviewer will rebuff, since it’s not very common to have an adult ask a kid to pay.
- You can respond with, “Oh no worries, I can pay for my portion of the check.” Your interviewer might rebuff again, and in that case, you can just thank your interviewer for paying for your drink by saying, “Thank you, I really appreciate that.”
What to do after the interview…
Make sure to thank your interviewer! Your interviewer is an alumnus or alumna who took the time out of their day to talk to you and recommend you for the college you want to go to, so remember to thank them! You can do this by sending them a thank you note through email, a couple hours or up to a day after the interview.
How much do interviews matter?
Whether you did amazingly or you think you bombed the interview, you’re probably wondering, how much do interviews matter? My Harvard interviewer described it like this: it’s like a letter of recommendation from a person who has met you for the first time that day. Because they’ve only met you for the first time that day, it won’t break your application if you’re a bit awkward during the interview, because after all, everyone gets nervous, so they can’t judge your character for being a bit nervous. I think the only instance where an interview could have a significant difference in breaking your application would probably be if you show some big red flags, like if you say something incredibly offensive, or if you start screaming and flipping tables. A Princeton admissions officer told me that anyone who can handle not being a jerk for an hour will do fine for the interview, so it’s just that—don’t be a jerk! These interviews don’t really serve to evaluate your personality, charisma, or soft skills like a job interview either. Yale admissions officers said that the best interviews were the ones that backed up the other descriptions of the person that was portrayed in the application, where they can see it’s the same person in the essays, letter of recommendations, and in the interview. That means, in the end, just be yourself! You don’t have to be the most charismatic and charming person in the world, your interviewer is just there to further affirm the good qualities about you that are written in your application.