The College Interview

The College Interview
Copyright 2013 Roxanne Ocampo

Students have already begun contacting me regarding the “big interview.”  They want to know how they can prepare, what to wear, and tips to shine during this important meeting.   In this article I will share the basic “do’s & don’ts” of interviewing, including appropriate attire and proper etiquette.  I will profile the interviewer or committee/panel – the person(s) who will conduct the interview, and how to research your panel.  Finally, I will present common themes, and the most commonly asked questions by interviewers.

I have an advantage here because my students report back to me immediately following their college and scholarship interviews.  We discuss how they responded, where they could improve, and what strategies they might employ for a future interview.  Rather than giving away the actual questions asked by these committees, I will instead focus on the common themes that frequently arise.

What the Interview “Is” – Why do selective colleges interview students anyway?  What are they looking for?  What can they learn that hasn’t already been provided in the lengthy application and essays?  The interview is intended to add an additional level of scrutiny as a factor for consideration.  After reading essays, viewing statistics, and examining applications, committees are typically looking for specific qualities and characteristics, not particular answers.  The interview is also an important factor the admissions folks use to gage the student’s interest level.  This matters because it may indicate the odds of whether the student may accept or decline their offer of admission – hence, impacting their “yield.”  Therefore, even if a campus states that their interview is “optional,” you should definitely attend.

What the Interview “Is Not” – The interview process is not intended to intimidate students or put them on “the hot seat” so to speak.  Students are not given stump questions so they can stumble or become embarrassed.  This process is not a “make or break” situation.

The Do’s and Don’ts
What to wear?  Always err on the side of being conservative, versus too casual in dress.  For girls this means non-trendy shoes (choose low heels, solid, neutral color), solid color slacks and blazer or long skirt and blazer.  No loud colors, mini-skirts, short dresses, tight-fitting outfits, or low-cut blouses.  For boys this means the basics:  solid white shirt and solid slacks with blazer (preferably black, navy blue, or grey).  Please wear a nice pair of dress shoes, not tennis shoes.  This may sound obvious, yes?  However, I’ve served on many interview panels!  I can attest to the fact that many students, not just a rare few, dress inappropriately to an interview.  Bottom line, dress conservatively and professionally.  Before you leave the house, ask yourself:  “Does this outfit project ‘future leader’ or something else?”

For girls, tone down the makeup and hairstyle.  I’m not saying to show up with a severe, librarian-style bun, looking washed-out and frumpy!  In fact, research confirms that attractive candidates are perceived more favorably compared to an equally qualified, unattractive candidate.  Don’t wear distracting make-up like bright red lipstick, and leave the fake eyelashes and gaudy jewelry at home.  For boys, clean it up.  If you normally wear long hair, comb it back, away from your face.  The goal for male and female students is to present themselves as scholars and future leaders:  mature and professional.

Proper Etiquette.  Don’t bring anything, other than a portfolio, unless specifically asked to do so.  Don’t bring drinks, food, or anything that will be distracting to the interviewer.  First priority:  show up early (10-15 minutes).  When meeting the interviewer or committee, firmly shake the hand of the person(s) conducting the interview, smile, and look them in the eye.  Wait for the instruction to sit down, and follow the protocol established.  At this point, the interviewer may introduce an “ice-breaker” – to ease the student’s anxiety.  Remain calm and poised, and answer all questions succinctly yet thoroughly.  At the conclusion of the interview, shake the interviewers hand and thank him/her for their time.
What if my interview is by phone?  There are pro’s and con’s to a phone interview.  The pro’s are that you can have all of your notes at your side while you respond to questions, you may be more relaxed in the comfort of your home, and you won’t have to worry about dressing up.  The cons are that you won’t have any physical cues to help guide your responses (non-verbal communication) and you lose the ability to establish a more personal connection.
Profile of the Interviewer/Panel

Who will conduct the interview?  Now that you know what to bring and how to dress, you will want to know who will be conducting the interview.  This is an easy question!  For the college interview, you will have already received an invitation (typically emailed) from the interviewer.  Therefore, you will know the interviewer’s name, title, and affiliation.  It will not be a mystery.  Unless you have scheduled an interview on-campus, the interviewer will typically be alumni of the university.

Preparing for the Interview

While you cannot predict the actual questions that will be posed, it is fairly simple to prepare.  How so?  First, you need to do some homework.  You will research the college as well as the biography of the individual conducting the interview.  Researching the college is simple.  You are not looking for famous alumni, or whether the school is ranked as a “top 10” in campus ground aesthetics!  You want relevant information that logically inspired your decision to apply.  This research will help you answer the #1 most commonly asked question, “Why are you applying to our university?”  Be prepared.  What specific program/major appealed to you?  Is their program’s curriculum unique?  Does the campus offer a particular internship or honors program?  You will not be grilled on statistics, so don’t memorize irrelevant data.  However, as a Latino student, you should be aware of factors that may impact your overall success rate – such as matriculation and graduation rates for Latino students.

Do not say:  “I am applying to Yale because of the reputation and prestige, and because of the beautiful architecture.”

Know your interviewer.  In my college essay writing workshops, I always stress the importance of knowing your audience.  This same rule applies to interviews.  Knowing your audience doesn’t mean buttering up the interviewer so that your responses will be more appealing.  It means using common sense and a little knowledge to tailor responses so that they are not offensive, as well as gaining insight to lead and direct discussion.  Using a search engine, search for the name and title of the interviewer.  Most panel members are distinguished in their field, so it will not be difficult to find them online.  You will want to know the interviewer’s educational background and academic interests, as well as the names of organizations in which the interviewer is involved and/or board appointments.  Knowing the academic and political influences of this interviewer may come in handy.  For example, if your research confirms the alumni member assigned to your interview serves on several conservative boards, then you wouldn’t necessarily sway your responses to sound too radical.   In contrast, if your interviewer is involved in several political activities like the Dream Act or National Council of La Raza, then you should take in consideration how to respond to certain questions.  However, do not misinterpret this advice!  I am not saying that interview panel members are narrow-minded, nor am I saying that you cannot express your true feelings about a particular topic.  I am simply recommending that you exercise common sense and be mindful that the interviewer will be a human being – not a robot.  Appreciate that we all have biases and we tend to like people who are like ourselves.

Let me share an example from one of my students.  My student was a biological science major who had an interview with Princeton University.  My student conducted research about her interviewer (a scientist) and found his Curriculum Vitae (CV) online.  Since the interviewer worked for a national laboratory, his research was published online.  My student therefore discovered the interviewer’s strong interest in String Theory.  A week before her interview, she spent time studying physics; specifically, string theory.  During their conversation, my student introduced string theory and they had a lengthy and lively discussion.  Incidentally, this student received a very compelling financial aid package from Princeton.
Common Themes

            Earlier I mentioned that interviewers are interested in specific qualities and characteristics, not particular answers.  They are interested to know about your intellectual curiosity, how you formulate decisions, how you deal with difficult situations and crisis, and whether you are equipped and ready for the challenges of a rigorous university.  They also want to know what makes you unique.

Steer clear of “yes” and “no” answers.
Always provide an example to clarify your point.

For example, if asked whether you have had a significant challenge in life, don’t say “no” and end the dialogue.  Everyone has had a challenge of some type, so use the opportunity to explain to the interviewer how you used critical thinking skills to consider your options and what factors shaped your strategy to resolve the conflict.  Again, it is not a particular answer they seek.  Instead, they want to know how you handled the obstacle (problem solving skills) and what you learned from the experience.

Commonly Asked Interview Questions
            The most commonly asked question by a university will be, “Tell me why you are interested in our college.”  Don’t respond by saying you are impressed with their reputation, graduation rate, athletic teams, or the architecture!  Give considerable thought to this question, and answer honestly.  Suitable responses should focus on their renowned faculty, research facilities, or the breadth of their curriculum.  It may also be a combination of program offerings and on-campus organizations.  This is where you will need to do your homework.  Thoroughly explore all aspects of academic offerings relevant to your major, as well as any programs, clubs, or organizations that pique your interest.

Most Commonly Asked Questions
College Interview
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Why did you select our college?
What are your hobbies; what do you do for fun?
Tell me about an obstacle you have overcome.
Tell me about a person who has significantly influenced you, and why.
Why did you select x major?
What has been your favorite extracurricular activity, and why?
Tell me about a recent book you read, that wasn’t part of your required coursework
How will you contribute to our campus?
Tell me about a recent political issue that interested you.
Do you have any questions for me?

1.     Begin preparing as soon as you receive your scheduled interview notice.
2.     Research the college campus, curriculum for your major, facilities or laboratories for internships or other on-campus research, renowned faculty, honors or other programs available, etc.
3.     Research the individual conducting your interview.
4.     Review the questions (above) and rehearse your answers with a friend or relative.
5.     Show up early.
6.     Wear appropriate, professional attire.
7.     Don’t bring anything with you, other than a portfolio, unless specifically advised to do so.
8.     Don’t chew gum; don’t bring your parents J
9.     Don’t give yes or no answers – elaborate.
10.  Smile.

Good luck!

―Quetzal Mama

Posted October 23rd, 2013 by Quetzal Mama

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