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What to Expect During College Admissions Interviews

By Robin, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

“Honestly, I’d love to be one of the racing sausages for the Milwaukee Brewers!”

I erupted into laughter at my interviewee’s response to my question, “What is something you hope to accomplish before you embark on your college adventure?”

It was certainly one of the most memorable responses I had ever received to that particular question, and it suited the student’s affable, humorous, and engaging personality. Throughout the interview, this student conveyed a sense of comfort with who he was and what his hopes and goals were for the future. This felt less like an interview and more like a casual conversation.

Many colleges and universities provide students the opportunity to personalize the admissions process through an optional interview. The way schools coordinate interviews can vary. Some might utilize the assistance of regional alumni interviewers who conduct interviews in the student’s local area. Others might have admissions staff conduct interviews on campus or via Zoom.

Interviews can occur as soon as the summer after junior year and are ongoing throughout the fall and winter of senior year. Students might have the option to request an interview online via the university’s website, or they might be instructed to submit their application by a certain date to request an interview.

Regardless of where or with whom you interview, it’s important to invest time in preparing. Preparation should include doing your research about the school you’re applying to and possibly even looking up your interviewer on LinkedIn to learn more about that person’s background.

Interview Prep 

One of the best ways to prepare for this type of interview is to anticipate the types of interview questions you’ll likely be asked and practice your responses. Yes, practice your responses by saying them out loud.

You might ask a trusted friend or adult to conduct a mock interview with you and then get their feedback about your responses and body language afterward. I recommend taking that one step further by videoing the interview and playing it back so you can watch your body language and listen to your responses. You don’t need to memorize your responses because you don’t want to sound too scripted, but it helps to state your responses aloud so you clarify in your own mind how you want to express the key points about you and your experiences to the interviewer.

Remember, the interviewer is genuinely excited to get to know you and will likely not have received any additional information about you from the university. So, you must be prepared and comfortable talking about yourself. You might encounter the following sample questions during the interview. Keep reading for suggestions on how you might respond to those questions.

Typical Questions and How to Respond 

Tell me about yourself. Ah, the classic. This is probably the interview opener that nearly everyone has trouble with. How do you respond without rambling on about your biography from birth to the present day? I always suggest that students try to address the following four items when responding to this common interview question:

1. Family background: A student might mention where they’re originally from (if applicable), whether they have siblings, and where they currently attend high school. Example: “I’m the oldest of three siblings, and I’m originally from South Carolina. We moved to Illinois when I was 10. I currently attend Lake Forest High School.”

2. Academic interests: This is where a student needs to demonstrate intellectual curiosity by sharing what academic subjects most intrigue them and why they enjoy those subjects. Example: “I have always been a reader and I absolutely love the English classes I’ve taken in high school. I especially enjoy American literature and am fascinated by the Lost Generation writers and the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

3. Extracurricular activities: Universities value students who are involved in activities that support their academic interests and also reflect their values. You don’t have to list EVERYTHING you’re involved in, only the activities that matter most to you — a highlight reel, if you will. These will likely be activities and pursuits that best align with both your academic and personal interests and demonstrate your leadership ability. Example: “I’m a three-year member of my school’s softball team and will be playing varsity this year for the first time. I’m also the editor-in-chief of my school’s literary magazine and a section editor for the school newspaper. I also spend a lot of time volunteering with a local literacy organization by tutoring elementary students three days a week and assisting the organization with their annual summer camp.”

4. Future aspirations: It’s okay if you’re not sure! Interviewers appreciate honesty, but at the same time, you should be able to respond with some specificity. Example: “While I’m not 100% certain what my future career might be, I hope to work in the field of education policy and possibly attend law school at some point in time.”

By covering these four items, you will give the interviewer (who will likely be taking notes) a lot to work with. The interviewer might even ask follow-up questions based on your responses, which will allow the interview to become more organic and conversational.

Be prepared to expand on any of the details you share in response to this question, especially if you and the interviewer share similar experiences and interests. The interviewer wants to learn more about your story, so follow-up questions might be more directed toward learning more about your personality, academic interests, and extracurricular pursuits.

The questions listed below are great ones to practice responding to as you prepare for your interview.

  • What have been your most significant academic/extracurricular achievements in high school?
  • What academic subjects have been most challenging and why?
  • Describe an academic experience you’ve had that surprised you in a positive way.
  • Describe an academic experience that challenged you and/or pushed you out of your comfort zone.
  • Describe who you are as a learner. If I were observing you in a class, what would I notice? Do you like to work independently? Are you a collaborator? Both?
  • If I were sitting here with a group of your friends and asked them to describe you to me, what would they tell me?
  • Think back to who you were in ninth grade — how have you evolved over these past four years?
  • What are your greatest strengths?
  • Conversely, what are some aspects of your personality that you’re working on? (The interviewer might use the word “weaknesses.”)
  • How have you spent your summers?
  • If you had an extra hour in your day, how would you use it? (No, you should not say “sleep.”)
  • What is something you hope to accomplish before you leave for college?

Of course, the interviewer’s main goal is to get a sense of why you want to attend that university and how you will contribute to the campus community. Don’t be surprised if you encounter questions like:

  • How did you get interested in X University?
  • Have you had a chance to visit the campus? If so, tell me about your experience.
  • Why are you interested in studying _____ at X university?
  • What student organizations do you picture yourself being part of at X University?
  • What do you hope to get out of your college experience?
  • What do you think might be the biggest challenge you experience when acclimating to college life? What do you think will be the easiest part for you?

Questions to Ask the Interviewer  

Lastly, make sure you come into the interview with questions for the interviewer! Try to avoid vague questions like “How is the biology department?” and questions that can easily be answered by searching the school’s website.

For admissions staff members who did not attend the school:

  • How do you think college academics differ from high school academics?
  • Tell me more about the class registration process for first-year students.
  • What are the “hot topics” students are most passionate about right now?
  • What are ways in which you feel the school can improve the student experience?
  • How would you describe the campus culture?

If the interviewer is an alum of the school, you might ask:

  • What initially attracted you to X University?
  • How did X University live up to and/or didn’t meet your expectations?
  • What is your most memorable moment from your time at X University?
  • What has been the value of your degree/campus resources since graduating?

The Goal of the College Admissions Interview   

As you can see, the admissions interview can cover a lot of ground, so it’s important that you go into it feeling as prepared as possible and ready to share your experiences with the interviewer. Remember, that person will be there to learn about you! Overall, the goal is to walk away from the interview with more knowledge about the university (hopefully, you’re even more excited about the school!) while making a lasting impression on the interviewer, which will be conveyed in their interview report that goes into your application file.

Don’t forget to send a brief thank you note to the interviewer within 48 hours after the interview. A handwritten note can be a nice touch, but email is acceptable as well. Remember to proofread and convey your enthusiasm for the school!

With universities continuing to experience a record number of applications, the application review process is seemingly losing that personal touch. For that reason, the optional interview can be a great way for a student to reclaim some agency in this process. Preparation for an interview can go a long way, and the college admissions interview is great practice for other interviews as well — internships, research positions, jobs, etc.

IvyWise can help you prepare for interviews and every aspect of the college admissions process. Contact us to learn how our admissions counselors can help you feel confident and comfortable with the entire college admissions journey, including your interviews.

To learn more about Robin, read her biography and watch her video below!

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