The dos and don'ts your child needs to know to stand out during college admissions interviews
If you're reading this, your child has probably submitted all of their college applications—congratulations to them on their huge accomplishment!
Sure, they're anxious to hear back from their top-choice schools, but it’s really time for them to kick their feet up and cruise through the rest of senior year (except those AP courses, ahem), right?
Not so fast! Many universities—mostly private schools—ask alumni or other admissions staff to meet with college applicants on behalf of the admissions committee. Their goal is either: 1) to evaluate your child for admission, 2) to offer your child an opportunity to learn more about their school, or 3) both.
Although this meeting is an important part of the application process and may be nerve-racking for your child, here are several considerations and related tips to demystify and help your child ace the college admission interview:
Your Child Controls What Colleges Learn About Them and What They Learn About Colleges
Whereas some schools use this meeting as a formal admission interview (i.e., an evaluative interview), others use it as an informal opportunity to answer students’ questions about college life, opportunities to pursue research, study abroad programs, etc. (i.e., an informational interview).
As a former Cornell University admissions interviewer, my experience fits the latter. We were asked to focus on applicants’ fit with Cornell and to give them the chance to discuss anything they have not included in their application, like a special talent or interest, a recent accomplishment, or difficult life circumstance.
Tips: Your child should be courteous and sociable to leave a positive impression on their interviewer and learn more about their school. There are many sites that offer guidance on general interview etiquette (e.g., greeting your interviewer with a smile and a firm handshake, sitting upright, etc.), but standout applicants have back-and-forth conversations with interviewers, rather than let the interview turn into a question-and-answer session. Some ways your child can achieve this are to:
1. Expand on answers to demonstrate their qualities.
For example, instead of answering, “Creating art is one of my favorite hobbies,” when your child is asked what they enjoy doing during their spare time, they should say something like, “Creating art has been one of my greatest passions for a very long time, and I’m constantly experimenting with new mediums and exploring new styles. For example, although I’ve been creating oil paintings on canvas since I was nine, I started working on metal sculptures two years ago. Adding metal work to my portfolio has been a challenge, but my growth in that area has expanded to my oil paintings, which have improved as a result.”
Whereas the first answer merely tells the interviewer that your child enjoys art, the second answer demonstrates a passion and commitment for art, as well as a motivation to grow. Answering questions the latter way will help your child demonstrate their wonderful qualities, similar to the approach to writing great college essays.
2. Ask the interviewer questions throughout the interview.
Most applicants ask all of their questions toward the end of the interview when the interviewer solicits them.
Waiting until the end automatically creates a question-and-answer session that feels boring and puts pressure on your child to ask great questions that will leave a lasting positive impression.
On the other hand, conversations are more natural—and certainly more memorable—when your child ask questions throughout the interview about the school and its various offerings, as well as about the interviewer and their own college experience.
For example, when your child is asked how they would feel about moving to a rural town for school despite growing up in a big city, they could say, “Moving to a rural locale excites me. I’ve lived in a big city my whole life, where things are often hectic, so I would welcome the opportunity to move to a town with a slower pace and develop a close community there. I’d love to hear about your experiences moving to rural Pennsylvania for school, since you mentioned growing up in Boston. How was that transition for you?”
This response will demonstrate your child's sociability, genuine interest in the interviewer’s experiences, and also their serious consideration in attending that college.
Your child should remember that alumni who volunteer to serve as admission interviewers probably have a lot of pride in their alma mater and think fondly of their college experience. Learning about an interviewer’s experiences also provides a glimpse into college life to help your child decide whether they could see themselves happy there.
Your Child Should Prepare for What They Can
The interview setting varies across schools and interviewers.
For example, many interviewers prefer to meet in a quiet room at an alumni club, whereas others like to meet at a busy local coffee shop. The Cornell admissions committee would suggest meeting in more casual locations. Of course, your child may feel more or less comfortable in certain settings.
Tips: Your child should prepare for any situation. Although your child cannot anticipate every question or stressor they will encounter during admissions interviews, there are many aspects that your child can plan for ahead of time, including rehearsing answers to common questions. Here are two ways your child can feel more at ease during the actual interview:
3. Reduce anxiety about the interview environment.
If your child is anxious about meeting the interviewer at a public location, they could visit there before the actual interview date. Familiarizing themselves with the setting will help ease your child's nerves and provide realistic expectations about the interview environment.
4. Dress to impress… Sort of.
Your child should dress as they would for a job interview, regardless of the location. A dress shirt and slacks (ties are optional) for males, and a dress shirt/blouse and slacks/skirt for females would be appropriate. This way, your child will neither be under dressed for a private location or formal interview, nor over dressed for a casual location or informal meeting.
Admissions Interviews Begin Before the Meeting and End After It
First impressions are made before the interview and last impressions after it.
Tips: Your child should treat pre- and post-interview correspondence as part of the interview. Here are three ways your child can make positive impressions before and after the interview:
5. Respond promptly and professionally to the interviewer's initial email.
An enthusiastic and thoughtful response no later than the day after receiving an admission interview offer will exhibit initiative and good social skills.
Conversely, waiting several days to respond may communicate a lack of interest to the interviewer and the school.
Moreover, professionally-written emails that use proper titles (e.g., Mr. for males, Ms. for females) and avoid slang demonstrate maturity.
6. Treat everyone they interact with on interview day with kindness and respect.
Of course your child plans to impress their interviewer with their sociability and enthusiasm. Extending that same courtesy to others at the meeting location (e.g., desk clerks, coffee baristas, etc.) will help your child create a positive impression in their interviewer’s mind.
7. Write a thank-you note after the interview.
Sending a follow-up email to thank the interviewer for their time and for answering their questions shows your child's sincerity. It also serves as the final memory with which an interviewer will write their review.
Writing a thank-you note also offers your child an opportunity to mention something specific about the interview that they appreciated. For example, your child could write, "I especially appreciated your advice about not taking too many courses during my freshman year so that I can achieve a good work-life balance."
College admissions interviews vary with regard to their intended purpose, formality, and location, and they serve as an important part of the application process.
These interviews allow colleges to assess your child's fit with their culture and offerings. More importantly, your child can use the interview process to reinforce the great qualities they communicated throughout their applications, address any gaps in their applications, and learn about the college experience at a particular school.
Using the tips offered in this guide to prepare for college admissions interviews will help your child get into the school where they see themselves growing most.
Once they've aced their college interviews, it's time for your child to kick their feet up and wait for those acceptance letters!