Ultimate Guide to College Admissions Interview

The college admissions interview is a relatively new part of the application review process. Most colleges and universities do not require or even offer a formal admissions interview with a member of the admissions staff or faculty.

This Article Will Discuss The Following:

  1. What Is An Admissions Interview
  2. How to Prepare for a College Admissions Interview
  3. Some Questions In A College Interview and How To Answer Them
  4. Questions To Ask An Interviewer
  5. An Exercise
  6. What Interviewers Report
  7. When To Schedule the Admissions Interview
Ultimate Guide to College Admissions Interview

Questions to Ask an Interviewer

Instead, they may require a more informal interview with alumni or current students after the application is submitted. These interviews are primarily conducted off-campus, and formal admissions interviews with a member of the admissions staff or faculty are held on campus. Colleges will also post a disclaimer on their website stating that not all applicants will receive an alumni interview offer.

Because interviews are scheduled based on the availability of interviewers, not being scheduled for an interview does not negatively impact the applicant’s admission candidacy. However, a poor interview will certainly give the admissions committee pause, so preparation is needed to ensure the strongest impact.

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What is an Admissions Interview?

The college admissions interview is one element of a holistic review. Academic performance; standardized test scores; essays that demonstrate a connection to an undergraduate major; intellectual vitality; meaningful involvement in activities, including leadership and service; and recommendations from teachers and a guidance or college counselor all outrank the interview in admission consideration.

When a student does not present a genuine interest or knowledge of the college and intended major, does not engage, and has no questions, the interviewer will consider it negatively. Nor does an interview make up for deficits in an application. Highly selective colleges want to make the best admission decision possible, welcoming students who sincerely want to attend their school.

Most college admissions interviews are with an alum and conducted off-campus, in person. The other most likely scenario is with a representative of the admissions team, such as an admission counselor or officer. These interviews are usually offered by smaller institutions, are held on campus, and can be scheduled along with a campus visit, which commonly consists of an information session and a campus tour.

In this instance, there may also be the opportunity to meet with a faculty member, current student, or another college administrator, such as a financial aid officer or the registrar. At some schools, students, typically seniors, conduct interviews on campus if an admissions representative is not available. Larger institutions cannot accommodate students on their campus for interviews with the admissions team nor provide the more individualized campus visit experience as smaller schools can.

As a result, these schools, as do smaller schools, turn to their extensive alumni network to conduct interviews on behalf of the admissions office in the region where the applicant lives.

Various Types of Interviews

There are various types of interviews. Most college admissions interviews are evaluative. The interviewer will take notes during the meeting and place the write-up in the applicant’s admissions file. Some schools, however, may simply provide an interview as an opportunity for the applicant to ask questions and learn more about the institution. Evaluative interviews should take precedence, though, because they count toward consideration for acceptance.

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Schools will be clear about which interviews are evaluative and which are not. They will provide plenty of easily accessible information about the application process, and if they do not, it is likely that the interview is not evaluative.

Alumni Conducted Interviews

Alumni conducting admissions interviews for their alma mater are volunteers taking the opportunity to remain engaged with their college community and share their experiences with prospective students. The alumni interview is as much about the volunteering alum maintaining their connection to the school as it is about engaging with an applicant.

While the interaction is termed as an admissions interview and the alum takes notes to share with admissions, they are also helping their alma mater recruit and yield students by personally connecting with applicants. Colleges will likely offer prospective students the opportunity to speak with an alum from the same geographic region or offer an online or virtual alumni interview where the alum may or may not reside in the prospective student’s area.

It is recommended that the applicant agrees to any offer. While it is not required, responding “yes” to an optional alumni interview request demonstrates a sincere interest in the college and offers an opportunity to expound on parts of the application, while showcasing fit and knowledge of the institution.

Alumni indicate their interest to volunteer as an interviewer, and after they are selected, they are trained to interview prospective students prior to any meetings. They are given information about the applicant, including the applicant’s name, contact information, and intended college major.

Alumni interviewers do not receive a copy of the prospective student’s application; this information is strictly confidential. Alumni interviewers also do not receive or read an applicant’s college essay responses. This meeting is meant to be a two-way dialogue in which the alum asks questions seeking information from the prospective student. They are primarily looking for the applicant to demonstrate their knowledge of and passion for the college and their intended major with supporting details and specific examples.

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Alumni interviewers sign up for this volunteering opportunity to serve as a resource, and they expect and encourage prospective students to ask questions about their college experience, including memories and chosen career path. Most alumni interviews run approximately half an hour to an hour and take place in a public location, virtually, or by phone.

As with any interview, the applicant should wear business or business casual attire, be mindful of interview etiquette (given the COVID-19 pandemic, shaking hands may no longer be appropriate or required), maintain eye contact, smile, and be natural. For a virtual interview, they should make sure they are in a location without interruptions and be aware of the background images the interviewer may see on the computer screen.

There are many components to the college application, and the alumni interview is one piece of the puzzle. It is one element that favors an already strong applicant who displays their sincere interest, knowledge, and connection to the college. Members of the admissions team will review the interview notes provided by the alum, often seeking confirmation of their analysis.

A strong interview and a strong application of solid grades, standardized testing scores, essays, extracurricular involvement, and strong intellectual experiences will push an applicant further toward admission. It may be just the information the admissions team needs to cement the final decision. A weak application and a strong interview will not move an applicant toward admission.

Although alumni interviews are more casual or informal interviews, prospective students should still prepare well for them. Interviews can negatively impact applicants who are not prepared, who demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the institution or their intended major, and who do not engage the alumni interviewer by asking good and thoughtful questions.

How to Prepare for a College Admissions Interview

No one is a greater expert on the applicant than they themselves. They can articulate the important details about themselves better than anyone else and are the most well-acquainted with their history, achievements, and dreams. Applicants must be comfortable enough to be themselves and let go of the idea that they must “perform” in an interview. Sincerity and earnest engagement are desirable in an exchange with an interviewer.

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There is no “personality type” or “lifestyle” synonymous with a successful interview. No one scores extra points for being wildly extroverted, nor will anyone be penalized for having a quiet and subdued personality. The alum wants the interview to go well, too. It is a good idea to set all social media accounts to private because interviewers can look into an applicant’s online presence, which could cloud their impression. But applicants should look at the alum’s profile on LinkedIn and other sites to get a sense of their educational path and career.

When it’s time for the meeting, it’s important to be on time. If the meeting is in person, the applicant should arrive 10 minutes early, and if meeting virtually, set up their computer and be ready well in advance. Alumni interviewers are usually working professionals and are likely on a tight schedule.

In order to be fully prepared, we are sharing 12 points you should be considering.

1. The interviewer does not have the candidate’s application information, because this information is confidential. The applicant should not assume they know a lot about them or have reviewed their application in detail.

2. Applicants should provide a brief introduction consisting of three or four key points that set the foundation for the conversation. They can reiterate and share more about themselves throughout the interview; this is a short tell-me-about-yourself introduction to set the stage. It should be brief. As the interview progresses, the key points can be fleshed out, but they should be mentioned first to set the tone of the exchange.

3. Interviewees should be natural, engaging, and sincere and avoid overselling themselves.

4. They should demonstrate an understanding of the college/university and what it will offer them as a student. Research will equip them to discuss the specific program(s) they are interested in.

5. They should share how they came to be interested in the academic program(s) to which they are applying and list previous courses taken, research conducted, volunteer experiences, internship exposure, and so on.

6. They should share why the college/university is the best fit for them. This means spending time going through the website, social media, and publications so they can speak effectively and best understand their fit with the institution. Another good way to become familiar with the institution is by visiting the school, whether in person or virtually.

7. They should share what they will bring to the college/university community academically, culturally, talent-wise, etc.

8. They should be familiar with their key points and the material in order to reduce nervousness and anxiety and increase the ability to be engaging, affable, thoughtful, and sincere.

9. One should never be negative in an interview, even if the conversation becomes about a difficult experience, a challenging teacher, or a difficult class. Always finding the positive in a situation gives a good impression.

10. Applicants should understand how their major fits in their overall profile. They should understand why they would be an asset to the program and be able to talk about where they have been, where they are now, and how the program will help take their lives to the next level and help them continue their intellectual journey.

11. Applicants should bring their resume for the interviewer, but they should not rely on it themselves. They should be ready to speak without the aid of a resume about courses taken; research conducted; extracurricular experiences; their jobs, internships, and volunteering; and the life experiences that align with their major. They should not assume the interviewer has reviewed any part of the application.

12. It all comes down to fit. An applicant should be able to eloquently and thoughtfully discuss why the school, research, or program is a perfect fit, and why.

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Some Questions in a College Interview and How to Answer Them

Every interview is different, but there are some standard interview questions prospective students can expect, prepare for, and be able to answer eloquently. The answers should not be short responses, but engaging explanations. A review of the basic questions and answer suggestions below will be helpful when preparing for an admissions interview.

The questions that may come up in an Ivy League interview are similar to those asked in other college admissions interviews.

1. Tell me about yourself. / Who are you? / What interests you? What are your passions? / What and who made you into the person you are today? / What are your accomplishments, the activities, and the people most important to you?

This is very open-ended and general, so there might be some difficulty in knowing where to begin, which is why it’s important to prepare a personal introduction that aligns with the intended major. Interviewers ask these questions because they truly want to know more about the applicant. This is the perfect opportunity for the candidate to paint a portrait of themselves upfront and a great way to stand out from others. Applicants should avoid clichés and explain what, how, and why; they should remember the advice: Show don’t tell. This is a good question to rehearse. It’s helpful to speak aloud about one’s passions, intellectual interests, and hobbies.

2. How did you get interested in [major]? / What course of study will you pursue? / What major?

The applicant should provide a clear, easy-to-follow history of their passion for their major and why it has had an impact on their life. This is an important question and another to strongly prepare for. Colleges want to see that applicants take college seriously and that they are academically inclined. They should discuss why a certain subject inspires them and how this interest developed. They must demonstrate genuine academic interest and avoid saying that they want to pursue a particular major because it will eventually result in a high-paying profession or job. As with many of these questions, the “why” is what is important: What is it about the experiences and interests that will enrich and make possible professional goals?

3. What are your goals for college? / What do you plan to contribute to this school? / Where are you going? / What are your goals? / What are your dreams?

Applicants should be prepared to discuss what they want from the college experience. They should talk about programs, professors, classes they want to take, and groups they hope to join or start. Interviewers are gauging why the student is motivated to pursue higher education in the first place, and they clearly understand what they hope to accomplish by attending college. This is where the applicant should emphasize that college is where they will pursue their passions, personally develop, and set on the path to reach their future goals. They should avoid saying that their parents are forcing them to attend or that they want to experience college parties. Applicants should think specifically about their passions and how college will open the doors toward them and the college activities and experiences that will lead to intellectual and emotional growth. Schools want to admit students who will make positive contributions to their school through campus and academic life. Applicants should think about how they can make the school better and determine the specific contributions they can make. They should be able to clearly articulate their college goals.

4. What has been your favorite class or subject in high school? Least favorite?

Applicants should be specific about why a class is their favorite. They should not give a clichéd answer but engage the interviewer by telling a story that illustrates the captivating class. If the interviewer is enthralled, they will believe the applicant. If the applicant is bored, they will be bored, too. Even when speaking about their least favorite class, the applicant shouldn’t be negative. A positive spin can be put on every negative. Applicants who emphasize the negative are seen as complainers. This part of the interview is also a good opportunity to delve into academic strengths. The applicant should explain how they have capitalized on their strengths and how they plan to continue using them in the future. They should explain how they recognized their strengths, how they are currently using them, and how these strengths will be used in the future. When speaking about their academic weaknesses, the applicant can spin this to demonstrate that they have the persistence and work ethic needed to succeed, despite any challenges. It is not believable that a student has no academic weaknesses. Candidates should be aware of theirs and focus on how they have addressed them in order to demonstrate their ability to strategize and improve them.

5. What has been your most exciting intellectual experience?

Applicants should make sure this experience aligns with their major and express their answers clearly. The answer can truly range for this response; it can be about a favorite book, and admired acquaintance that led to an intellectual experience, or a moment in or outside the classroom.

6. Why are you applying to [school]? / Why do you want to attend this college/university? / What is it about the confluence of your goals, your interests, your talents, and your personal style that brings you to consider this college? / What do you know about this college that tells you it would be a good match for you? How will this college help you reach your goals?

Applicants should do their research to prepare for talking about their passion for the school with specificity and power. They should highlight why it is a perfect fit without generalizing. Students who are specific stand out. Generalizing demonstrates a lack of connection to or passion about the institution. Specific examples are always key. Interviewers want students who are excited about their college. They look for candidates with a genuine and legitimate interest in attending the school. Applicants can discuss their interest in a particular academic program at the school and why it is unique to that school, cultural values and experiences specific to the school, or extracurricular activities that draw them to the school. They should avoid talking about prestige and ranking or proximity to their home town. Answers should be thorough and specific to the college.

7. What are your career goals? / What do you see when you visualize your professional life? / How do you see yourself developing over the next five/ten years?

Applicants do not need to have their entire future planned to respond well to this question. Interviewers understand that high school students don’t have a clear life plan yet that and any plan will likely change as time goes by. They are looking for students with a sense of direction and motivation to achieve their goals. Applicants should avoid answers that make it seem they are only interested in a major that will lead to a better situation or make them a lot of money. They should demonstrate a very intense and believable passion for the college and program. The general answer of their wanting a fulfilling career and making a positive impact on the world will not impress. Applicants should explain why they are drawn to the particular area or that they are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. and continued study in a field.

8. What do you do for fun? / What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in class? Applicants should give a sense of who they are. Interviewers seek to know what type of person the candidate is: kind, thoughtful, genial, and a deep thinker? Or contrarian, taciturn, and uninterested?

Applicants should highlight activities they enjoy and which show their best qualities. They should show the interviewer another side from the intellectual one and give a fuller sense of who they are. Answers such as, “Hang out with my friends” or “Play video games” should be avoided. A good answer includes the reason these leisure-time activities are enjoyable.

9. What is an example of an obstacle, a failure, or a mistake that you learned from?

Applicants should give an example of a situation that resulted in learning and growth, without being negative. Schools would like to know about life challenges the student has overcome. The answer to this question should demonstrate persistence and willingness to work hard in order to overcome an obstacle. The example needn’t be a major personal challenge; it may be related to school or an activity. Applicants should think of a time when they faced a challenging problem that required effort to solve, explain the challenge, and explain what they did to overcome it, noting the lessons they learned and how the experience influenced the way they address similar situations or problems.

10. What are three interesting things about you that I would not know from your application?

All of the previous questions are meant to determine one’s uniqueness, but this one is also a chance to divulge any additional information that was not addressed in the application. Interviewers did not review the application, so if anything important was overlooked in the conversation, this is the time to address it. Applicants can discuss a personal trait, a unique background, or uncommon interest or goal that differentiates them and tell a story that illustrates those qualities.

11. Do you have any questions for me?

This is an area where most students falter. They should prepare thoughtful questions for the interviewer beforehand and research the college to make sure they are knowledgeable enough about it to ask meaningful questions. They should not ask about factual data that can easily be found on the college website or in promotional materials.

Preparing for the college admissions interview is an important step that should not be ignored. Aside from the questions listed above, many others may come up, but most of the interview questions will center around those listed.

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Additional questions may include:

1. What would you change about our high school?

2. What is your favorite book? TV show? Song?

3. Is there a performance that has made a lasting impression on you?

4. What do you do during your summers?

5. Who is your favorite teacher and why?

6. What was one of your most positive experiences?

7. How would you describe yourself as a person? A student?

8. What motivates you?

More Pointers and Tips for the College Admissions Interview

  • Create a document to keep track of interviews, preparation status, and progress.
  • Practice out loud in front of a trusted “audience.”
  • Understand which interview questions are most important.
  • Prepare to explain answers well beyond a sentence or a few words, making sure the answers include the “why.”
  • Take the time to present answers without racing, and understand that pauses and silences are perfectly acceptable and demonstrate processing.
  • Understand the importance of not arriving at the interview with a prepared script or written answers.
  • Prepare to state answers with confidence, and do not apologize for them.
  • Dress appropriately in a collared or button-down shirt, slacks, a knee-length skirt or dress, and close-toed shoes. Avoid flip-flops, hats, T-shirts, and sneakers.
  • Remember to leave the cell phone in the car or turn it off before meeting with the interviewer.

Questions to Ask an Interviewer

Asking questions of the interviewer is an important part of an interview. The questions are similar whether the interview is with an admissions counselor or a faculty member, although it is not guaranteed that a member of the admissions team attended the school as an alumni interviewer did.

The following questions should be tailored to the interviewer and their experience. The applicant should plan to ask at least three of the following:

1. Ask about their experience at (college/university). This question is an easy way to keep the conversation going.

2. Ask them to describe their favorite campus activity, tradition, or differentiator. What would they recommend that students absolutely need to do, eat, or see while on campus?

3. Ask to discuss their relationships with faculty and research availability. Did they have professors who helped foster their intellectual growth? What is the access to research like?

4. Ask about a favorite memory of when they were a student.

5. Ask them specifically about the academic program being applied for – courses, research, professors, and rigor (if they are familiar with it.)

6. If the interviewer is an alum who graduated in the last five years, they should be asked about internships and study abroad opportunities they participated in.

7. Questions should include how (college/university) prepared them for their chosen career.

8. The applicant should ask what advice they would give an incoming freshman.

9. They should also be asked what they would change about their college experience.

The applicant should ask more questions about their major if time allows. They should thank the interviewer for their time and commitment both when the interview begins and when it ends. Interviewers are volunteers, and their time is valuable. If possible, the candidate should obtain the interviewer’s email address and send a thank-you note within 24 hours after the interview.

The note or email should be concise and heartfelt. It should mention, in detail, a specific part of the interview, which will show that the applicant was paying attention. The note should mention something the applicant appreciated about the interviewer.

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An Exercise

In addition to familiarizing themselves with the pointers listed above, applicants will be more comfortable with the interview process if they complete a mock interview or exercise beforehand. They should choose a few of the interview questions from the list and apply the question “Why?” or “So what?” when answering in order that their responses are detailed and meaningful. They should ask “Why?” and “So what?” several times in order to discover in-depth and multifaceted answers. For example, if the interviewer asks, “What is your academic weakness?” the applicant may be tempted to respond, “English.” But if they repeatedly ask themselves and answer “Why is English my weakness?” their answer will be well-rounded and interesting.

Thinking in detail about answers to interview questions is excellent preparation. Applicants should not memorize their answers or plan to recite them word for word in the interview, but the more they practice in exercises such as this, the more skillful and flexible they will be at interviewing and the more masterful and natural handling questions. Practice can be solo or with a friend who plays the interviewer, but it should be done out-loud; energy and timing should be as close as possible to that of an actual interview. Practicing aloud also aids in remembering content.

What Interviewers Report

Interviewers will create a write-up of the conversation to be used in the application review process. They will note, describe, and rate several factors, including intellectual vitality, curiosity or engagement, extracurricular commitment and motivation, and personal character. The interviewer will likely be asked to provide a quick summary and an overall rating from highly recommended to not recommended.

In the interview report, the interviewer may be asked:

  • To provide an understanding of why the student is considering the school.
  • What academic programs are the intended area of study and why.
  • How the student will contribute to the college community and the classroom, and how they will impact the college community, the classroom, and their peers.
  • What the student is like and how they would fit in with the school’s culture.
  • To describe the applicant’s qualities and characteristics as they relate to engaging with the classroom and community.
  • To rate the student’s self-presentation, including, but not limited to enthusiasm, confidence, and communication.

No two interview reports are exactly the same, so preparing fully will ensure that all of the points listed above are covered regardless of what the interviewer is asked to report. The best to hope for is to place on the middle to the upper end of the scale, which will help support an application, confirm or even push an applicant’s candidacy. Students should keep in mind that interviewers want the best for them; they should give them every reason, as much they are able, to describe and mark them favorably.

When to Schedule the Admissions Interview

At most colleges and universities offering an alumni interview, the alum reaches out first to set up the interview. Both parties will determine when the interview will take place, however. The process begins after an application is complete and submitted. The applicant’s file is then

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to an alum in the appropriate geographic region. If the institution is not able to offer an interview due to the lack of availability of alumni, admissions staff, faculty, or students, the interview is waived.

Admissions committees are aware that this is the case, and the applicant will not be adversely affected if they can’t be interviewed. Offering interviews to tens of thousands of applicants worldwide is challenging, even when a college has a robust alumni interviewer base.

This is the primary reason interviews are not required. Logistically, not everyone can be interviewed.

If an applicant is offered an interview, though, they should take the opportunity. It will indicate their seriousness about attending and their interest in the school. Admissions committees will make note of applicants who were offered interviews but declined.

There is no specific deadline for the interview. The college application must first be received before an interview can be scheduled, and the interviewer will reach out to the applicant. The interview can be scheduled and conducted anytime from the submission of the application through the review process. The earlier an application is submitted, the greater likelihood of the applicant receiving an interview offer.

Most interviews for those applying under an early application deadline will be scheduled for November, and most interviews for applicants applying under a regular decision deadline will take place in January. Interview feedback is needed by the time an application reaches the admissions committee, which is at the end of the review and decision process; it, therefore, shouldn’t be a concern if an interview is scheduled “late.” Notes about the interview will be included in the application and considered at some point in the process.

In Conclusion

The college admission interview is an opportunity to support the application to a college or university. College admissions are interested in the whole person applying, beyond what they see on paper. Whenever possible, they may offer an interview to fill this information gap. In addition to reviewing the information listed above, applicants should talk with friends and family about their alumni interview experiences, and remember to be themselves throughout the process.

If an interview needs to be canceled, applicants should contact the college as soon as possible. They should maintain a professional demeanor and answer any questions asked of them. If the interview does not go as anticipated or if the interviewer is underprepared (or worse, inappropriate), the applicant should take control of the experience.

They should make sure the questions they prepared for are addressed by pivoting from one response into another and remember the practice of asking “Why?” and “So what?” Or when the end of the interview approaches, they should add that they’d like to make another comment and then close strongly with the most salient points.

The college admissions interview is the time when applicants can express themselves off the page and have their voice heard in a two-way dialogue. The interview conversation is the unique opportunity for an applicant to highlight their differentiators and share themselves in a way that may not be possible in a written application. The interview brings the application to life.

All of our blog posts are written by Former College Admission Officers who serve as members of our admission consultant team.

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