For students feeling the pressure of college admissions interviews, a little preparation can go a long way.
Experts say students should come into the interview with a sense of what they'll be asked and bring some questions of their own. This preparation allows students a chance to impress the interviewer while also learning more about the institution and whether it might be a good fit. Students gain insight into the academic and social culture of colleges they're applying to while also explaining their interests and goals to interviewers.
"A good interview is going to be a conversation. Let the conversation flow back and forth," says Eric Pedersen, chief enrollment officer at Evergreen State College in Washington.
At Evergreen, admissions interviews are optional but available by request. However, many colleges have done away with interviews, experts note. Students should check with individual schools to see if an interview is required as part of the admissions process, especially now considering disruptions prompted by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Some colleges have moved admissions interviews to a virtual format while others have suspended the process altogether, so students will need to review each college's website or contact the admissions office for information on interviews.
Why College Interviews Help in the Admissions Process
College interview questions typically fall into several categories, says Sean Logan, dean of college counseling at Phillips Academy, a private high school in Andover, Massachusetts. According to Logan, an interviewer is likely to ask students about their interest in the institution and why they want to attend the school, their academic and intellectual interests, extracurricular activities and "how they think on their feet."
The questions, experts say, are designed to help a college get a picture of who a student is and his or her interests and motivations.
At Georgetown University in the District of Columbia -- where interviews are required for first-year applicants -- Melissa Costanzi, senior associate director of admissions, says, "Many times we learn things in interviews that we wouldn't have learned from anywhere else in the application ... We think a really important part of holistic admissions is to give the applicant the opportunity to tell his or her story."
Holistic admissions refers to a review that incorporates academic and nonacademic factors to gauge an applicant's potential for success.
Below is a list of general interview questions U.S. News has compiled based on input from admissions officials and college counselors.
Common College Interview Questions
How will attending this institution help you reach your academic or career goals?
What do you think are the benefits of an education from this school?
Without telling me your GPA, what do your transcripts say about you as a student?
Does your academic history reflect the type of student you hope to be at this school?
If you could change one thing about your past education in high school or college, what would it be and why?
What do you think is the most important thing to consider when deciding where to attend college?
What kind of school are you looking for?
What are you hoping to get out of your college experience?
What are your academic interests or potential areas of study?
What activities are you hoping to be involved in, either continuing from high school or trying new?
Top College Interview Tips
To prepare for a college admissions interview, Logan suggests students rehearse with friends or family so that they have practice answering questions out loud. He also encourages students to reflect deeply on their lives and academics in order to be able to accurately tell their story.
The need for students to ask their own questions is among the college interview tips offered by admissions officials.
"It's not just the college interviewing the student, but the student has a chance to interview the admissions officer at the same time," says Tim Gallen, director of college counseling at Solebury School, a private school in Pennsylvania serving grades eight to 12.
The questions, experts emphasize, should be specific and not something that can be answered easily by looking at the school's website. Students should ask about faculty teaching and mentoring, campus life on weekends, the largest classes they'll be in and average class size, successful alumni, employment opportunities at the school and in the community, and other specific questions that help them understand the institution.
Experts say an interview is often a balancing act of students learning more information about the school and selling themselves.
"Let your responses to the questions do most of the selling," Pedersen advises.
He also encourages students to take mental notes as they go and to make sure they are heard. "If the interviewer is talking too much, step up and get your voice in the conversation."
Pedersen says interviewers will notice if a student had a bad academic year in high school, so the student should be prepared to discuss it.
Who students will be sitting across from varies by school. At Evergreen State, for example, all interviews are done by admissions staff, while Georgetown deploys thousands of alumni. Other schools may use student interviewers.
Alumni interviewers may offer students an understanding of school culture based on personal experience while admissions pros can answer detailed questions, Costanzi says. One advantage of the alumni model, she adds, is that "we reach students all over the world."
Generally, interviews are conducted in person, though phone or video calls may be an option if a prospective student is unable to travel to campus. Considering restrictions prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, phone or video calls seem to be growing. And in the absence of face-to-face recruiting, some colleges have added interviews.
"I think the phone (interview) is a little more challenging, just because there isn't the face-to-face and you have to be a little more thoughtful about pacing," Logan says, urging students to carefully weigh how much time they should devote to their answers.
As for general etiquette, experts encourage students to be punctual, well dressed, genuine, relaxed and courteous, and able to answer questions thoughtfully and honestly -- tips that are applicable to both in-person and virtual interviews. Costanzi also suggests students send a thank-you note to the interviewer afterward.
How Important Are College Admissions Interviews?
The purpose of a college interview may vary. For some schools, it's merely informational while at others it is evaluative.
"The interview can be one of many factors," Logan says, adding it is rarely a "high-pressure, high-stakes situation."
According to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, only 5.5% of colleges surveyed agreed that interviews are of "considerable importance" while 49.8% of respondents declared those conversations to be of "no importance." Instead, the emphasis is placed on grades in all courses and in college prep courses, admissions test scores and high school rigor.
Counselors say an interview is unlikely to seriously boost an applicant's odds for admission. Still, students should think of it as another data point colleges are collecting, particularly as some are putting less emphasis on SAT and ACT scores -- especially now as the pandemic has upended standardized testing for many high school students.
"I think that for some of the colleges, especially the ones that are downplaying the role of standardized testing in the admissions process, that interview just becomes another facet that they consider when they're building their university community," Gallen says.
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