College Admissions Guide: Scoring a Knockout in the Interview

Posted by Manoah Finston on 10/28/13 9:56 AM

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Now this is how you ace an interview.

Hello, dear readers! In my last post, I talked about how to manage your tone in the college application essay, so that you can talk honestly about your achievements without sounding like a tween pop star or delusional real estate mogul. Today, we’ll be keeping the same subject but will be switching media, to discuss ways to optimize your college interview.

Today's lesson: how to deliver the Muhammad Ali punch in the interview, without the Muhammad Ali ego. (As an important note, please don’t actually punch your alumni or on-campus interviewer. Recent statistics show that applicants who physically assault their admissions officers have remarkably low acceptance rates.) Now, Muhammad Ali, the self-professed GOAT of boxing—that’s Greatest of All Time, for you neophytes—was never known for humility, in or out of the ring. About his championship record, he once quipped: “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.” And he summed up his sense of his own legacy with: “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest.” Modest he was not, but he did have a strong sense of who he was, and of what he wanted his (carefully managed) image to be.

Your goal for each interview, simply put, is to make the interviewer want to fight for you—they see a lot of applicants, but only recommend their favorites.

An interview is not a boxing match, and your interlocutor (who could be either an alum or an admissions officer) certainly shouldn’t seem like an adversary. Yet, these two kinds of engagement do have a few things in common. First, both involve developing a strategy beforehand. Second, practice in advance is essential. Third, knowing the game provides a strong advantage. And last, having some swag can be a good thing. Of course, no one can march into an admissions interview and declare that, at age 17, they are the greatest student of all time, the most accomplished researcher, athlete, musician, artist, writer, caregiver, sibling, camp counselor, whatever. In fact, talking about oneself can feel cripplingly awkward. But just Ali, you can't rely on natural talent or charm. You have to train rigorously and prepare comprehensively, speak with confidence, and remain aware of how you sound to people—how his image comes off to others. Below, we will consider some specific ways to ensure that you will be at your best during college interviews. Here’s how to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”:

1. Build your strategy for each interview separately.

One of the most important things that you can show an interviewer is that you truly understand their particular campus, and have done your research on the academic experiences that are available at the colleges to which you are applying. A successful interview has space for questions and answers about the college’s features and programs, and that Q + A should go both ways. That is to say, you should be prepared both to ask questions about the college, and also to be asked questions about the college. Competitive applicants should take time before the interview to prepare two short lists. One should include “things that I like about the school” and should point to specific elements of campus life that you found appealing, important, or necessary: for example, amenities and features of campus; student clubs and organizations; opportunities for research, TA-ing, mentorship, and volunteering; study abroad programs; particular aspects of majors, minors, and academic programs, including things like a core curriculum or a lack of course requirements; dorm and residential life, etc. These are the things that you can talk about when your interviewer asks the inevitable questions, “Why do you want to attend this school?” and “What stands out to you about this school?”

Here's a Template list:


Things that I like about this school

Dorm situation

Student organizations (nationally-ranked ultimate frisbee team; student theater)

Specific academic traits (Thesis; professor-to-student ratio; core curriculum/self-guided)

Facilities (gym, green spaces, labs, student union, pool tables)

Opportunities for research

Study abroad opportunities

Location/Size/Diversity of student body


The second list should include “things that I want to know about the school.” Often, the stuff on this list looks surprisingly similar to the stuff on the first list, and rightfully so; if you know enough about something to get excited by it, you are likely going to want to know more. This list can be very specific, however. You should start by thinking about the ways that you are likely to engage with campus life—where you would live, what classes you might take, what clubs you might pursue, whether you will study abroad, etc.—and then move towards identifying key questions that pertain to these kinds of campus engagement. For example, let’s say that you intend to study the life sciences, because you want to become a doctor. You might have an interest in the college because of their health and medical research and care partnerships, where students get to work with faculty members on research while also volunteering in healthcare organizations on and around campus. That’s a great thing to put in bold on List One. And then, after looking a little bit at the website for these organizations, you might find yourself wondering who can apply to these partnerships, how many hours a week they entail, and whether you have to be a Bio major to participate in them. These are awesome questions for List Two.

Here's another sample list:


Things I want to know about this school

How long do students stay in the dorms? What are the rules?

What kind of summer internship/research opportunities are available—how does the school help with that?

What are the most popular majors?

How supportive is the administration of independent study? How about funding?

Do student actually have time for a social life?


Now, let’s say that you have your alumni interview, and the interviewer was an art history major at the college, and actually has no idea about the rules and protocol for these healthcare partnerships. Swing and a miss? No, no problem! Because what you’ve successfully done is show the interviewer that you know your stuff—you’ve done the homework about the school and you are already envisioning ways to contribute to campus life. This shows the interviewer that you are genuinely committed to the college culture, and that is as strong an argument as any for your admissions consideration. It is also more likely than not that the interviewers will know where to send you for the information you’re seeking, even if they can’t provide it readily themselves. So, building the lists in advance of the interviewer is just like building your boxing strategy—you’re working on what you need to know to show up strong, while also identifying places where you need more “coverage,” more information.

2. Practice in advance.

Interviews are uncomfortable at any age. Take a walk through a large chain bookstore and consider just how many rows are dedicated to books about interview advice and public speaking coaching. At the end of the day, most people just don’t really like talking about themselves at length, and when you add in the pressures of having to “sell” yourself to your interviewer, it makes for an unpleasant experience. But one very big thing that you can do is to practice in advance. The more that you talk about yourself when the stakes are low, the more that you will be comfortable doing so in different settings, even when the stakes increase. Additionally, taking the time to familiarize yourself with the interview format will help you to both organize your ideas and manage your jitters. Find an adult—a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or Cambridge Coaching tutor—willing to sit down with you and conduct a mock admissions interview for half an hour. Make sure that you leave time at the end for a critique and for talkback, where you and the mock interviewer can talk specifically about your performance—about what was good and what still needs work. Repeat as necessary.

If you're really feeling stage fright, you might also consider recording yourself as you give answers to common questions, so that you can go back and listen to where you stumbled, where you were vague or inarticulate, and where you really connected. The goal here is not to practice so much that it becomes oppressive, and nor should you memorize your answers so that you sound like an unfeeling robot when you enter the real admissions interview. But you should definitely take time to become comfortable with the general parameters of what an interview entails, so that you will not be freaked out or at a loss for words when you find yourself face to face with an interviewer. As Muhammad Ali said of training, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”


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3. Learn the rules of the game.

Although it is important to enter the interview with specific things to say—and questions to ask—about the college, it is also important to prepare for a more general interview framework. Admissions officers and alumni representatives conduct countless interviews each admissions cycle, and to save time and intellectual resources, they tend to pose the same kinds of questions to every applicant. It will be enormously fruitful to take a few moments in the days before your interview to identify these kinds of stock questions and think seriously and at length about your responses. Of course, you will not be able to account for every question in advance, but nor should you. A good interview at any age is a mixture of careful, prepared responses and a healthy dose of nimble thinking on your feet. If a question catches you off guard, don’t panic—it isn’t meant to be a “gotcha!” that shames you into submission. Rather, it is a different kind of test, to see how you synthesize and relay information on the spot. This is a great skill to develop, but it shouldn’t be the only tool in your kit. That’s why it is so important to also be able to easily provide responses to questions that you’ve ostensibly heard, and thought about, before. Again, the goal here isn’t instantaneous recognition or an unfeeling stream of facts; rather, some questions should be harder to answer than others, as some should seem familiar while others seem surprising. Here are a few stock questions that you are likely to encounter in an admissions interview:


What is the project you are working on in school right now that you are finding the most interesting? The least interesting? Why?

What are you reading right now in school? What are you reading right now for fun?

What are your hobbies and interests? Why do you like them?

What is your favorite book? Poem? Film? Song? Band? Work of art? Museum? TV show? Blog? Why do you like it?

Do you find anything frustrating about your classes this year? Anything really awesome?

What do you intend to major in and why?

How did you find out about our college? Have you visited? If so, what do you like so far?

Why do you want to go to our college? To any college? Why is college important?

What are your feelings about our _______? (Insert something like curriculum, campus, study abroad programs, financial aid, international population, sports teams, etc.)

Has the college applications process taught you anything surprising? Insightful?

Are there things you want to do in college that you don’t have the opportunity to do now?


There will be interviews where all of these questions are asked, and there will be interviews where none of these questions will be asked. Either way, having insight into the above inquiries will serve you well throughout the admissions process. For even if you don’t find yourself having to answer this in a face-to-face interview, the sentiments above will assuredly trickle into your college essays and into your general schema of motivation and discipline as you work through the applications. Having a sense of purpose—the “I am going to college because of X” declaration in your brain—can make the process more exciting, more rewarding, and more manageable. So “learning the rules of the game” by thinking through these and other questions will generate positive results within and beyond the interview setting.


4. A little swag goes a long way. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Making a good impression requires balance, and above all, poise. A strong interview candidate is someone who can speak about their achievements with confidence as well as with insight. Too much of either leads to trouble. All confidence and no insight will make you sound like you’re in a casting video for a reality show. All insight and no confidence will make you sound like a legislative staffer in the Congressional Budget Office. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot of public speaking, the delivery of information with self-assurance and with self-awareness. This is not an organic place; it takes lots of practice and calibration to arrive at a well-honed sales pitch in any industry, including collegiate admissions. But with time spent up front gathering and organizing material (tips 1 and 3) and copious amounts of practice (tip 2), you will develop into a more confident interlocutor and interview candidate. Self-awareness is key – and that’s where the merits of practice come in. The more you speak about yourself to others, the more aware you’ll become of how you are being perceived versus how you are perceiving yourself. Taking the time to fine tune this will lead to a more sophisticated interview style, and having that under your belt will serve you well beyond the college process. You might never be the “astronaut of boxing” (real quote!), but you’ll be able to launch your career into the stratosphere.


Stay tuned for more information on the college process, and as always, enjoy!

Tags: college admissions, admissions coaching, high school