Acing the College Interview Tips for Prepping & Dressing for Success

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Kenya McCullum Read bio

High school students applying to colleges and universities have a lot on their plate—from taking the SATs to writing essays to getting teacher recommendations. Adding on college admissions interviews can be a stressful but often necessary addition. Find out why college interviews are important, how to prepare and get tips for what to do if things don’t go as expected.

Why Are College Interviews Important?

While they’re optional at some schools – and are rarely the deciding factor in college acceptance according to the College Board – college interviews are an essential way for both students and schools to gather information. Colleges and universities use the interview process to find out more about a student, especially the kind of information that isn’t easily found in transcripts and applications.

Students can use the interview to gather valuable information about prospective schools, ask questions and show their personality. It’s also an excellent opportunity to explain anything that might be a red flag or unclear to a school, such as a drop in grades.

College Interview FAQs

Here are frequently asked questions about college admissions interviews that every student should consider as they get ready for their big day.

Q: Do all colleges require interviews?

Many colleges don’t require interviews, though most of the Ivy League schools do, including Brown, Columbia and Harvard. In those cases, interviews are used to evaluate the student and supplement information included on the application and essay. In other cases, interviews are informational, which means they’re a chance for students to learn more about a school.

Q: How can I find out whether an interview is required?

This information can usually be found on a school’s website on their admissions information page. If not, students can call the admissions office to confirm if they will need to participate in an interview.

Q: If an interview is only recommended or optional, should I do an interview?

While an optional interview will be informational in nature, it’s still a good idea to schedule one. This gives students an opportunity to get more information about a program, as well as demonstrate their interest in the school.

Q: What is the format?

An informational interview is a casual conversation that a prospective college student has with a representative from a school—which may be someone from the admissions office, a professor or a current or former student.

An evaluative interview—which may be conducted by an admissions officer, alumnus or professor—is used to help make a decision about whether or not a student will be admitted into a college. During this type of interview, the school representative takes notes on students’ answers and reports what happened to the rest of the admissions committee.

Interviews typically take place in person on the college campus, but some schools may also allow video interviews.

Q: How long do they typically last?

College interviews typically last between 30 minutes and an hour.

Q: What are colleges looking for from students in interviews?

Schools want to learn more about a student’s academic and professional goals, interests, passions, high school experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Also, students can explain issues that may jeopardize their admission, such as a drop in grades during a semester or a long absence from school.

Q: Can you interview by phone or Skype?

Depending on the school, students may be able to have their interviews conducted via Skype or phone.

Q: Do you need to bring a resume to your college interview?

Some colleges will require students include a resume with their application. But even if a resume isn’t required, it never hurts to bring one to an admissions interview. The resume should include information about your extracurricular activities, work history, community service and skills you’ve gained outside of high school, such as through an internship, extra course or training. The Princeton Review has additional tips on preparing a resume for college applications and interviews.

How to Prepare for Your Interview

No one should go into a college interview cold. By starting preparations well in advance, students can become comfortable with the process and boost their confidence. Here’s what to do leading up to your college interview:

A Couple of Weeks Before the Interview
  • Keep up with the news and become familiar with current events in case your interviewer asks for your position.
  • Think about your goals, interests and extracurricular activities so you can talk about them naturally in the interview.
  • Start researching the schools where you’ll be interviewing.
The Week Before the Interview
  • Prepare questions to ask the interviewer.
  • Have a friend or family member ask you questions that may come up during the interview.
  • Choose an appropriate outfit or buy a new one if necessary.
  • Get directions to the school.
  • Prepare a resume that includes information about your extracurricular activities.
The Day Before the Interview
  • Review information about the college and be prepared to talk about it.
  • Practice answering possible interview questions.
  • Double check your interview time, place and directions.
  • Print out your resume and any other information or paperwork you’ll need.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
The Morning of the Interview
  • Eat a good breakfast.
  • Look at a map of the campus and directions to the school to make sure the chosen route is correct and that unexpected traffic or an accident won’t affect your travel time.
  • Leave early and plan to arrive at least 15 minutes ahead of time.
  • Turn off or silence your phone before your interview appointment time.
In the Week After the Interview
  • Send a thank you note – via email is totally acceptable.
  • Call or email with any follow-up questions about the school or admissions process.

Etiquette & Best Practices

Just as with job interviews, there are certain best practices that can help students start an interview on the right foot. Putting thought into your wardrobe and behavior will go a long way towards making a good first impression.

What to wear

Before choosing an outfit, students should keep in mind that different schools have different standards about attire. In order to find out what’s appropriate for a specific school, students should ask the admissions office for a recommendation on what kind of outfits would be acceptable.

Generally, business or business casual attire are a safe choice for a college interview. The following are some examples of what is acceptable to wear:

  • A skirt or dress that is at least knee length
  • Slacks
  • Collared, button down shirt
  • Closed-toe shoes

What not to wear to a college interview:

  • Open-toed shoes
  • Hats
  • Flip-flops
  • Sneakers
  • T-shirt
  • Excessive makeup
  • Excessive cologne or perfume
  • Too many accessories
  • Shorts

Interview do’s and don’ts

Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind during your interview, including tips from admissions experts.

  • Do’s

  • Treat the interview like a conversation.
  • Be mature.
  • Make eye contact. “I know this can be slightly nerve raking, however, this shows that you are paying attention and are interested in what the admissions counselor is saying to you,” says Carrie Thompson, Assistant Director of Admissions at Clarion University.
  • Give the interviewer a firm handshake.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Leave the house early. “You want to plan for the unexpected, such as traffic delays or the possibility of not knowing exactly where the interview is held,” says Pam Andrews, CEO of The Scholarship Shark.
  • Sound natural when answering questions. “When they ask you a question, answer naturally rather than repeating canned responses,” says Olivia Valdes, Founder of Zen Admissions. “The goal here is to create a natural, conversational atmosphere, rather than a stiff and uncomfortable one.”
  • Relax.
  • Bring a pen and paper. “When you ask questions, take notes,” says Rev. Derek R. Davenport, current Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and former Director of Enrollment for the seminary. “This shows that you’re paying attention and it also helps you keep everything straight afterwards.”
  • Be honest about not knowing the answer to a question.
  • Elaborate on answers, instead of saying just “yes” or “no.”
  • Listen. “If the interviewer shares an anecdote about their time in college, be receptive. Respond to them and acknowledge what they shared,” says Valdes.
  • Maintain good hygiene. “Do floss and brush beforehand,” says Craig Meister, Founder of AdmissionsIntel.com. “You don’t want to distract your interviewer with what’s in your mouth or the smell coming from your mouth.”
  • Use appropriate humor.
  • Avoid bringing up religion and politics unless it’s relevant to the conversation.
  • Don’ts

  • Lie or embellish in an attempt to impress the interviewer.
  • Behave in a rude or disrespectful way.
  • Show a lack of interest in the school. “Don’t show disinterest or compare that college to another school you are looking at,” says Thompson. “Avoid saying things like ‘this is my back-up-school’ or ‘I visited XYZ college and their program is better.’ It sounds like a no-brainer, but it happens.”
  • Yawn or act bored.
  • Act shy.
  • Mumble when speaking. “First things first, open your mouth so they can hear you. If you mumble, nobody will be able to understand what you are saying,” says Andrews. “Be confident and concise, but do not be loud or give off an arrogant vibe.”
  • Bring parents to the interview.
  • Chew gum.
  • Show up unprepared. “If you know nothing about the school, it indicates to the interviewer that you’re not serious, which won’t help your application,” says Davenport.
  • Use foul language.
  • Use slang.
  • Pay attention to your phone. “Don’t be distracted by your phone during the interview. If you allow yourself to get distracted, your interviewer will sense that you aren’t taking the interview seriously,” says Valdes.
  • Get too personal. “Remember this is not Snapchat, Facebook or WhatsApp. You are not talking to your best friend or family member,” says Meister. “This person could determine where you will spend your next four years.”
  • Brag.
  • Sound too rehearsed.

Sample Questions & Response Strategies

While every college admissions interview is going to be different, it’s a good idea for students to think about their answers to some of the most common questions that schools ask. The following are some of those questions.

What the interviewer is looking for:

Schools want to know what students are passionate about and what their academic goals are. Students who have chosen a major should discuss why they find it interesting and how it fits into their professional goals—and not mention that they’re choosing a major because they want high salaries or job security. Students who haven’t decided on a major should discuss their academic passions and what areas they think they may want to study when they start college.

Questions You Should Ask

A college interview is a two-way street, so it’s important for students to prepare what they want to ask their interviewer. The following are examples of questions students can ask.

Why ask this question:

Since the person conducting the interview is familiar with what goes on at the school every day, they can provide insight that students can’t get from a website or brochure.

Interview Savers: What to Do if Things Go Awry

No matter how much a student prepares for an interview, sometimes things go wrong—but that doesn’t mean they should panic or give up. Below are some examples of problems that may come up and how to minimize their impact.

What to do:

“Being late for an interview is an obvious mistake, but sometimes unavoidable. Calling ahead of time, explaining why you are late (no bad excuses) and apologizing are major interview savers,” says Andrews.

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