Tips for Prepping & Dressing for Success
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.
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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.
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
- Collared, button down shirt
- Closed-toe shoes
What NOT TO WEAR to a college interview:
- Open-toed shoes
- Excessive makeup
- Excessive cologne or perfume
- Too many accessories
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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
“To answer this, you need to extensively research the college before the interview. Does it have an academic program or extracurricular activity that interests you? Cultural values you like? Know why you are interested and be prepared to clearly articulate that,” says Andrews.
This question is designed to find out what is important to students and what their interests are. To prepare for this question, they should think about what inspires them about a particular book, what characters they relate to and why, and what influence the book has had on their lives. Preferably it should be a book that was not something they had to read for school.
“The focus of this question tends to be on your academics. If math or English isn’t your strength, talk about why that is, what you’ve done to work through it, and how you will continue to do that in college,” says Thompson. “Look at the services that the college offers and be prepared to talk about them.”
This is an opportunity for students to talk about their academic interests, especially if they have already chosen a major. Schools want to admit students who are excited about their favorite subjects and want to excel in their studies, rather than those who are attending college because they feel like they have to.
“Answer with an interesting, but complimentary, anecdote about your habits at home. Ideally, you are super clean,” says Meister.
This type of question is designed to find out if students have been keeping up with current events. Schools want students who are curious about what is going on in the world and have made an effort to become well-informed, careful thinkers. To answer this question, they should keep up with the news and think about their positions on the issues and their core values.
Schools want students who are going to do more than just go to class every day. To answer this question, they should talk about the activities, clubs and sports they may want to participate in, as well as volunteer activities. Also, this is a good time to discuss their high school activities and why they enjoy them.
This question is designed to determine what students are looking for in a school, as well as their problem solving skills. This should not be used as an opportunity to complain about their high school. Instead they should talk about a specific problem, what can be done to solve it and how the solution would help students.
This question is designed to find out more about students’ character and what they value most. They can answer this by talking about someone close to them, as well as a real person they don’t know or a fictional character that had an impact on them in some way. When answering this question, students should go into detail about why they admire the person they chose and specific ways that person has impacted their life.
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.
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.
“Everyone loves talking about themselves, and their response may help you make your own college decision down the road,” says Valdes.
This not only provides students with important information on how the school will help them meet their academic and career goals, it also lets the interviewer know they’re serious about getting the most out of their education.
“The best questions to ask will be the ones that arise as you research the school ahead of time,” says Davenport. “Anything that shows a genuine interest and fit with the school, as well as some preparation, is great and shows that you’re a serious applicant.”
This question can give students information on the clubs, events and other extracurricular activities that are available at the school. It also shows the interviewer that a student is well-rounded and wants to immerse themselves in the campus culture.
“Part of your four-year experience is the surrounding town. What is there to do, is there transportation, activities for college students or what is the community known for?” says Thompson.
Just as students may be expected to answer this question about their high school, they can also ask this question about the college they’re considering. This way, students can get information about the school’s shortcomings, which can help them make their decision if they’re torn between two colleges.
“This lets the interviewer know that you are preparing for a safe school environment,” says Andrews. “You want to feel secure on campus and know what plans are in place to deal with emergencies.
This is another question that will give students insights about a college they may not otherwise obtain. Also, it shows the interviewer that students are thinking about what their experience will be like at the school.
Students who ask this question will find out about a college’s core values and where they put most of their attention and resources. Whether it is research, career preparation or faculty, the answer to this question will reveal what the school cares about most.
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.
“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.
If students know they’re going to miss their interview ahead of time, they should let the interviewer know as soon as possible and reschedule. If something comes up on the day of the interview, students should contact the interviewer as soon as they can, apologize for not being able to make it and ask to meet at another time.
“Common mistakes are as simple as being too prepared for your interview, which can make you too nervous and lead to stumbling through the interview. It really becomes a snowball effect,” says Thompson. “If you become nervous, ask if you can step out of the room, take a deep breath and step back in.”
If a student’s cell phone starts ringing during an interview, they should immediately turn it off and apologize for the interruption. They should never answer a phone or start texting during an interview.
“The most common mistake I see is students who get carried away with their answers. It may stem from nerves or just a desire to offer complete answers, but sometimes students get a little long-winded,” says Davenport. “If you feel like you are starting to ramble or get off track, stop yourself and say something like ‘I don’t want to get too far off topic; have I answered your question?’ This gives the interviewer a chance to invite further discussion, to refocus the answer or to move along.”
People who work at colleges are human just like everyone else, and sometimes students may catch them on a bad day. If an interviewer is rude, students shouldn’t let that upset them or shake their confidence. They should remain calm, leverage all of the interview preparation they did and act as if nothing is wrong.
“If you make this mistake, make sure you’re ready and willing to speak about your most impressive extracurricular accomplishments in high school,” says Meister.
6 Things to Expect in an Admission Interview - University of Southern California
USC also offers insight into what students can expect when they go to a college interview.
Top College Interview Tips - The Princeton Review
This page includes tips that students can use during their college interview to impress admissions officers.
Office of Admission Interview FAQ - University of Southern California
USC provides the answers to commonly asked questions about college admissions interviews, including information on what students should wear, the types of questions they will be asked and what they should ask their interviewer.
Character Counts: What Are Colleges Looking For? - BigFuture
This article discusses the qualities that colleges look for in their students and how these qualities can be demonstrated during an interview, as well as on an application.
College Interviews: The Basics - The College Board
This page has tips on how students can ace an interview, as well as information on what they can expect and how to prepare.
What to Wear to an Interview - University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Here students can get valuable tips on what to wear to their college interview.
College Interviews: Practice Questions and Strategies - BigFuture
In order to help students practice for their college interview, this page details common questions admissions counselors ask, why they ask them and how students are expected to answer.
Admission Interview Tips - The College Board
Includes information on the types of interviews colleges conduct with prospective students and the benefits of doing an interview.
The Complete List of Colleges That Require Interviews - PrepScholar
PrepScholar has information on the importance of doing a college interview, how to set up an interview with a school, and which schools require applicants to participate in an interview.
Avoid These Top College Admissions Interview Mistakes - U.S. News & World Report
Describes common college interview mistakes and how students can avoid them.