If you have your heart set on attending a certain college, you should know there is no definite set of factors that will guarantee your acceptance. Colleges consider many different aspects of your application, including your grades, extracurriculars, test scores, and recommendations. But if you’re looking for an added edge and are hoping to get into a smaller private school, acing the college interview is key.
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2019 State of College Admission Report, approximately 21% of colleges placed moderate or considerable importance on interviews as a factor in their admissions decisions. Private schools and smaller colleges tend to give interviews more consideration than larger schools and public universities, which give more weight to admission test scores.
To help you learn how to prepare for a college interview, we talked with Adam Smith, senior director of admissions with Elizabethtown College — a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. We asked him to share his best college interview tips so you can succeed during the admissions process.
What are colleges looking for in a college interview?
According to Smith, colleges hold interviews so they can get a greater insight into who the applicants are as people.
“The whole point of the interview process is to get to know the applicant,” he said. “I think from our standpoint as admissions counselors, we look to be an advocate for all of our incoming students. So when we take an application to the admissions committee, we can fill them [the committee] in on what may be going on with the student from an academic standpoint, home life standpoint, athletic standpoint, or maybe a variety of factors, so they have a full picture of who that student is.”
There are usually two kinds of college interviews:
- Informational: Informational interviews are primarily focused on giving you information about the college. They can be with current students, faculty members, or admissions counselors. While they’re mainly for you to learn about the school, the interviewers may pass on their impressions about you to the admissions committee.
- Evaluative: The school uses evaluative interviews to assess you as a candidate. The admissions counselor who runs the interview will share their impressions with a committee, and their notes become part of your admissions file.
Smith stressed that college interviews aren’t a pass/fail experience. Instead, interviewers want to make sure students will be successful once they get on campus, so the interview is designed to evaluate how they’d adjust to the school.
“We want to make sure that they’re set up for success,” he said. “For anyone working in admissions, that’s our goal. We don’t want to admit anyone unless we know that they could be successful.”
7 College interview tips
Now that you know the purpose and goal of admissions interviews, you can learn how to prepare for a college interview. Here are the top college interview tips to help you ace your next interview:
1. Prep and ask questions specific to that school
As an interviewee, it’s important to show that you’re passionate about the school and personally invested in the college application process. Smith said a great way to do that is to prepare questions for the interviewer ahead of time.
“Personally, I like when students come with questions,” he said. “Having prepared questions going into the interview is going to make a world of a difference because it shows you’ve done your homework. You’ve done research on the school and probably research on the particular program you’re interested in.”
For example, you could ask questions like:
- How involved is the campus with the local community?
- What types of community service projects are available?
- What athletic programs are available?
- What dining options are there?
- How long does it take the typical [your potential major] to graduate?
2. Prepare your answers to frequently asked questions
While you shouldn’t plan on memorizing your answers, you should spend some time thinking about common interview questions and how you’d answer them. However, interviews should be natural conversations, so you should prepare enough just so you’re not caught off guard and don’t leave out essential information about yourself.
“I usually tell students when you apply, it’s okay to brag about yourself,” Smith said. “I know that’s sometimes a hard thing to do. A lot of students are very humble. But it’s like a job interview, and you’re trying to make your application stand out from the competition.”
Spend some time reflecting on your accomplishments, challenges you’ve overcome, favorite activities, and your goals. Interviewers will almost always touch on those areas, so you should be ready to talk about your hobbies and your passions.
According to The College Board, common college interview questions include:
- What can you contribute to the campus?
- What adjectives describe you?
- What is your biggest weakness?
- Why do you want to attend this college?
- Why do you want to study this major?
3. Prepare a resume
Not all college interviews will require a resume, but it can be helpful to create one, anyway. If you had a part-time job or leadership role in the student council, your resume can be a great way to highlight that experience.
Your resume can also help you showcase other roles, even if you don’t have any work history. If you participated in sports, clubs, or community groups, make sure you include that information, as well.
4. Practice, practice, practice
Interviews can feel awkward, but you can get better at them with practice. If possible, ask your friends, family members, trusted teachers, or your high school guidance counselor to hold mock interviews with you so you can practice.
They can ask you some of the most common college interview questions, and you should answer as if it was a real interview. You should also ask them to give you feedback on the quality of your answers. When the actual interview happens, you’ll be surprised by how much more relaxed you feel with some practice under your belt.
5. Follow proper interview etiquette and best practices
Some schools have a dress code for interviews, so double-check with the admissions office ahead of time to see how you should dress. In some cases, you may have to wear business clothing, such as a suit, dress, or pants and a nice shirt. If you don’t have anything appropriate, ask friends or family members if you can borrow an outfit. However, dressing up isn’t essential for everyone.
For Smith, a suit isn’t necessary.
“It [a suit] certainly makes a good first impression,” he said. “But, one of the things I like to see even more than that is some kind of school swag, whether it’s a t-shirt or sweatshirt from our institution when they’re coming in for an interview. That makes us [admissions staff] feel pretty great. I think a lot of colleges also like to see that they’re wearing their apparel.”
Most importantly, your appearance should be neat and clean and reflect who you are. Beyond your dress, make sure you’re on time.
If you have a video interview scheduled, test out your technology ahead of time to make sure your camera and microphone work, and that you have strong enough Wi-Fi. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan — like your admissions counselor’s direct phone number — just in case.
6. Treat the interview like a conversation
While you may be nervous about the interview, treat it like a conversation, rather than a speech or school exam. When you meet your interviewer, remember to greet them, introduce yourself, and smile. Throughout the interview, show that you’re engaged and practice active listening. This is an opportunity for you to showcase your talents, but it’s also a chance for you to learn more about the school. When it’s all over, remember to thank them for taking time out of their day to talk to you.
7. Ask for feedback
At the end of the interview, don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer for feedback on how you did. Not only does it show that you’re open to constructive criticism and are willing to improve yourself, but you may get some valuable insights into your chances for admissions. The interviewer may have some valuable tips you can use for future interviews, too.
Navigating the admissions process
Getting through the admissions process can be overwhelming, but by using these college interview tips, you can be prepared and impress the interviewer with your poise and confidence.
After the interview, make time to tour the campus, if possible. While a school may sound like the perfect fit for you on its website, you might have a very different experience once you visit the grounds or check out their virtual campus tours.
“The only way you’re going to know if it’s a good fit is by going and visiting it in person,” Smith said.
If you’re not sure what to look for, check out the high school student’s guide to campus tours.