College admission interviews can be nerve-racking. Most of the stress comes from a lack of understanding of the process. Typically, small liberal arts colleges or highly competitive universities offer interviews to prospective students to get to know them a little more beyond their application. In this guide, we will cover everything you need to best conduct your college interview prep, including common college interview questions, questions to ask college interviewer, and a college interview thank you email template.
(Note: This post was written by Kim Stewart, a former coach at The Spike Lab. It was updated on Tuesday, Nov 2, 2021.)
What is the college interview?
Colleges conduct formal college interviews in order to evaluate you. They seek to understand what makes you unique and learn what you’re like in person. The interviewer will submit a report about your interview to the institution to help admissions officers determine whether you are a good fit. A typical evaluative interview report will talk about specific things that make you stand out. These categories will likely include your self-presentation and general commentary of how you’ll fit in at the institution.
This report is just one piece of the admissions puzzle. While it varies from college to college, admissions officers more often place less weight on your interview compared to more essential components of your application, like your personal statement. Students are rarely rejected (or otherwise admitted) solely due to something they say in their interviews. However, the college interview is a chance for you to make a positive impression on the interviewer so they are more willing to advocate for your candidacy.
Who are the interviewers?
Usually, interviewers are alumni volunteers. A common misconception is that interviewers are trying to find your faults or trick you with tough questions. On the contrary, most interviewers are usually excited to meet prospective students and hear about their interests. They’re also excited to share their college experience with you. These are the primary reasons why an alum would volunteer their time to interview.
Some colleges use admissions representatives to conduct their interviews. While the interview itself may be more formal in those instances, the interviewer is usually going to be someone who enjoys meeting students and sharing with them the great things about the university they represent. Whichever interviewer type you get, the process is less intimidating if you understand that ultimately they are genuinely looking forward to meeting you.
However, keep in mind that interviewers are human beings too. Occasionally, you may encounter an interviewer who is having a bad day, which inevitably colors the experience. There’s nothing you can do during your college interview prep or on the day of the interview, except to be empathetic. Showing a little understanding goes a long way and even helps you put your best foot forward in an interview.
Should you interview?
When deciding whether you should interview, the first step is to take a look at college admissions websites. Some colleges require an interview. The University of Pennsylvania in particular tries to interview around 90% of its applicants, depending on alumni volunteer availability. For optional interviews, there are a few things to consider. First, keep in mind that colleges with optional interviews usually ‘strongly recommend’ that you interview. This doesn’t mean that you are disqualified if you choose not to interview, but it does mean that they appreciate your decision to interview and consider it a demonstration of your interest. However, if you strongly feel that your interview will be a negative experience (e.g. you have strong anxiety or you struggle with conversations), then a couple of practice interviews with a trusted adult may help you assess whether you’re ready to interview.
Arrange your college interview in advance (if possible)
At the start of application season, you should check interview-related deadlines and instructions for all colleges you intend to apply to. This includes both deadlines for requesting (or scheduling) an interview and deadlines for completing the interview. Keep in mind some colleges will email you with a request to schedule your interview, while others put the onus on students to request an interview. The deadline may fall before your application submission date, or interviews may take place after you’ve submitted your application, so it will be helpful to keep a spreadsheet of your interview timelines for all colleges on your shortlist.
Once you know the deadline, try to schedule for a time when you won’t be busy or stressed. Many students wait until the last minute to schedule their interviews, which means you may end up interviewing on a weekend when the interviewer has a dozen other interviews. This doesn’t bode well for you — interviewers may feel exhausted, and at this point it’s hard to stand out. Consider scheduling your interview earlier in the process when interviewers are more excited about meeting applicants, when you have flexibility in your schedule, and when you will be competing to stand out amongst a smaller pool of applicants.
For the Ivies, conduct college interview prep early
For the most selective universities, such as the Ivy League schools, an interview request may come only several days in advance of the offered interview times. These requests will likely come in November if you apply for Early Decision or January for Regular Decision. You’ll have little time to prepare and so if you’re aiming for any of these top schools, expect to conduct thorough college interview prep earlier rather than later.
College interview location
Interviewers may suggest a place, or if they are not local to your area, they may ask for your recommendation on a place to meet. For the latter, try to pick a place and a time that won’t be too crowded, with plenty of seating, and in an easy-to-find location. Interviews may also be set up virtually. Virtual college interviews have become more common after the rise of Covid. We’ve included some tips on college interview prep for virtual interviews below.
College interviews for international students
The college interview process differs for international students, depending on your country. In China, it’s practically expected that students applying to the Top 50 universities submit a recorded interview through a third-party platform, such as InitialView. These recorded, third-party interviews are used to verify student identity and assess language ability. Interviews conducted by the college are less frequent in comparison for Chinese students. In Taiwan, a minority of college applicants do interviews and usually only for the most selective schools, such as the Ivy League.
Because the international applicant pool is so competitive, we recommend that international students try to secure a college interview whenever possible. Again, the interview is another opportunity to demonstrate interest and also make a good impression, which can definitely help international applicants.
Common mistakes in arranging interviews
- Missing Important Communications: Whether your interview is required or you requested one, it can be seen as irresponsible if you do not follow up on communications from your interviewer. Check your email (both inbox and spam) often, and follow up promptly (with 24 to 48 hours.
- Unprofessional Emails: Your emails are the first impression interviewers have of you. Be sure to use a professional-sounding email address (keep it simple — something related to your name is fine) and be courteous in your writing. Address the interviewer with a formal salutation unless they instruct you otherwise.
Start here with college interview prep
Preparation is the key to confidence. Even experienced professionals prepare for job interviews; admissions interviews aren’t any different. A good place to start is researching the institution itself. Interviews help colleges determine whether you’re a good fit, so naturally you’ll want to know what characterizes a ‘good fit.’ Try to get a sense of the values that are important to the college and the type of student they seek. Dig a little deeper in your research to understand the types of programs you might be interested in — enough so that you can talk about it with your interviewer and ask appropriate questions about their programs. Many colleges post guidance for interviews (what to bring with you, if anything; how they use the interview; what to expect; sample questions), so use research to your advantage. Here is an example of Stanford’s guidance on interviews.
Once you’ve done your research and you know what to expect, try conducting mock interviews. Role-playing should be a huge part of how you prepare. Practice your responses to interview questions with someone you trust to give honest feedback. Ask them to evaluate you, keeping in mind factors like how well you come across, how clear and interesting your answers are, and how professional your demeanor is. Try this out with a few different people so you can have different perspectives on your interview strengths/weaknesses.
Common college interview questions
Interviewers are usually supplied with a bank of questions to consider, but often have the flexibility to ask their own questions. This means that there are many common college interview questions that you’ll likely be asked, but certainly, questions that you did not prepare for.
Below is a list of common college interview questions (download our full interview guide). We recommend that you conduct your college interview prep with these.
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why do you want to attend this school?
- What program are you interested in and why?
- What can you contribute to the university?
- What’s your favorite subject in high school?
- What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in class?
- What is your proudest achievement?
- Tell me about a challenge you overcame.
- Is there anything you didn’t mention in your application that you’d like to share with me?
How to answer these common college interview questions
No matter the question, provide a specific answer. For example, if you’re asked about your best personal quality, a vague response like ‘I always work really hard’ is less engaging than a specific example of a time where you really applied yourself to a specific goal. Interviewers submit a report of the conversation, so help them out by providing specific details that they can share with admissions committees. We work with our students to think of accomplishments that they should highlight or elaborate on in the interview, with an emphasis on unique achievements that were not mentioned in their application.
For your answers, you can draw from themes within your college essay or application. After all, your purpose and experiences create a throughline in your entire application, including the college interview. But don’t expect that your interviewer has read or will remember your essays. Provide enough context so that your sense of purpose and perspective shine through.
Expect follow-up questions, and be prepared to elaborate. All too often, students will mention an interest (with the goal of sounding more impressive) and have little to say when the interviewer probes. For example, if you say you like documentaries, be prepared to talk about your favorite documentary. If you claim you’re interested in travel, expect to be asked about your most exciting trip. Don’t just mention something for the sake of sounding impressive.
Be human and genuine.
Students often overlook how important these qualities are in interviews. You don’t have to be the most charismatic interviewee, but engaging the interviewer as a person in small ways is effective. If you are talking about why you are excited to attend the college, you can tap into the interviewer’s own passion for their alma mater or place of work. When sharing your proudest accomplishment, share your zest and inspiration. They are infectious and your interviewer will definitely notice how obvious your dedication and passion are, whether that is about the college or your potential major.
Common college interview mistakes
Making your interview wait is a major faux pas. You should plan to arrive early to avoid any unexpected delays. You’ll also be more relaxed if you’re on time, rather than running in at the last minute.
This comes off as unengaging and superficial. It’s important to know what you want to talk about. However, you should treat the interview as a conversation and not a speech.
It’s important that you speak truthfully about your accomplishments and go into specific details whenever possible. If you attempt to fabricate impressive accomplishments, this will probably be sussed out by a skilled interviewer.
An interview is not a time to be overly humble. Interviewers want to know why you’re awesome, so don’t be afraid to tell them!
Panicking with Curveballs: Inevitably, questions will come up that you didn’t anticipate. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a minute to think about your answer. While it feels awkward, this actually shows that you are being thoughtful in your response.
Not Asking Questions.
You will likely be asked if you have any questions. ‘No’ is the wrong answer. The questions you ask an interviewer are just as important as the questions you answer. You want to demonstrate that you’ve researched the college thoroughly, that you’re inquisitive, and that you’re excited to attend. As such, your questions should not be things that are easily found online. Don’t be afraid to research your interviewer to learn a little about their background or things you have in common so that you can bring them up during the interview.
Questions to ask college interviewer
These questions are an essential part of your college interview prep. You should prepare a list of three to five questions to ask your college interviewer. If you tell the interviewer you don’t have any questions, it will look like you aren’t truly invested in the school. You may not be able to ask all of them, but it’s better to be prepared. These questions are also a great way to demonstrate that you’re truly invested in the college community itself. Make sure to personalize your questions based on who your interviewer is and for the school itself.
Don’t ask questions you can answer by yourself by reading the college’s website or questions that are too specific for the interviewer to know about. Instead, take this opportunity to understand the interview’s impression and personal experiences with the college and its community.
Here are sample questions to ask your alumni college interviewer:
- If you were to do college over again, what would you do differently?
- Looking back, what do you think were the most valuable classes or experiences?
- I noticed that you [something about their experience or major]. Could you tell me more about your experience?
- What did the college and its community teach you that you might not have gained from attending a different school?
Here are sample questions to ask your college interviewer if they work at the college:
- From your experience, what characteristics do students need to be successful at this school?
- What’s something that makes you really proud to work for this university?
- I care deeply about [class/racial/environmental/etc. Justice] and noticed that the school has X initiatives in this area. Can you tell me more about the progress the school has made?
Day of Interview
Prepare for the day of the interview starts the night before. Get a good night’s rest so you are ready to tackle the interview with enthusiasm. There are few things more off-putting than a student yawning their way through their answers. Dress professionally. Even if it’s a casual interview, you don’t want to look like you just rolled out of bed. Take a bottle of water with you. Since you’ll be talking a lot or be nervous, water can help if you get a dry mouth or choke on your words.
You may also want to bring a resume. Some colleges explicitly state that you should not bring any materials to the interview, but otherwise it could be helpful to provide a resume for your interviewer to reference. If you do bring a resume, be able to talk about everything you mention. You never know what the interview is going to ask about, and you don’t want to be thrown off by something you mention on your resume that you are unable to elaborate on.
Make sure you’re clear on exactly where and how you’re meeting the interviewer.
Know the location, and what to look for (i.e. are they wearing a university sweater? Should you head to a specific part of a cafe?). Plan to arrive about 15 minutes early in case of unexpected traffic delays, trouble finding parking, and any other last-minute problems. When you arrive, it should be just you. Parents are naturally curious about the interview, and sometimes protective of their child meeting a stranger. However, it’s best if you demonstrate maturity by showing up by yourself. It’s okay if a parent waits for you nearby, but they should not be present for the interview. Lastly, be sure to turn off your phone before you arrive for the interview!
Virtual college interviews
The college interview that takes place online is not all that different from an in-person interview. Students should still dress fully in the appropriate interview attire in case they have to stand up, but also to help remind them of the formal nature of the interview. Do a technology check to avoid any issues that might impede upon the interview. This includes having a professional username, checking the Wi-Fi connection, charging or plugging in your laptop, testing video and audio settings, making sure you can smoothly access the video room on whatever platform the interview will be held on.
You should also set the stage for your virtual interview. Remove any external distractions and noises. Pick a quiet room. Let family members know, so they avoid disrupting your call. Ensure that there’s good lighting so that the interviewer can fully see your face and minimize clutter in your screen background. If you’ve never done a virtual interview, try a practice run that mimics the real interview as much as possible and have someone else give feedback.
Follow up: College interview thank you email
Plan to send a college interview thank you email (download our sample college interview ‘thank you’ email) within 6 hours of completing the interview. Oftentimes, an interviewer will send their interview report shortly after they finish speaking with you, so it’s important that you send a college interview ‘thank you’ email promptly. In your message, thank them for speaking with you and for sharing their experience at the university. You can also reference something specific that you enjoyed talking about or learning. Avoid sharing new information that you didn’t bring up in the interview. This leaves the impression that you were not prepared or engaging during the actual interview.
Remember that the interview is just one thing that admissions officers consider. Try not to stress about it. Interviewers want to meet you and help shape the next class of students at their alma mater. With college interview prep, the interview should be a positive and informative experience.
Want a head start on your college interview prep?
Our Spike Coaching program is the ideal program to help you grow your public speaking skills early in high school. We also help you create a meaningful high school experience you can share during your college interview. Schedule a time to talk to us and learn more.