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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Mastering the Admissions Interview

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While it might seem that interviewing has always been a staple of a job search, it really wasn't that long ago the tradition didn't exist. Thomas Edison, in fact, is credited with inventing the first job interview process, after having been disappointed with the lack of “quick wits” of potential employees. He created a 141-question test that covered everything from history to astrology; the test was so difficult, newspaper articles at the time claimed you needed to be a “walking encyclopedia” to pass it. If you did succeed on this test, only then would you get to meet the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Though the current admissions process does feature some testing and interviewing, thankfully it has evolved into a much simpler approach. In most cases, admissions interviews are conducted by local alumni of that particular college, although there are some notable exceptions where they are conducted by professional staff members. These interviews exist as a way to provide more personal context for your application as allowing the applicant to demonstrate an increased interest in that Institution.

If Hollywood is to be believed, these interviews are labyrinths of trick questions and intimidating interviewers wearing Tweed jackets with arm patches (see Will’s Princeton interview on Fresh Prince of Bel Air). Having worked with alumni interviewers during much of my tenure in campus-based admissions, I can assure you that a vast majority of alumni who serve as volunteer interviewers genuinely want to see you succeed and take pride in being able to represent their universities in their local community.

That said though, you still need to show up and do your part and advocate for yourself in the best way possible. Here are some of our simple tips for mastering your admissions interview.

Do your homework

This is quite simply the most important step in a successful interview. Prior to your interview, spend time reflecting on why you are interested in this university. And please, do not come into your interview and spout off “brochure” commentary about how the school has great professors, friendly students, and a beautiful campus. Not only is this generic and immediately forgettable, It tells them nothing about you as a candidate. Consider what is truly unique about that school to you personally. Have you visited the campus? If so, what were your specific impressions of the campus? Were there any favorite parts of your tour that you found especially intriguing? Ultimately, they want to know if you feel that there is a fit between you and the college. If you can't even articulate that fit, how will they?

Take your time

We do a lot of mock interviews with our students and one of the very first things that we notice is that many of them are deathly afraid of silence of any kind. When a question gets asked, they immediately launch into an answer because they don't want there to be any awkward silence. For our extroverted students, who can talk their way in and out of a question easily, this tends not to be a problem. But for everybody else (including me), it tends to lead to immediate flop sweat and getting lost in an answer.

Take your time when you get a question. Take a second to gather your thoughts and consider how you wish to answer that question. Consider what that question is really asking. If you need to stall for any reason, use buffer words like, “That is a very good question,” or “Oh, I like that question, let me think,” and the like. It will show them that you are thoughtful and are truly listening to the question.

Mind your fidgeting

The swivel office chair is the single greatest enemy of an admissions interviewee. Many qualified candidates have been put asunder by this seemingly innocuous piece of office furniture and the nervous, mostly unconscious leg swinging it invites. Being aware of your body movement is a way to keep the focus on you and your personality. If you are someone who is highly expressive with their hands, no problem: attempt to find a “home base” or a body position to which your hands return in between gestures. This could be in your lap or simply casually folded in front of you on a desk. Not knowing what to do with your hands is highly distracting.

Oh, and the most important thing you can do non-verbally is: Smile! Please.

Emphasize your “Headlines”

In the essay writing process, we focus on coming up with a set of two to four main themes to emphasize in your application. We call them “headlines” from old newspaper traditions in which a larger typeset would indicate a clear, straightforward sense of what was happening in the world that could be read quickly. When people read your application, or hear your interview, they should be able to gather these themes easily.

Instead of coming into an interview, hoping you get asked a certain kind of question, rely on those headlines from which you are simply looking for the right opportunity to introduce. This puts you in control of the interview and does wonders for calming the nerves.


Ultimately, you have to remember that the interviewer will only recall a small proportion of the things you say, but a significant amount of the way you made them feel. Your energy, attitude, and strength of conviction all communicate way more than having the “perfect” answer. They know that you are still a high school student, trying to figure things out about your future, and they genuinely want to see you succeed in doing that. So go ahead, walk through that interview door with confidence in yourself, ready to tell your story.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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