Preparing for the college interview

Your child should spend time researching a college in preparation for an interview, whether the interview will take place on campus or in your local area with a graduate of the school.  School websites provide extensive, detailed information these days, including sometimes full course catalogues by major.  I also love The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges that the Yale Daily News has put together for decades now.  YDN reporters interview students on more than 300 campuses to get their candid impressions.  I wouldn’t necessarily quote the book in an interview; but, it can help your child formulate specific questions.

Young people sometimes make the mistake of thinking that acing the interview means coming across as unique or in possession of superhero-like characteristics.  In fact, interviewers want to know what interests your child – what gets them excited about and involved in academics and in the activities that they pursue.  Their actual menu of activities matters less than their underlying motivations.  Help your child think through and explain to you which subjects they enjoy in school, why they have taken on the responsibility of captaining a team or why they decided to work at the local deli over the summer.  The ability to put those thoughts into words will serve them well in the interview.

Interviewers also want to know why a student sees that particular school as a good fit.  Make sure to help your child prepare several questions about the school.  Inquiries that reflect prior knowledge demonstrate that your child did some homework.  A client of mine who wanted strong theater and business programs only applied to schools that offered both.  In her interviews, she asked if, as an undergraduate, she could enroll in graduate business courses and, if so, whether the university placed a cap on the number she could take.  These questions made clear that she had spent time learning about the school and found specific things about it a good fit for her.  Steer your child away from factual questions that somebody can answer quickly and that, therefore, do not prompt a longer discussion – especially as your child could have found the answers to most of those questions online before the interview.  Encourage your child to pose at least one open-ended question that could lead to substantive conversation, such as “How do you think your alma mater differs today from when you went to school there?”

Mock interviews can improve your child’s presentation skills and lessen anxiety about the interview situation in general.  You or another significant adult in your child’s life can use the following questions to help your child do a trial run:

  • Tell me about your interests, both academic and extracurricular.
  • Why is [insert name of school] a good fit for you?
  • Do you see yourself taking advantage of specific resources on campus and, if so, which ones?
  • How would you add to academic and extracurricular life on campus?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

Mock interviews can take on greater importance for some students than for others.  Young people who consider themselves shy or those who come from a culture that equates talking about personal accomplishments with undesirable boasting could benefit from advance practice.  If your child falls into either of these categories, help them find ways to talk about themselves that do not make them feel awkward.  Help them also identify specific topics about which they can speak with comfort and enthusiasm, such as courses and activities that they enjoy.  Encourage your child to let the interviewer know up front that discussing their achievements with others makes them uncomfortable because they are shy or their culture discourages it.  Many interviewers will appreciate the information and use it to guide the conversation in ways that could lessen the stress for your child.

Next up:  Frequently asked questions about the college interview