Thursday, October 6, 2011

Answering Questions About the College Interview

Question: What’s one of the most valuable experiences of the college admissions process?

Answer: The interview, of course!

As if the college application season isn't full of enough uncertainty, the prospect of first interviews is enough to unnerve many a high school senior. These days, college interviews can happen in many places, a result of the sheer volume of applications facing admissions officers. Depending on the colleges your student selects, he or she may be interviewed by an admissions officer on the college campus, a rep in a nearby coffee shop, or an alumnus in a conference room. Some colleges are even using student volunteers or interns to conduct interviews.

No matter who is interviewing your son or daughter, certain rules apply, starting with what to wear. I advise candidates to go with a smooth, preppy look that’s sure to work in any venue: for guys, a polo and khakis, and for gals, a nice shirt and conservative skirt or slacks. The student should know the basics starting with a firm handshake and eye contact. But he or she should also practice with a parent, friend, counselor, webcam or mirror.

Certain classic interview questions are a great place to start. (What are your strengths and weaknesses? Describe a challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it. What is your favorite book? What subjects do you do best at in school?) Every interviewer is different; some use set questions, while others go with the flow. Sometimes the best interviews are those where the applicant and interviewer find common ground, and that can really put the candidate at ease. Regardless of the interview dynamics, however, the student has to be careful with his or her opinions and meanderings. It is never a good idea to offend the interviewer.

Interviewers are always impressed when the student comes armed with a few good questions. Make sure your son or daughter does the same. The questions can be on anything from a tour guide’s comment to the interviewer’s own college experiences. The student shouldn’t hesitate to take out previously written questions or jot down notes. (I find that very impressive.) He or she should bring a copy of a resume (“brag sheet”) which will help the interviewer write up a report. Another professional touch is asking for the interviewer’s business card at the conclusion of the interview. Thanking the interviewer goes without saying.

The interview rarely makes or breaks the candidacy. There are just too many factors that make up an applicant’s profile, starting with the transcript and difficulty of courses. But believe me, if an interviewer sees a student who doesn’t seem to know about the school or indicates a preference for another college, it could cause some serious damage. Would you be impressed with an interview candidate who doesn’t seem well versed on your company's products and services or speaks glowingly of your competitor?

In my 20+ years as a Brown Alumni Schools Committee interviewer, I’ve seen it all. One student got into a car accident on his way to the interview. Another came across the room, sat down on the floor, and looked right up at me before she answered a question. I’ve had students bring paintings, sketches and recordings, all in the hopes of furthering their cause. Your student has to understand that there isn’t always a short-term gain from doing well in an interview and that not all interviews will go smoothly. But the ability to interview well is a skill your student will use forever. That is something to be pleased about.

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