How to: College Interview


Yesterday, I could officially say I’d completed 99% of the college admissions process. It was my very last interview….

…with Harvard.

So I was a little intimidated, but honestly I’d already gotten into my dream school and this application/interview was sort of last minute and rushed. Little known fact: Harvard doesn’t actually require any supplemental essays, but there is an option to throw an essay about you in there if you’d like. I submitted my entire Harvard application on January 1st (which is absolutely NOT advised if you actually want to go to Harvard!). 

Long story short, of all the interviews I’ve done, this was possibly the worst one ever. I wasn’t nervous, but my interviewer was really trying hard to make me uncomfortable. He took notes all over my resume (and was the only interviewer who actually requested I bring a resume), he started asking me annoying questions, he even once insinuated that I probably didn’t know words like “predicament” because they were only used by his generation. At one point, I’d expressed interest in dark matter and dark energy (I love astronomy/physics), and he asked me to explain how they worked, to which I politely replied that if I knew how, I surely wouldn’t be here talking to him. He considered that for a moment, then made a comment along the lines of: if you aren’t knowledgeable about something you like, you aren’t as passionate about it as you say you are.

This was not a good interview.

(Disclaimer: this is just one alumni interviewer of many, I doubt the majority of Harvard grads act this way towards applicants.)

Later that night I went to a friends house to study. She’s applying to Columbia, and her interview is coming up soon. She asked me how mine went. After hearing my  little  very long, frustrated rant about how horrible my interview was, she asked what I would have done to make it better, and how she ought to prep for her upcoming interview. I figure there are a lot of you out there with the pre-interview jitters, so here are some of the tips I pulled from the college interviews I’ve done.

1- In person interviews are always better.

My future-Columbian friend actually requested that her interview be in-person because her current alumni-interviewer is on a two month excursion in Texas, and could only do his via Skype. If you’re in a similar situation, I highly recommend going for the in-person as well. Video chats are great if you already know the person on the other end, but an introductory meeting for a college with someone hundreds of miles away? That already sets some boundaries. You can’t reach out to shake hands. The conversation stays within the time you’ve allotted to it, and generally no longer. Small talk and meaningless chit-chat isn’t as easy when you loose the common setting/location. Even grabbing a coffee with your interviewer is no longer possible. Any chance to get more personal/comfortable with your interviewer is welcome!

2- If he/she buys a drink, so should you.

In one of my other college interviews we scheduled a meet at Panera’s. I ate before I showed up, but when I arrived my interviewer asked me if I wanted a drink. Naturally, I said no (I also hate spending money). He gave me a sideways look, bought his coffee, turned around and asked me again – “Are you sure you don’t want anything? Nothing? I’ll pay…” Still, I said no. When he started eating alone, I realized why he was so insistent. It was pretty awkward. I sat there with my hands folded in my lap while he munched on his bagel self-consciously. Moral of the story: don’t make it awkward by not eating/drinking. Nurse a cup of coffee/tea while you’re talking, it may also calm your nerves.

3- Dress well, feel confident. 

Everyone gets anxious about this one. An ironed button-down (or is it button-up?) paired with a nice pair of jeans and a shower should be fine. You should look presentable and feel good about the way you’re dressed. Be mindful of the weather though. For my MIT interview I came with a nice shirt/jean combo, my favorite green Converse and leather jacket. Of course, we decided to go outside because it looked “warm.” It was at least 35 degrees out, and I tried to hide how badly I was shivering from my interviewer (who looked totally fine! she wasn’t even wearing a coat!). I think I caught a cold after that.

4- Have a set of questions prepared.

Normally when the interview is over, your interviewer will say: “I’ve been asking you a lot of questions, but I’m sure you have some about me and [insert school name here].” I’m not an interviewer, but it probably shows a lack of interest in the school when you don’t have anything ready (Note: Even if you ask them questions during the interview, which is perfectly acceptable btw, they’ll still give you the opportunity to ask more questions at the end as a courtesy). At the very least, put together a few things about the school/interviewer you’d like to know more about. For example:

  • Why did you choose this school over others?
  • What is the atmosphere like?
  • Is there anything about the school you disliked?
  • What did you major in? What opportunities did the school make available to you to pursue that major?

5- Make a list of things you’ve done/would like to impress on the interviewer. 

There’s always a take-away from an interview. If you want to direct the conversation so you hit certain points (address your accomplishments/major interests), have them all listed out before hand. This will also add some variety to the conversation. Instead of just talking about one thing the entire time, you can discuss something different that you’ve done in response to each new question. One benefit of this strategy is that you might strike on a subject that your interviewer is very passionate about. Once the two of you have established that connection – you’re golden!

6- Go to the bathroom.

Before you arrive at the interview. Don’t be that person.

7- Have a way of identifying your interviewer. 

You don’t want to be waiting around in Starbucks asking every guy who walks in what their name is. Ask them how you’ll know who they are when you schedule the interview, and if they respond with something like: “I wear prescription glasses,” maybe you should reconsider applying.

Just kidding.

But seriously. That’s not very helpful.

8- Relax. 

I’m a math person, so I’ll use a math analogy. It takes two points to make a line ~ it takes two people to have an interview. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and express your opinions. Think of it as you interviewing the school. Most interviewers (with the exception of a particular Harvard alum) want to make you feel as relaxed as possible. They don’t want to scare you, they just want to talk.


Good Luck!