Mastering the College Interview

people on a video call

After you finish submitting college applications, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. However, the application process may not be 100% complete. Some colleges will reach out to see if you would be interested in a contact meeting. Though these meetings are meant to be informational with no bearing on your application, it’s a good idea to make the best impression you can. You would like the interviewer to see you as a welcome addition to their college’s student body. You don’t want these types of interactions to become red flags for your applications. Though they are officially not a part of your application package, you want to put your best foot forward.

A college meeting is also an opportunity to add more information to your application that you might not have covered or has changed since you first submitted your application. Let’s face it: during this ongoing pandemic, your life has changed or turned upside down. If you’ve experienced extenuating circumstances like someone in your family has lost a job or COVID-19 has affected you or someone close to you, this is the time to share, especially if your grades will be impacted.  

In the age of COVID-19, it’s very likely that these interviews will be conducted virtually. You have an additional challenge of making sure you make a stellar online impression as well. 

Here are the top 7 tips for doing the best college interview you can, which will help set you up for good habits for future job interviews.

Be prepared for your virtual interview.

Almost every college is conducting virtual interviews to minimize in-person contact. Most students have been doing some kind of remote learning but don’t treat your virtual college meeting with the same anything-goes attitude. Many kids have showed up to online school like they just sat up in bed, turned on their computer, and then switched the video OFF as soon as class has started. You absolutely can’t do that in a college interview. 

Presenting yourself professionally on a webcam is very important. Dressing in business casual attire, even if it’s only your top half, sends the message that you’re taking the interview seriously. 

If your interviewer is requesting that you meet on an online video platform you’re not familiar with, download the software app as soon as you get the invite so you don’t forget. Become familiar with the software. Make sure you know how it works and the microphone is working properly. Why risk being late to a virtual call just because you’re trying to create a new account or figuring out how to log on?

Make sure your background is nondescript so it’s not distracting. No stranger wants to see your unmade bed or your clothes strewn all over your dresser. 

Lighting has become an essential component of the online meeting. Check your lighting because if there’s too much glare or it’s too dark, it’s harder to make a personal connection with your interviewer. You don’t want your video to be challenging to look at. 

Keep some water, or even warm water, near you so your voice sounds crisper. Before the interview, take a sip so you don’t sound like you have a frog in your throat or even coronavirus. I once worked on an NPR radio show where the host always had a mug of warm water by her microphone, which helped give her a distinctive, warm voice.   

Be on time.

This might sound basic but you’d be surprised by how many kids have showed up late to college interviews. In today’s virtual meeting world, there is no reason you should show up late to an online meeting because you can’t get the app to work or you had to set up an account. The interviewer will just see you as being late. 

I’ve had people text me and call me after the interview start time, saying they’re lost because they can’t find the local coffee shop that’s five minutes from their house. If you’ve never been to the appointed meeting place, go there the day before because inevitably, even if you’re trying to get to a new location a few minutes early, you’ll end up a few minutes late, flustered because you already got off on the wrong foot. 

Be yourself and be genuine. 

The best interview you can do is the one where you’re just being yourself. Being yourself is your best self. Being genuine and expressing your own opinions is more impactful than trying to be someone you think the interviewer wants you to be. Show heart and be open-minded about what the interviewer has to share. They just want to know about you and they are on your side. Their purpose is to impart information about the college you’ve applied for. 

If you try to exaggerate or fabricate information, you’ll set off alarms in the interviewer’s head. If a student claims to learn a second language fluently from a family friend when their own parents don’t speak the said language (as one person I interviewed has claimed), red flags will be raised. My first thought was that the family friend was a housekeeper or nanny being paid by the candidate’s family, which isn’t exactly a friendship relationship. If there’s money exchanged, there is a power dynamic in play. 

You shouldn’t assume you know everything about the interviewer from a quick Google search or LinkedIn profile. Keep in the mind that the interviewer has had a wide range of experiences that isn’t necessarily listed in their public profile. 

Don’t treat the interviewer like they were born yesterday or that you’re better than them. One candidate discussed their recent trip to India where they were impressed by how well people of different religions got along. I had traveled to India to the same neighborhood she talked about, and the recent news headlines about religious strife and discrimination didn’t mesh with her kumbaya sweeping statement. Stay up to date with the news, especially if you’re going to bring up a complex topic. 

Bring a resume.

A resume of accomplishments and experiences helps you guide the conversation to highlight your achievements that haven’t necessarily been elucidated in an application. It can be stressful in the heat of the moment to remember all the things that you want to say. You don’t want to leave the interview, wishing you had mentioned such-and-such. This is the time to bring attention to your strengths. Discuss your incredible feats without bragging or coming across as arrogant.

Research the college and focus on why you want to go to that particular school.

When you meet alumni, you should try to convey your intimate knowledge of their university. Really spend some time, reflecting on why you chose to apply to that college. You want to demonstrate why their university is your top choice. Don’t offend them by saying out loud that another college is really your top choice. You’re just wasting the interviewer’s time. Someone I interviewed told me that the university I was representing wasn’t their favorite. Why tell me? It’s not information I need to know. I’ve had someone show up to an interview with a folder emblazoned with the crests of ALL of the Ivy League universities. It looked like the candidate just wanted to get into any Ivy League university, which can come across as a superficial reason to attend college. Bragging rights is not a great reason to attend a specific academic institution. 

Ask questions but don’t interrogate.

Come up with thoughtful questions that only pertain to the university. You should ask questions about the university that you really want to know the answer to. Don’t look disinterested because you’ve asked the same question to other people that you’ve interviewed. Also, keep in mind that the interviewer might not have been on campus for 20 years. If they don’t know the answer, it’s ok to ask them if they can find out. The interviewees have contacts on campus who can answer questions. 

I’ve had a young student who was going to major in psychology announce that she analyzes everyone she meets, including me. She crossed boundaries and came across as unprofessional. Alumni have nothing to prove because they already graduated from the college that the candidate is applying to. 

Practice with mock interviews.

The best way to prepare for a college interview is to practice. Even if you only can practice with your parents or your friends, there is an element of familiarity and it may be hard for you to pretend to be professional. If you’re interested in a mock interview with a professional college consultant, contact 

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