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Last updated March 8, 2023

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Our Complete Guide to College Interviews

Key Takeaway

Interviews won't typically make or break your application, but they are a great way to demonstrate your interest in a school and help admissions officers get to know you better.

Every spring, admission offices around the country connect with applicants with an invitation to interview.

Naturally, as with all parts of the application process, the admissions interview can feel daunting and stressful. How much does it matter? Does this mean I’m competitive? Am I screwed if I didn’t get an interview? What if I mess up?

As an admissions consultant and former admission officer at Vanderbilt and Mary Washington, I’ve interviewed (and reviewed alumni interviews for) a ton of students. I’ll share my insights and, hopefully, help you chill out a bit about the interview process.

First, a reality check and piece of good news: most alumni interviewers have relatively little sway in admissions and aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the process. Your interview is unlikely to make or break your application.

The purpose of admissions interviews

Admission interviews, at the most, are one of many factors of your application that is holistically reviewed. Admission interviews, usually conducted by alumni of the institution, serve a few purposes:

  • They allow the admission office to learn more about you as an individual.
  • They give you the opportunity to ask questions face-to-face with a graduate of the institution.
  • Alumni interviews keep alumni engaged (and alumni engagement means more donations to the school).
  • Interviewing can be a chance to demonstrate interest in the school.
  • They may be used to further evaluate your candidacy as an applicant.

In my experience, interviews usually confirm what the admission officer already knows about you from reviewing your file: “Brian became interested in neuroscience after taking AP Psychology junior year. He explained how that class led to him taking some additional summer coursework and even shadowing some researchers at the local college.”

Occasionally, they’ll offer something new and interesting: “I’m not sure if this came up in her application, but Katie has put her programming skills to work at home. She told me she’s created simple video games and even showed me some gameplay of a mini-golf game she made–it was really cool!”

Or, “Reya mentioned her younger brother halfway through our meeting and I asked how old he was. She said he’s seven and has special needs. We ended up talking about him for a while and I found out she spends at least two hours per weekday caring for him. I bet that affects her ability to participate in extracurriculars.”

Interesting… there’s some new information that might help contextualize their application!

How much do admission interviews count?

As with almost everything in college admissions, it depends.

90% of the time I interviewed a student or reviewed an application with an interview, it didn’t change how I viewed their file. Many admission interviews are informative to the admissions office rather than evaluative. In part, this is because they usually can’t guarantee every interested applicant gets an interview. Other schools use interviews to track demonstrated interest and use them as an evaluative measure in admissions.

Some schools, like Harvard and Yale, are honest about requesting interviews when they’d like to learn more about you. It’s possible that your interview tips the scale. Others, like Stanford and Vanderbilt, make clear that interviews are optional and do not reflect admissibility. Others yet, like liberal arts colleges Haverford and Hampshire, strongly encourage interviews because they play a role in demonstrating interest. These are more evaluative.

So, based on Common Data Set data and perusing websites, you could imagine schools like Stanford and Vanderbilt on one end of the spectrum, where interviews count the least, Haverford and Hampshire on the other, and Harvard and Yale somewhere in the middle. This is an imperfect but helpful measure of interview importance.

In short, the importance of your admission interview will vary from school to school.

What if my admissions interview goes horribly wrong?

I have reviewed hundreds of interviews, but probably fewer than ten were “negative”.

Even then, they didn’t tank the file, but you might read something like, “Maybe he was just nervous, but Charlie wasn’t very engaged. He showed up ten minutes late and didn’t have any questions for me. I really tried to prompt him to talk more about why he wanted to attend Northwestern, but I didn’t get anything back besides rankings. I can’t say he feels like a great fit given how much we prioritize student engagement.”

If you follow the advice in this post, you’ll have no problem avoiding those mistakes.

Who will interview you?

Admission interviews are typically conducted by either alumni representatives of the school or admission officers themselves.

Alumni interviewers

Alumni interviews are more common. Your alumni interviewer could have graduated from an undergraduate or graduate program at the university. So, be aware that their experience might differ from yours.

You’ll likely receive an email from your interviewer scheduling a date and time, either in person or by video chat. It can be helpful to Google your interviewer or look them up on LinkedIn to get a sense of when they graduated, the industry they work in, and even what they look like, so you know who you’re looking for in a crowded Starbucks.

As I mentioned before, alumni interviewers don’t typically have insight into the inner workings of an admission office. They don’t know how decisions are made, what institutional priorities guide the process, and they haven’t seen your application or essays. They are there to collect and pass on some information about you and answer questions you have about their experience.

You should remember that alumni interviewers are enthusiastic graduates who are volunteering their time to help their alma mater. Ask them questions about their experiences on campus, in the surrounding community, with professors and friends… anything that interests you. Especially if they attended the school as an undergraduate, allow them to relive their glory days during your conversation.

Admission officer interviews

It is less common that admission officers interview students, but it does happen at some schools. The main differences are that admission officers have more say in the process but also may not have attended the institution themselves. The same advice from above applies, but keep those differences in mind when considering the questions you may ask them. Also, remember that an admission officer is more likely to be familiar with your application.

How to prepare for an admission interview & practice questions

My best advice is to prepare stories and specific examples to tell. Stories bring your resume to life. Offer vivid details about experiences you’ve had in and outside of the classroom, and what you want that to look like in college.

Another piece of advice is to prepare, but don’t over prepare. Sometimes students spend hours trying to memorize their answers to tons of questions they might never get asked and, in the meantime, lose focus on the 3-5 things that make them stand out, what they love about the school, and the questions that they want to ask.

In fact, those are the areas I encourage you to focus on:

  • What are 3-5 topics that make you you that you don’t want to miss? These should be a mix of extracurricular engagements, academic experiences, what you want to do/study in college, and maybe a hobby for good measure.
  • What do you love about the school you’re interviewing for? Have an academic and student life or cultural reason. Don’t reference rankings, but it is OK to note if they are particularly strong in your area of focus. If you do this, be sure to back that up with why they are strong. Reference labs, areas of research, faculty, resources, etc.
  • Have some questions ready for your interviewer. Ask about their experience, their area of study, people they met, or how the school helped them meet their goals… or come up with your own interesting ideas! Remember, this is a two-way conversation.
  • Bonus: know some recent news about the school. How’s the basketball team doing? Did the football team win a bowl game? Was there some interesting research breakthrough recently? Is there a search for a new president? Google “School Name News” to learn more.

Instead of focusing too much on individual questions, think about broad topics that could be great responses to numerous questions. First, work on these four pieces of advice. Then, practice answering them using the questions below that I draw from when interviewing students. You might even make up a fake interviewer—how old are they, what did they study, and what are they like—so you can answer them more clearly.

For some more preparation to ace your interview and keep the conversation going, check out this post on questions to ask your admissions interviewer.

Good luck!

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