How to excel at the undergraduate interview

With the undergraduate interview season upon us, thousands of high school students dress in their best business casual, put on their game faces, and troop confidently, albeit nervously, to admission, scholarship, and alumni interviews. I’m lucky that my alma mater allows me to participate in the latter: a few times a week, I meet with hopeful students who are eager to begin the next chapter in this wild play we call life.

Over the past month, I have met almost a dozen students. All are from a predominately rural area of the Southeast, and a few from the area’s larger towns. Some have been afforded the opportunities you would expect high school students to have: several AP classes, guidance councilors with ample experience, and a strong support network for those students who seek an Ivy League, a Southern Ivy, or a top 25-school education. As I expected, only the few students from the larger city schools had opportunities to enroll in AP classes. Those same students were given more guidance from their administration. And, not surprisingly, those students were also the ones applying to the best schools in the country.

I am by no means saying that a student from a small, rural school system is doomed. Those students usually have more drive to achieve their dreams and actively seek out every possible opportunity. Though they might not be afforded the AP classes or the experienced guidance councilors, these students are self-starting, independent thinkers who make huge, life altering decision on their own. I know this situation personally; I was one of those students.

On paper, the students from the private and larger schools were more impressive. The point of these alumni interviews, however, it to get to know the students on a personal level and understand if he or she is a good fit for the school. During the interviews, I met some very impressive applicants: students deeply involved in community service and their marching band. Some students were already conducting university-level research and thinking about how their career could impact their community and world. Others were engaging and intuitive. Overall, I have been impressed, especially when I compare my 18-year-old-self to them. However, I am also a little weary.

Students consistently had the same, shall we call them “habits” during these interviews. I’m not expecting students to have a clear idea of what they want to do 10 years from now, but having an idea shows that they have at least thought about it. Similarly, when asked to explain a time when they failed at an endeavor, students weren’t likely to manipulate the question to demonstrate how the overcame a challenged. Instead, they were likely to tell me that they didn’t like a class, and that’s it. Nothing more. They did not speak about personal growth nor how they cope with failure.

To all potential undergraduate students: do you want to get into the school or your dreams? Receive those coveted scholarships? And impressed the sense out of an interviewer? Here’s how.

1. Want to be successful? Dress the part. 

I am a little bothered to say that most students did not even bother to put on a nice top and pants for my interviews. Granted, I held most my interviews in casual places, like coffee shops and outside at some tables during a particular nice day. That does not mean that I, and future interviewers, will not take a look at your clothing and wonder if you forgot about the interview, remembered last minute, and threw on the only clean clothing you had. I am not pleased to report that one female even more leggings to the interview. Here are a few basic rules:

-If you don’t have dress pants, then dark jeans or black pants are acceptable alternatives. Tight on money? For girls, a decent pair of black pants (which are in season) can be found everywhere…I found a great pair at H&M for $13. For guys? Khakis never go out of style.
-As for tops, anything simple is great; anything in the ski vest or tee-shirt department is a huge NO.
-Shoes? Girls, please please please don’t show up in huge, clunky boots with tons of buckles and bells or whatever are on boots these days. If you are your interviewer are sitting it chairs with no table, your shoes are super distracting. Boots are great, and necessary in the winter, but if you don’t have a plain pair, then stick a pair of flats in your car, and change before coming in for the interview. As for guys: wear dress shoes, or at least a nice pair of loafers. Sneakers are a huge, resounding NO.
-Best rule to live by: Overdress, overdress overdress. Better to be safe than sorry. Plus, if you walk in looking very nice, it makes me think that you were just at another interview, and you have more control over our interview. It becomes my job to impress YOU.

2. Work on your handshake

This is a person pet-peeve of mine. Many people I met had TERRIBLE handshakes, you know the kind, those limp handed I’m-afraid-to-even-grasp-your-hand sort of handshake. Calling it a handshake is almost an exaggeration; it’s more like a clammy handhold. Now on the more extreme, I’ve seen handshakes that look like the person is trying to rip off your arm. My advice? PRACTICE. Don’t be afraid to grasp someone’s hand. Three confident pumps will do, and then you can let go. Practice with your friends, teachers, someone who knows what a handshake should be. I am disappointed to say that some of the more impressive applicants had the worst handshakes, and though I didn’t mention that in my recommendations, others won’t be so forgiving.

3. Don’t have an answer? Take a few seconds to think

Every interview is different, so to prepare for every question someone can possibly asked if impossible. Some interviewers ask straightforward questions, others are likely to throw some mind-benders your way. What all interviewers have in common is an appreciation for the interviewee to take a few seconds to collect themselves and organize their answer. 10 seconds is plenty of time to organize your thoughts, and I know you won’t be penalized. What will work against your favor is one of the following statements…
“Oh, I don’t know!”
“Ummmmmm”
“Can we come back to that question?”
“I’m not sure, I’m sorry!”
Never answer with one of these statements. I beg you. And that last statement is particularly bad because…

4. Girls, stop apologizing! 

This needs to be stated twice…GIRLS, STOP APOLOGIZING! I understand that Southern politeness is engrained in your personality; I understand that you want to be considerate and get me to like you, but STOP APOLOGIZING! Most of the time, they apologize for no reason, and it makes me wonder if they are doing something that merits an apology…like, did you just steal my wallet? Spill coffee on me without me noticing? Girls, you are not inconveniencing me by speaking with me, you are not annoying me by telling me about your career goals, and you do not need to apologize for voicing your opinion! 
I’ll say it one last time, girls, STOP APOLOGIZING!

5. When I ask you to brag about yourself, brag about yourself! 

This is relevant to both girls and boys. I always ask students to tell me about their greatest accomplishment, how it impacted their lives and the lives of others. I always end the question with, “Take this time to brag about your accomplishments!” Only one student took the question in stride, and her answer was excellent. All the other students looked shell-shocked, like I just asked them to tell me Charlemagne’s impact on Medieval Europe or how many craters are on the moon. They stumbled over their answers, saying that they were in charge of their clubs or did well in a hard class. No one wanted to admit that there were good at something. Here’s some advice, don’t be afraid to sell yourself. Convince me that you are worth hearing, and make me the one who wants to impress you!

6. Prepare questions for your interviewer and at least pretend to care about the answers 

Have at least two questions prepared for you interviewer. Show me that you have thought about your college experience, and career goals. Only a few students bothered to prepare questions for me. It is beneficial to the student to ask question because it allows me, and other interviewers, to learn more about the student. However, one student was obviously only asking questions because she thought that’s what I wanted. She would stare off in the other direction while I spoke, and had zero facial expressions…no engagement or even interest in my answers. Ask you questions, and at least pretend to be interested in the answers.

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