The following piece was written by Jason Lum. Jason has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former application reviewer for the Harvard University Admissions Office. He is the president and founder of ScholarEdge College Consulting.
I have conducted alumni interviews with prospective students at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis for many years. For me, it is a labor of love; I enjoyed attending both schools. Moreover, I find it enjoyable to volunteer my time to help students learn more about these universities, as well as to help the admissions offices of both institutions learn more about their applicants. Even though fall is my busiest time of year, interviewing students is something I greatly look forward to.
However, many students are terrified by the prospect of these interviews. This has absolutely nothing to do with the students’ stories – they usually have great stories to tell about their lives in school and outside the classroom. In addition, interviewers want students to succeed in their interviews.
So what’s the problem?
For starters, many students have never been told what to expect, how to prepare, and what impresses – and irritates – alumni interviewers.
For both parents and students, here are some things to watch out for, based on my 15 years of experience interviewing students.
Problem #1: Each interviewer is different
There is a fundamental misunderstanding about who becomes an alumni interviewer. You become an interviewer by simply volunteering to do so. The only thing many interviewers have in common is that they happen to belong to a given college’s local alumni association.
Interviewers are not paid. As volunteers, they agree to interview a certain number of applicants each fall, given their usually frenetic schedules.
So what does this all mean to the student being interviewed? Parents and students think that we are employees of the college or university who have gone through extensive, annual training to be very, very good at what we do. The truth is that we get little to no training – just guidelines about what to ask in general and how to conduct the interview. We are always taught what not to ask about (e.g. religion or sexual orientation), but we have wide flexibility in terms of what we want to ask.
This is exactly why students will have no idea about the interviewing style of the interviewer. You may have an interviewer who does all the talking. You may have an interviewer who hardly says anything. The interviewer could be an attorney, homemaker, surgeon – you name it. For students, this means that you need to be prepared for a wide variety of interview styles. You will also need to learn to adapt to these different interviewing techniques.
Problem #2: Students sometimes don’t take the interview seriously
I’m continuously shocked by how a small minority of students don’t seem to take the interview terribly seriously. How can I tell? They will dress like they are going to the beach. They don’t even try to establish and maintain eye contact. Some even create problems in setting up the interview. Even though my time is valuable and scarce, a recent student forced me to dramatically rearrange my schedule to accommodate a local, regular-season hockey game that happened the day before.
Other examples that I’ve seen in recent years: I had a student who met me during my lunch break wearing torn jeans, a faded t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. He was also 10 minutes late to the interview. On another occasion, one of my interviewees looked out the window for most of the conversation. No matter who your interviewer is, that volunteer is at least worthy of your attention for half an hour, especially if you’re applying to a world-class university.
Problem #3: Students may be struggling with shyness
Almost all students are initially shy during a college interview, and many students are petrified about this. That’s a shame; as alumni interviewers, we expect our interviewees to be shy initially. It’s normal – most 17- or 18-year-olds don’t have much experience in an interview setting. If the alumni interviewer is doing a good job, he or she should make you feel at ease right from the start.
However, if shyness is preventing you from doing a good job, just remember that many college interviews are entirely optional. It’s usually a better idea for a student not to interview if he or she is going to be shy and unresponsive for 30 to 40 minutes. That being said, I find that virtually all students I work with can be coached to do very well during the interview even if they are extremely shy in what they perceive to be a high-pressure situation.
Problem #4: Students may not anticipate what’s going to be asked
The most important thing that I’m shocked by is the utter lack of anticipation of what might be asked during the interview. An alumni college interview is not a high-pressure interview with a management consulting firm or with Google. It’s meant to be conversational. It should be a back-and-forth conversation about why the student wants to go to the school, and a place for the alumni to give the student information about the great things the school has to offer.
Spending just a few minutes with pen and paper will probably reveal 90% of the questions you’re going to be asked. You can take it as a given that the interviewer is going to ask the student about their best classes, favorite activities, whether they play a sport or an instrument, how they volunteer their time, and all sorts of things about the student’s hobbies and interests. These questions aren’t difficult when you know they are going to come up in the interview.
Yet students sometimes sit in front of me and pause to think about answers to what are virtually guaranteed questions. Remember that you only have about 40 minutes to talk to your interviewer. That time will seem like five minutes. Don’t waste time during the interview searching your mind for an answer to a relatively easy question.
A final piece of advice
With the advent of smartphones, it is now easier than ever to record yourself doing an interview. A good idea is to have someone with experience interviewing do a mock interview with you. It may be a high school guidance counselor, a private education consultant, or your favorite relative. Whoever that person is, just set up your phone to record the mock interview.
Once the interview concludes, sit with the person and go over every question and how you answered it. Never rehearse your answers: you don’t want to come across as staged. This is ultimately a conversation.
What the video or soundbite will do is show you any nervous mannerisms that you may be committing unconsciously. Maybe you’re tapping your fingers. Maybe you’re looking at the ceiling as you answer a question. Maybe you’re playing with your hands in a distracting way. Perhaps you’re interrupting the interviewer when he or she is asking a question.
I’ve been doing interview prep for students for such a long time that I can tell you that students never notice these things. They will do things during interviews that they are completely unaware of only because they feel like they’re under a lot of pressure. They focus on their thought processes, not their mannerisms. An experienced interview preparer will walk you through the mock interview, pinpointing all your strengths and weaknesses.
In short, do the college interviews because they do add value to your application to a college or university – but be sure to engage in some preparation before the interview. Work with people who know how the process works, record yourself practicing, and anticipate the questions. And please, no torn jeans and t-shirts – even if the interview is in Florida in August.
Check out ScholarEdge College Consulting for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.