How to Prepare for Alumni Interviews

The following piece was written by Rachel Korn. Rachel has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, as well as the founder of her own admissions consulting firm.


Regular Decision admissions deadlines have passed and you may now want to interview with alumni. What are the advantages? Why do schools do this? How can you prepare?

When your application becomes “complete,” a school may automatically contact someone near you to invite you to meet (alumni are given your contact information and high school – nothing more). Some schools only reach out if you actively select to interview. I recommend interviewing if you have the chance – it will allow you to express and show sides of yourself and information that may not have been able to be captured within the framework of the application. Especially now with the Common Application limiting writing space, the interview is a great opportunity to fully share who you are.

That said, at schools where interviews are encouraged and optional but never required, you will never be hurt if you are unable to interview. Schools are limited by where their alumni happen to live, something not in your control. If you live in/near Columbus, Ohio, the state’s largest city, odds are a school could have many alumni near you. If you live in/near a smaller Ohio city, like Toledo, where I grew up, odds are slimmer. If you live on a farm in rural Ohio or in a small, more isolated town, odds are much slimmer. Schools will never punish you if they are geographically unable to offer an interview.

Who should NOT interview? If you are really too shy to converse with the interviewer, you may do yourself harm. In this case, let your achievements in the application be your face. This is only a small percentage of you, though. Interviewers expect you to be nervous, and you need NOT be super charismatic to ace an interview – if you are a quieter or more introverted person, you can still make an outstanding impression.

What are Admissions’ goals?

  1. Activating alumni to keep them connected to the school (did you realize that?).
  2. Making sure your passions are genuine. 
  3. Seeing that you can communicate well in English (if you are an international student or if English is a new language for you).
  4. Ensuring that you will be an OK roommate and not cause trouble (challenging ideas or being counter-culture is fine – maybe even awesome – but this is about keeping out serious criminals).
  5. Checking out if you are a positive asset to campus life.
  6. Conveying a positive impression of the school (they do not know to where else you have applied so they want to court you).

So then what happens in an interview? If done as instructed, an off-campus interview should take place in a neutral location, like a library or a cafe. This is for your comfort. An interviewer’s turf sets an imbalance of power. A good interviewer approaches the interview flexibly, and while there are some standard questions generally asked, the interviewer should roll with your answers and let you and your background guide the direction and content of the following questions. For example, if you express that you love English classes, you should be next asked about your favorite book, literary genre, or author – not about your favorite science experiment.

Be prepared to be asked about your favorite academics, your school, and your activities – and especially about your passions. These are the basics. However, grades, test scores, or other personal information should never be discussed, and you should always stay very positive even if you are asked to be thoughtfully critical about something. VERY IMPORTANT: definitely be able to ramble on – with passion – about why you investigated the school and how you see its fit with you. Your interest will be noted, and if it is genuinely only lukewarm, it could affect your admission decision. This could cause Admissions to waitlist rather than admit you. They want the chance that you would say yes to their offer.

A good interviewer will ask things to complement, not repeat, the data that Admissions already has about you and should not try to stump you or test you with crazy questions – this is not an exam. Want to feel even better? Admissions offices recognize wacky interviewers when interview reports do not match the rest of your application. Trust in the system. Your admission chances will not be blown by a weird or inappropriate interviewer. Admissions officers know.

The interview should be a conversation, and you should ask things back and engage. At least, ask questions about the school. Pose questions about how it relates to your academic and extracurricular interests. Ask about the interviewer’s best/worst experiences, the school’s atmosphere and attitude, and how the school manages certain issues important to you. Interviewers love to reminisce. Leave them reminiscing and they will leave with happy thoughts about you.

Bottom line: Know yourself well, prepare to be comfortable answering questions with 1-3 minute answers, know why you love a school, bring questions – and you will do GREAT!

And write a “thank you” email afterwards to the interviewer!

Grammar Note: Alumnus (male singular), alumna (female singular), alumnae (female plural), alumni (male plural – any group with at least one male). You may impress - or fail to impress - your interviewer depending on how you use these terms. Be respectful and smart. Don’t ask, “As an alumni, do you think . . .?” or call a women’s college graduate an “alumnus.”

Visit Rachel’s Admissions Consulting site.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.