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The Art of the College Interview

March, 2017
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college-interview-2Nearly everyone is familiar with the challenges presented by the college admission process. In addition to getting the best grades possible, there are recommendations letters, college entrance examinations, the challenges of identifying the right colleges and the seemingly unending stream of college essay revisions. No part of the process, however, strikes as much fear into the hearts of candidates as the college admissions interview.      

I am always amazed at the number of students who would rather risk obscurity than the presumed terrors of an interview. Many students are plagued with the fear that they will be eviscerated by their interviewers, looking to find their singular weakness and skewer their chances of attending the college of their dreams by marring their files with disparaging comments. If this were the case, students would be well justified in their hesitations, but the facts do not bear out their fears.

College admissions interviews are generally friendly exchanges and serve as a unique opportunity for both candidates and colleges to get to know each’ other better. Think of the interview more as an opportunity to find reasons for both sides to say ‘yes’ versus ‘no’. Interviews can be an especially important opportunity for international students who often cannot visit the colleges they aspire to attend. Well asked questions can give students the information they need to refine their college lists (especially important when High School counsellors wisely limit the number of colleges students can apply to), as well as provide key insights that help students write better, more college specific supplementary essays.

Of vital importance is the interview’s role in allowing students to differentiate themselves from the myriad other applicants. Speaking specifically of China, the competition for seats at coveted universities is especially fierce. International students must assume that no matter how good their grades are or how many wonderful activities they led during their four years of High School, most of the other applicants are equally or even more gifted, talented and enthusiastic than they are. Being an outstanding student and engaged young person is the standard! The challenge for students lies not only on making sure their application clearly communicates their academic and personal excellence, but also in differentiating themselves from all other equally outstanding candidates.

So, what do students need to know to best use this to differentiate themselves in a positive way?

There are two types of interviews - evaluative and informational. During evaluative interviews the interviewer will make specific observations and ask questions for the purpose of figuring out if the student is a good fit for the college. In the international context, they are also assessing the student’s speaking and listening skills. Naturally, the student’s ability to think on his or her feet, self-confidence, and presentation skills will also come into play. Any notes taken will be sent to the colleges to supplement the student’s application. How those reports are used and evaluated vary between schools. Informational interviews, on the other hand, are conducted to allow students to get to know the school more intimately. While this type of interview may not seem as ‘useful’, it is clear indication of how seriously the student takes the college research process and demonstrates a real interest in the college. Believe it or not, simply demonstrating interest and spending your time getting to know a school better can boost your admissions prospects. The length of college interviews can vary from 20 minutes to an hour depending on the college, so students must be prepared for anything.

college-interview1Do significant research on the college before arriving at your interview. Students need to know why they are considering the college in the first place. Having some college specific reasons is best. Every college offers a good education, life experience and independence. Knowing enough about the college to carry on a discussion about how you see yourself fitting in and what resources you might use is central to being considered seriously. Telling an interviewer that you wish to attend the college because it is located in your favourite city is not sufficient. From the interviewer’s perspective, you might as well say, “I don’t really care about your college. I like it because I want to live in New York!”  Also, students should be prepared to speak about their High School experiences and be able to identify what they have learned from them. Also, note that students should be prepared to ask questions. Students who are genuinely interested in anything have plenty of questions about it, so having a list of original questions at the ready would be a great idea. On a final note, sometimes an interviewer may ask a student if their college is a top choice for them. The wise the student should have a ready answer. “Yes, it is one of my top three,” is a good answer.

Students would be wise to wear comfortable clothes appropriate to the occasion. It was Mark Twain who said, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Interviewers will be more interested in what the student has in his head in comparison to what she wears on his back. Nonetheless, s students would be wise to wear comfortable clothes appropriate to the occasion.  Shorts and a T-shirt are certainly comfortable, but are better suited for the playground. Suits are generally overkill. Dress-casual is a safe way to go. School teachers generally set a great example. Flashy or obviously expensive clothing and accessories are highly unlikely to impress. Students should focus should focus on their value as thinkers and contributors within the context of school life.

Understand technology is now part of the interview process. Thanks to the conveniences wrought from technology, students now have more opportunity than ever before to engage with colleges during the admissions process. This is a boon for international students, for obvious reasons. Students, however, should be mindful of the additional challenges Skype, or similar format, interviews present and take great care to practice speaking clearly. Also, it is harder to read body language, so the student needs to be careful to look into the camera and demonstrate enthusiasm and interest via facial expressions and voice inflection.

Finally, international applicants coming from China are increasingly being invited by US colleges and universities to complete interviews via third-party service providers such as Vericant and InitialView.Students register directly with the services for live or online interviews, which also include a recorded essay writing session. These interviews are sent uncut directly to the college admissions office. Each college uses these tools differently. Some view it as a screening to better understand the student’s English language ability while others use it as a substitute for a college based interview. Regardless of how it is used, students, including international students, would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. The volume of students coming from China is growing every year. An interview in any form makes a student a ‘known’ vs. ‘unknown’ entity and gives their application a face. Given the competitive nature of admissions, students should take advantage of every tool available.


By Tess Robinson


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