How to Nail Your College Interview

You’ve spent hours toiling away at all those applications and finally, after proofreading each essay so many times that you could probably recite them all from memory, you submit them. A huge weight is lifted off your shoulders—until you get an email about setting up an interview. Lucky for you, Her Campus is here to ease some of that weight that just got thrown right back onto you.

Many pre-collegiettes have no experience with formal interviews before going through the college admissions process, so it’s totally normal to be nervous and have a ton of questions or uncertainties about what to wear, what to bring, what to say (and what not to say), and what to expect in general. Whether you love interviews, hate them, or have never even had one before, the following insight from some seasoned vets—collegiettes, of course—will help you bring your A-game.

Dress to Impress
 

You already know how important first impressions are, so consider that what you wear will be the first thing the interviewer sees (besides your beautiful, smiling face). “I would say dress business casual,” says Merrimack junior Joanna Kingston. Think black pants, cords, jeans, or a not-too-tight skirt on bottom, and a solid-colored blouse, sweater, or blazer on top. Think of your outfit as something that you might wear to school to give a class presentation to look extra put-together. Taylor Southworth, a junior at the University of Michigan, has a good rule of thumb: “If you wouldn’t wear it to a family dinner, don’t wear it to an interview.”

You want to look appropriate, of course, but Joanna also advises, “You don't want to be too stuffed up – you're going to be a student not working in a law office!” So, don’t be afraid to let a bit of your personal style show through.

That being said, avoid wearing jewelry that is too flashy or distracting—you don’t want the clanking of your bangles to detract from what you’re saying! And on that same note, keep makeup simple and neutral—nothing too bright, glittery, or intense. Either heels or flats are fine, but if you opt for heels, keep them relatively conservative; a simple black pump with a heel three inches or lower is a safe bet.

Now that you’ve got the look down pat, let’s move on to what you should say and do to wow your interviewer as much as your outfit does.

Mind Your Manners
 

It’s super important that you’re polite throughout the entire interview, and that starts right when you walk into the room. Shake your interviewer’s hand and smile as you say, “Hi, I’m [your first name]. It’s so nice to meet you.” A handshake (which you can practice with a parent if you’d like feedback on yours) and friendly introduction immediately indicates that you are mature, and it’ll set the tone for the rest of the interview.

What to Expect

College admission interviews typically last a half hour to an hour, but your interviewer will probably specify how long it’s expected to take beforehand. The formats of interviews vary, so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect so the best advice is to be prepared for any type of interview. The interviewer might just want to have a relaxed, casual conversation to learn more about you, or he or she might have a list of pre-planned questions and it will be more formal. Many times interviewers will start by saying, “So, tell me about yourself” or “Walk me through your resume,” so think of how you want to respond to that so you know exactly how to start off. Read on to find out more commonly asked questions!

The setting of your interviews will likely vary as well. Generally, interviews are held on campus, at cafes or coffee shops, or at the interviewer’s house. If you are somewhere where food and drinks are available, follow in the interviewer’s footsteps when it comes to ordering. If he or she gets a drink or food, go ahead — and pay for yourself unless they offer — but otherwise don't get anything because it can be hard to eat while talking. It is a good idea to have water, however, in case your mouth gets dry from being nervous!

Come Prepared

First things first — what should you bring? Your interviewer may tell you in advance if there is anything you should bring, but in any case it’s always a good idea to bring two copies of your resume (one for your interviewer and one for you to reference), a notebook and pen, and a small bag or purse to hold these things and your phone (which should be on silent and out of sight).

Aside from bringing the right things, coming prepared to your interview really boils down to knowing two things: yourself and the college you’re applying to.

Know Yourself

It sounds like a silly concept, but knowing yourself (or at least knowing the self that you want to present to an interviewer) is critical. You need to feel comfortable talking about yourself in a way that distinguishes you and highlights why you deserve to get that acceptance letter. This is no time to be modest about your accomplishments — obviously you don’t want to come off as cocky or conceited, but don't be afraid to talk highly of yourself and all that you’ve done.

Brainstorm real life examples and experiences that can serve as evidence and support for what you are saying about yourself. “The college counselor at my high school always told us ‘show, don’t tell’ when we are being interviewed, meaning don’t just list your qualities, but prove them with anecdotes that demonstrate how you put those qualities to use,” says Jamie Goddard, a junior at the University of Michigan. For example, instead of saying “I am a great leader” you could say something along the lines of, “I always take initiative in group assignments. For a group project in my History class, for example, I suggested that we divide the work based on our strengths and then meet after school every other day to check in and collaborate, which was a very effective strategy.”

Check out the list below of common interview topics that you should be prepared to discuss.

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • How you would describe yourself
  • Your extracurriculars
  • Why you want to go to this school
  • What you could contribute to the school or student body
  • What you want to get involved in
  • What you’re interested in studying and why
  • What you see yourself doing in the future
  • Challenges or obstacles you’ve overcome in the past
  • What you do in your free time
  • Favorite book

You should also be 100% comfortable with and confident in talking about everything that is on your resume. Don’t have a resume? Read this Her Campus article on how to make one! Even if the interviewer doesn’t ask you to, it is always a good idea to bring two copies of your resume to the interview so that you and the interviewer can reference it throughout or after the interview.

As with Jamie’s “show, don’t tell” policy, when talking about something on your resume don’t just reiterate what is already listed; instead, elaborate on the information in meaningful ways. For example, instead of just mentioning that you were on the debate team and what your responsibilities were, talk about what skills you developed through those responsibilities and what you personally contributed to the team.

Since these answers should be well thought-out, you should absolutely practice them before every interview. Run through some of the questions above with a parent, sibling, or friend and pretend like it’s the real deal. The more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be, which will help you be more natural and less nervous during the actual interview.

Know the School

Knowing the school is in many ways related to knowing yourself. Knowing the school does not just mean knowing the admission stats or what the mascot is—it means being able to articulate why you want to go there and why the school wants you. Spend a solid amount of time surfing the school’s website so that you can bring up specific information to demonstrate your interest to the interviewer. For example, research the school’s core values so that you can discuss how you identify with them. Or look into some classes you’d be interested in taking or clubs you’d be excited to join. This will show that you care about and would take advantage of the opportunities that the school offers, making you a valuable addition to the student body. Definitely make sure you know what majors the school offers so that you don’t embarrassingly say you plan on majoring in something the school doesn’t have a program for. Take it from Her Campus’s very own editor-in-chief, Stephanie Kaplan. “During my Harvard interview I said I might be interested in majoring in political science, when at Harvard that major it actually called Government,” she says.

Here’s an example of a response that shows the interviewer that you truly want to go to the school and didn’t just apply because their application had no supplements:

“The university’s emphasis on action-based learning really appeals to me because I love the idea that I would actually be able to apply what I learn in the classroom to real-life situations and grow from those experiences, rather than just memorize information.”

And here’s one more for good measure:

“I can see myself getting really involved in the Global Health Club because it speaks to my interest in promoting global health equity and increasing access to health care around the world, so I would love to connect to and learn from others who share that interest.”

Want to know the easiest way to show the interviewer that you did your research? Ask a question! “Make sure to ask a few specific questions to show you’re interested and knowledgeable about the school,” Taylor says. A huge purpose of the interview is for the interviewer to be able to help you learn about the school and answer questions you have, so definitely have a few questions in mind in case the interviewer wants to spend a lot of time telling you more about the school. Don’t just ask something you could easily look up online; instead, ask more meaningful questions like some of the ones listed below.

  • What about X University has made you stay so connected to and involved in it?
  • What makes X University different than everywhere else?
  • What makes it stand out?
  • How would you describe the student body?
  • What were your favorite aspects of your college experience?
  • What do you advise students do to make the most of their time at X University?

Say It Right
 

All right, so you know what to say—now it’s time to figure out how to say it. Here’s a quick list of pointers to whip you into shape:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Smile
  • Sit up straight—no slouching and elbows off the table like your parents always told you!
  • Look interested in what the interviewer is saying—nod, but not so much that you’re doing it every five seconds
  • Avoid the “um”s and “like”s
  • Speak slowly, clearly, and loudly enough to be understood
  • Sound like you mean what you’re saying (don’t make it seem like you are reciting a pre-written speech)
  • Don’t be afraid to pause before answering so that you can gather your thoughts and form a more coherent response
  • Use inflection (if you’re monotone like me, you may unintentionally come off as being bored)
  • Be yourself!

Follow Up

So you’ve nailed the interview, but you’re not done yet: put the cherry on top and ensure that your good impression lasts in the interviewer’s mind by following up with a thank-you note.
 

“I always hand write a ‘Thank you’ card one or two days after the interview,” Joanna says. “It's personal since you take the time to write it out, but you don't want it to be too long. A simple, 'Thank you for your time in our interview the other day. I am excited for the possibility of becoming a student at ______ . I look forward to hearing from you. Best, ____.’” Check out this Her Campus article on sending the perfect thank you note! If you don’t have the interviewers address, a thank you email will absolutely suffice.

If you can think of something especially memorable or interesting that you learned during the interview, definitely add that in, too, to trigger the interviewer’s memory and indicate that you were invested in the conversation.

Ready for one last piece of advice? Here it is: don’t stress. Even if your interview does not go as well as you would’ve hoped, it really isn’t a deal-breaker for your admission decision. Just think of the interview as one more opportunity to show the admissions staff how amazing you are!