I confess. Interviews are not my natural strength and my first practice college interview with an attorney was an unqualified disaster. However, I improved with practice and (surprisingly) enjoyed all of my actual college interviews.
Colleges use interviews to fill out their picture of the applicant and to gauge things such as maturity, personality, and interpersonal ability. While much of the interview depends on factors beyond your control, such as who will be interviewing you and the deeper-seated aspects of your personality, you can greatly improve how you "come off" in an interview by preparing carefully.
The interview is part of your overall positioning and marketing effort, so you should have your talking points in mind and ready to communicate. As with other aspects of your college "marketing plan" (see my previous columns on the importance of this plan), it needs to be customized somewhat to each school so as to emphasize those qualities the school wants. You may even want to write down your points. Don't memorize them to recite (this sounds canned) but be familiar enough with them that you know what to say and are comfortable saying it.
In any interview, it is unlikely that you will cover everything. Therefore, pick out the 3-5 most important points that demonstrate something unique about you. These are the things that you want the interviewer to know for certain before the interview is over. Find a way to get them in!
Few people are naturally good interviewers. The rest of us need lots of practice to perform well. Start practicing with your parents. Move on to family acquaintances (especially lawyers) and ask them to be really tough on you and to try and trip you up. Videotape yourself for post-interview analysis.
If you have friends who are also preparing for college interviews, try interviewing each other. This will help you spot common mistakes.
To make the interview more realistic, prepare a list of common questions for the interviewer to use as a baseline.
Your Appearance and Demeanor
While appearance alone won't determine the outcome of the interview, it can help or hinder you. Above all, avoid sloppiness. This communicates carelessness and lack of interest in the college. Appropriate interview dress ranges from business casual to suit and tie (or the equivalent for ladies).
While you will have to determine what works for a given situation, I would encourage you to lean toward the "formal" end of the scale. You can't hurt yourself by doing this, and doing the opposite runs the chance of offending some interviewers (especially older alumni). Young women should take pains to be modest.
In demeanor be mature and respectful, neither excessively nervous nor cocky. Contrary to popular belief, it's okay to be a little nervous during an interview, provided that does not interfere with your answering questions intelligently and with some semblance of confidence.
For detailed interview advice, the best book I know is How to Get into the Top Colleges by Richard Montauk and Krista Klein.
Questions for the Interviewer
The interview is not a one-way street. Part of the idea is to learn about the college from the interviewer. Even if you think you know everything you need, it is imperative to have at least 3-5 questions for the interviewer about the college. It is important that you know the school well before interviewing in order to ask intelligent questions. This communicates interest in the school, which is something they desire.
Note that these should not be questions that you could easily answer by checking admissions materials. Most of your questions should require the interviewer's opinion. For example, you could ask "What do you think sets the school apart from its competitors?"
Know your Audience
Generally, you will be interviewed either by an admissions officer, an alumnus/alumna, or a current student of the school. These types of interviewers are different from each other and there are things you should keep in mind when dealing with each of them. Always take your resume and transcript to give to the interviewer at the beginning.
Admissions officers are the most professional and generally the best kind of interviewer. They have more access to your file than any other type of interviewer and will thus be better informed about your candidacy. They usually like teenagers and are good sources on information about the school. They will likely be present in admissions committee meetings when you are discussed and often become powerful advocates on your behalf.
Though not necessarily the most professional interviewers, alumni are often the most amiable and the easiest to talk to, especially if they are older. That was my experience, though I do know of some exceptions.
Be prepared for a home visit by an alum interviewer. In some regions without many applicants, an alum might have only a few students to interview and will want to come to your house and meet your parents. You may have to communicate more to them, since they may have not been given any information about you.
The downside of interviews with alumni is that they are not the best sources of information on the current state of the school. Your questions for them should concern their experiences at the school, such as, "How well did Princeton prepare you for your career?"
Though they may seem less intimidating because of their closeness in age to you, student interviewers present special challenges. Of the three types, student interviewers tend to be the least mature and, in my experience, the most likely to chase rabbit trails in an interview. Student interviewers are more likely to be threatened by you and more likely to show off their knowledge by trapping you with obtuse questions.
This is not to paint them all with the same brush, but these are tendencies you need to be aware of so that you don't get taken by surprise.
It is crucial that you know how to keep control of the interview and be winsome and humble in doing so.
On the upside, student interviewers are the best sources of student perspective on college life.
After the Interview
Don't assume the interview occurs only in the interviewer's private office. Consider everyone a potential interviewer from the moment you enter the building until you leave and treat everyone with courtesy.
Immediately after the interview, write the interviewer a thank-you note (get a business card for their address and make sure you have the correct name spelling). It is also critical that you take time to think back over the interview and write down what questions were asked, what your responses were, which parts of the interview went well and how you could have answered better. This will help you improve for the next interview.
A successful interview is one in which you have winsomely presented what makes you unique. If you have a good interviewer and are well prepared, this should be fairly straightforward. In other cases the interview may wander off track and so you must know how to gently steer the interview back around to what you need to focus on.
Don't approach interviews with foreboding. If you have prepared, they can often be enjoyable experiences. This is one of the few time in life someone will ask you to talk about yourself, so make the most of it!