Copyright © 2020 Tanvi Banota
You’ve submitted all of your letters of recommendation, written all of your essays, and professed your love to no end for a particular college. And you’ve pressed the maroon submit button on Common App and think it’s all over.
But if colleges really want to make sure you’re more than just a robot that gets straight-As and near-perfect SAT scores, they usually request an interview, or highly recommend that you request one.
And now you actually have to make sure you have a personality and that you don’t screw up a thirty-minute conversation enough that they stop caring about your grades and start wondering how you even function as a human being in this society.
The prospect of interviews can be daunting, but let’s assuage some of those fears by going through every type of interview and making sure you’re prepared for each one.
Types of Interviews
There are generally three types of interviews - alumni, admissions counselor, and special program interviews.
Let’s break down each one, because these interviews can be drastically different from each other and you want to make sure you’re preparing for the correct type.
*Note: Each type of interview breakdown ended up being so long, I had to split it up into parts - I’ll link the other parts at the bottom of each post.
I’m going to be brutally honest with you and tell this to you straight - these interviews have almost zero value. As long as you show up and not act like a sociopath, it will not affect your admissions decision one way or the other. (Which sucks because my Princeton interview went so incredibly well.)
The main point of an alumni interview is not even about you, it’s for the college to keep their alumni interested in their school to make sure they keep donating money. (It all ends up being about the money.)
Sometimes, colleges are looking at interviews as evidence for “demonstrated interest” and are just making sure you’re a real person that can function on their campus. I have had three alumni interviews so far, and I can tell you CMU’s (Carnegie Mellon’s) was almost certainly about demonstrated interest (because you had to reach out to the admissions office and set it up yourself), while the other two (Princeton and Penn) were just to make sure I knew how to speak like a human.
Alumni interviews can come in a variety of settings. My Princeton and CMU interviews were both (maybe-not-so-coincidentally) in the same coffee shop in downtown Princeton, a centralized location for both me and my interviewer. It was very chill, both of them offered to buy me coffee, to which I didn’t accept (I’m sure it won’t make a difference if you do or if you don’t, or if you offer to buy - which I think is ultra-unnecessary). Then we sat down and just talked, conversationally.
My other interview - Penn’s - was different in that it was over the phone. So we had previously set up a time for me to call my interviewer, and I was just sitting at home watching The Social Network (I paused it for the interview) and we had a nice conversation on the phone. This one felt a lot more chill because it was just through voice, but it was also a little frustrating because I kept forgetting they couldn’t see me nod and I felt like I had to constantly assure my interviewer I was still on the line.
Another type of alumni interview you can have (that I did not have) is a Skype interview. It’s again, very chill, no pressure, just make sure the background of your interview (where your camera will be facing) is presentable too.
Regardless of what type your interview is, it is most likely going to be the same casual and laid-back setting.
How Long It Will Be
The prototypical alumni interview is between 20 and 30 minutes, but don’t take this time limit to heart. Some are shorter, some are longer, it just depends how long the conversation organically lasts. My Penn interview was just barely 20 minutes while my Princeton one was more than 1 hour. (You can see which school I obviously love to talk about more.)
Don’t get caught up in timing your interview and let it end naturally - the time will not be an issue.
How to Dress
Even though these interviews are inherently useless, you still need to be presentable and normal. Don’t go crazy and show up in a Batman costume or something (unless you have a really, really good story behind it). Dress presentably, some nice pants and a button-down/sweater for a guy and some nice jeans/pants with a blouse and cardigan for a girl. No reason to go overboard - business casual gets the job done.
What to Bring With You
A lot of people love to bring their resumes or a portfolio or some other tangible work with them. By all means, if you really want to go ahead. But I do not think it will matter either way. Some schools will say specifically not to bring your resume - and that’s because the interview is not supposed to be about your accomplishments or if you check off the boxes, it’s to see if you can hold a conversation.
The people interviewing do not have access to your admissions file and they do not care what your SAT score was. Make sure you can talk about what you do outside of school and maybe touch on some of the things on your resume, but you definitely don’t need it there with you. Just go as and with yourself.
What They Will Ask
The questions in an alumni interview are fairly standard and can either be easily prepared for and also easily answered on the spot. I do recommend, however, running a couple of these questions in your head before the interview, just to make sure you aren’t spending forever thinking of answers to them.
Here are some questions that I was asked in all three of my interviews:
1. Tell me about yourself.
This is the most basic of interview questions but also the most frustrating because it is so open-ended. I usually started this answer with where I go to school, how much I love neuroscience and medicine, and that I love to read, write, and watch football. The trick is having an answer that is easily conducive to follow-up questions - I would get a bunch either on my school, how I got into medicine, or something about football (my favorite conversation topic :) You also want to portray yourself as someone interesting and not just someone laser-focused on one thing, so don’t be afraid to mention some unique things that you do.
2. What got you interested in this school?
Just answer honestly, touch on some of the things you love about the school, not much that can go wrong when you answer this question. Most of my answers centered on loving the academics (and for Princeton, I just kept talking).
3. What do you do when you’re not at school?
Again, really simple - pick one or two go-to activities that you can talk about, preferably ones you spend a lot of your time on and ones that are conducive to follow-up questions. I always talked about my blog and that led to some really cool conversations.
4. How do you feel about the Mongolian mineral economy?
I’m kidding, no one would ask that. The first three questions are generally going to be the gist of your interview and depending on what your interviewer is interested or what you want to talk most about, the interview will spur off in that direction and become more and more like an actual conversation.
*Note: It’s fine if you don’t know the answer to something or if you have to take a moment to think. Breaks in a conversation are natural and prevent you from seeming like a robot. Everyone needs a break to think once in a while - it’s better than blurting out something you didn’t mean to say.
What You Should Ask
Even though a college might not get much out of an alumni interview, it can be a very valuable resource for you as an incoming student. The college wants to give you, the student, the opportunity to ask anything about that college without it having an impact on your admissions decision, to a party that is unbiased and will not be involved in the process. Which is why you should 100% take advantage of the situation and come with as many questions as you can think of for your alumni interviewer.
What I did the day before each interview was to go through the school’s website extensively and note down any questions I came across or something I wanted clarification of. It could be stuff ranging from academic requirements to specific student organizations to social events on campus.
Some questions you could ask might be:
1. How easy is it to get involved in undergraduate research?
2. What are class sizes usually like?
3. What are some traditions on campus?
And always, always ask them about themselves - people love to talk about themselves and their experiences and you will usually get a lot more information this way.
You can ask:
1. What brought you to/why did you choose college X?
2. What did you major in and do you think it prepared you for the real world?
3. What research did you do as an undergrad?
4. What student groups were you involved in on campus?
And so many more.
Make sure you use this opportunity to its best, you might not get another chance to ask these questions in a setting like this again, to someone who is now in the real world with their education behind them.
After the Interview
Even though the interview is super casual, it’s nice to send a quick thank-you email to your interviewer, just thanking them for their time and for answering your questions. A couple of lines will suffice, and you can even reference something specific you talked about during the interview. If you do send an email, I would recommend doing it the next day, within 24 hours, just to make sure you’re still on their mind and to possibly catch them before they send out their report of the interview to the college, so they can include the thank-you email in the note if they want to.
Sometimes, you’ll get a reply back with a “good luck!” - I happened to get a reply from all of my interviewers that I sent an email to. But if you don’t, it’s completely normal, they probably either didn’t have the time or your email was not something they could necessarily reply to.
But even if you don’t send an email, or if you completely forget to, it is totally fine, I can almost guarantee you they will not care. In fact, I completely forgot to send a thank you note to my Penn interviewer (lol I just remembered that I forgot as I was writing this). But believe me, it will not affect me in the slightest, I can guarantee you I’m not getting in either way.
Stay on the lookout for part two, where I break down admissions counselors interviews!
And as always, thanks for reading!
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