Interviews, Part 2: Ten Reflections on My Past College Application Interviews as an Alumnae

You want your interview to go well! It may help you, and it can hurt you. Here are ten choices you can make, largely focused on interviews with alumni who live in your area, to make your interview successful.

  1. Be prompt scheduling the interview. The college typically will send you the name and contact information about your interviewer. Alumni also receive your contact information. Colleges explain that the student should contact the interviewer. Take the initiative, and within 24 hours, begin making the arrangements.

    Don’t make him or her do any work getting the ball rolling. Immediately write an e-mail introducing yourself. Give the interviewer three or four suggestions of time and place:; for example: after 4 Tuesday and Thursday, Saturday from 9 to 1, Sunday after 2.... The interviewer should be able to look at these and pick one or two.

    Similarly, give the interviewer two choices of where to meet. They should be public places.

    I’ve had very different feelings walking into interviews where I waited for an applicant to contact me, or worse, I’ve had to contact them. Years ago this meant I had a piece of paper I had to keep available. Now it means the interviewer has an e-mail he or she can’t delete. Associated words are: disorganized, disinterested, disrespectful, maybe forced into this application by do not want any of these words to turn up in the interview report.

  2. Confirm the arrangements a day or two ahead of time. This should be an e-mail such as, “I’m writing to confirm that I will meet you tomorrow (November 27) at Starbucks at the corner of Lake and Green Street in Pasadena at 4:30. I will be wearing a black jacket and carrying a blue backpack. My cell is 818-555-5555. I look forward to meeting you. Sincerely, Kate Duey.”

    With an e-mail like this you’ve sent a reminder, and it includes all of the particulars. People lose things, including the information about your important meeting. Notice also that you’ve made it easy to connect by giving some identifying information about yourself. It gives your interviewer assurance that there won’t be a mix-up, and that you are a responsible person.

    A note about where to meet: meetings in either your home or the interviewer’s home are bad ideas. Never agree to an in-home interview. Interviews in the alum’s office, if it is in a safe area you can get to, are acceptable, although individual colleges may have rules on this.

  3. Dress appropriately. This means no cleavage showing, nothing tight, pants or skirt over shorts, no t-shirts, no flip-flops, no blue-jeans. You do not have to be fashionable, and designer clothes may offend some interviewers. You do have to be clean and look like this is a serious event. This is especially important if you have an older interviewer. You should only interview with people you don’t know. (The interviewer should decline an interview with a student he or she knows.) Thus, you won’t know if too casual dress will offend the interviewer. Since you don’t know this, err on the side of caution.

    In general, I don’t like high school girls showing cleavage--I think it’s trashy. One young woman came to the interview (in a pizza parlor) showing quite a bit of cleavage. I was instantly annoyed. She then made two grammatical errors. She may have made more but by then I had mostly checked out of the interview. Without the cleavage I probably would have kept listening. She was not admitted. Another alumnus may not have given this a second thought. Since she didn’t know how I would react, she should have made the more conservative choice.

  4. Be on time. The interviewer is giving up his or her time to dedicate an hour or two to you. Remember that while the interview should generally not go more than an hour, the interviewer needs to get to the meeting place, and then somewhere else. If you have to, make a dry run the day before.

    I say the interview is meant to be an hour or less, but this is not always the practice. I like high school students, and I love their stories, so I typically went into a second hour. One of my daughter’s Yale interview went three hours. That is not typical, and certainly not advised.

  5. If you are meeting in some kind of restaurant, bring cash to cover a drink. If the interviewer offers to pay, resist once. If he or she insists, accept it with a thank you. This should not become a financial wrestling match.

    Most applicants are too nervous to order a drink, but I think it’s better to get one. It sends a signal that you are relaxed. The first student I interviewed who accepted a drink had a terrible academic record. He went to one of the worst high schools in Chicago. Frankly, I was curious about him, but didn’t have high hopes. He came on time in a collared shirt. Nice smile and handshake. Accepted a Coke. The one answer he gave that overshadowed most other comments I’ve ever heard. “What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?” “I resisted the pressure to joint a gang.” I instantly believed he had that level of self-confidence, in part because he took the Coke when every interviewee before him had declined it. I called the admissions office to make sure they understood the importance of that statement. Admissions officer: “But what about his academic ability?”  Me: “He is confident enough about himself to get help.” I truly regret he was not admitted.

    And on the issue of confidence, sit upright and maintain eye contact.

  6. Go alone. Parents, friends or teachers should not come with you. If someone drives you to the interview, they need to stay out of sight.

    I had a student arrive for an interview in a diner with his mother and two younger siblings. The young man was going to be the first one in his family to go to college. Everyone was appropriately but simply dressed. The mother explained that she was just too excited to miss this meeting. It took a while to get her to another table. I think part of why she didn’t want to move was that she couldn’t afford anything on the menu. I told her she could get something, my treat. (This was wrong on my part; I should have just insisted I needed some private time with her son.) The young man and I had coffee; the mother ordered nice dinners for herself and her two other children. The problem here is that just as the applicant is giving me information, I am also giving him information about my alma mater. For most students, their only contact with Harvard will be with an alumnus in an interview. I regret that the family left with the impression that Harvard pays for dinner during an interview. Even worse, they may tell their friends with applicant children that they can expect a nice evening out which likely will create confusion and disappointment.

  7. While you shouldn’t bring a parent, you should bring a brag sheet, list of activities or resume. This quickly orients an interview, and the interviewer can look back at it when writing the report.

  8. If the interviewer is 10 years or more older than you, incorporate one, and only one, “Sir” or Ma’am” within the first five minutes. This signals that you are respectful, and acknowledges the relationship between the two of you. More than one, however, will appear obsequious. 

    Other words you should speak are, “What was your experience at XXX College?”. Alumni, if they are interviewing students, generally have a lot of affection for their alma mater. Let them share it with you.

  9. Be careful to answer every question honestly in every detail. An experienced interviewer can sniff out a discrepancy. Even if your interviewer does not catch on, an admissions officer, who has information from teachers, counselors and your written statements, is likely to catch even white lies. There is no upside to inflating yourself.

  10. Write a thank you note within 24 hours. Mailed paper thank you notes are better, but if is somehow beyond you, send an e-mail. The note can be as short as 3 sentences: thank you for your time; I was especially interested in XXX; I hope to attend XXX so I can take advantage of YYY. Just as you’ve perhaps asked teachers and counselors to look over your essays, get someone to look at this note. Alumni from selective colleges are typically strong writers, and they will react positively to a well written note.

    I’ve always given the student extra credit for a thank you note. I was talking with a friend, a lawyer who sat on a committee awarding one full year of law school tuition. This is a significant award because law school tuitions can be $40,000 or more. The committee interviewed 15 candidates. The candidates were roughly the same on paper. One candidate wrote a thank you note. Can you guess who won the award?