Interviews--ask and ye shall receive

I've been doing alum interviews for about a year now. I interview candidates on an "informal" basis and write up reports about them. I doubt that my reports make or break a candidate but I imagine if I had really negative things to say about someone, it would be troubling to the committee and would make them think twice about admitting the person. I'll say a little about my own experience and then talk a bit about what I wish I had done and what I think are good things to remember during the interview.


My college interview so many years ago was also with an alum. I did not live close to the college and I didn't have the time or resources to travel to it. It was my first college interviewer and I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't know what to wear, what to bring. Maybe I should have asked a guidance counselor but thinking back on it, I think I was embarrassed to ask something as stupid as--oh what should I wear to a college interview? Well, clothes... Duh. I guess I wouldn't have gotten that response but I didn't know any better. I ended up wearing capri pants and a fleece sweater. I think I probably could have chosen something a little more business casual, a little less Old Navy commercial. Like I said, I had never gone on a college interview before. I'd never really had an "interview" that went beyond, oh can you fold clothes? You're hired. At the time, I had been working on this project at school that was really important to me. My HS was HUGE. It was overwhelmingly and terrifyingly large. I spent four years not not knowing where the music room really was and not knowing who to go to if I lost my bus pass. I made it my goal senior year to fix that. I wanted to start a guidebook (with a classmate) that would deal with all those practical things. This was a big deal to me and I had a lot of responsibilities. Going into the interview, I KNEW that I wanted to talk about it but nervousness just made me jittery and forget what I wanted to say. Even though my interviewer could not be any nicer, I switched into serious mode and basically LISTED my activities. I suddenly felt like I needed to wow her with quantity as opposed to quality. That was not good. In the end, only because she was so gracious, she made me more comfortable and got me to open up and talk about my experiences and who I was. Clearly, she didn't have to. Moral of story: There's a better way to interview.


The first five minutes:

I come into an interview with a potential student with a clean slate. I don't have the benefit of the student's file in front of me like an admissions counselor may. However, I think that with the sheer number of applications a college receives and every admissions counselor handles, my knowledge of the student sitting in front of me is not much less than that of the counselor. I'm usually provided with a little dossier of the student. Name, School, Hobbies, Interests, Extracurricular Activities, Classes, Area of Study, Address Yes, it's very little information and what little information it is, it tends to be vague. And you may ask "Well, how are you going to ask me questions knowing so little about me? You don't know what to ask!". In my experience, many students think that I should be the one to get information from her. However, I think that's the wrong way to approach it. Not that a student should hijack the interview and answer whatever she wants but the very fact that I know so little about her because I have is a piece of paper with three sentences on it, is an invitation to fill in the blanks. Think of it as color by number. When I get the piece of paper with the picture of a fruit bowl on it. It's not interesting. When you start coloring it in--sometimes in an unexpected way, like a purple banana--that's when I want to know more about why you did what you did. I tend to start with "Tell me a little about yourself." I do that because I honestly want to know.

...A little digression... I do alum interviews because I care about who goes to my school. I don't do it because I hate students. Moreover, the admissions counselors/officers that I know do what they do because they LOVE their job and CARE about students and the educational institution they represent. It's true that they handle many applications but thinking that you're always just a number and that the admissions people are there to give you a hard time is always the wrong way of thinking and approaching the interview/application process...

When I ask about you, you really should use this opportunity to start off with something you want, NEED me to know. If it's your first college interview, tell me that. If you're the first person to ever go to college, you can tell me that. You might want to be subtle about telling me things but I think that an interview--even if they tell you that it's purely informational--can be an excellent chance to distinguish yourself from other applicants if your interviewer likes you, will remember you, and will want to help you out. On what NOT to do. Don't say "I don't know what to say." Even if it's your first interview, you should always ALWAYS ALWAYS prep yourself on that question (and several others that I will talk about later). I think it's more likely than not that you will be asked some variation on that question. The reason I say that is because, back to that little information thing, it gives the officer a chance to pick up on thing so he or she can ask you more questions. There is only so much an interviewer can ask based on where you went to high school and your home-town. A good exercise is to sit yourself down before your interview and write yourself a short paragraph about who you are. This isn't as easy as it sounds because you have to start to weigh the many facets of your life and think about what you want someone else to think of you--or rather, assume about you based on your responses. That sounds terrible--for someone to assume things about you--but really that's what it is. No one else has access to your thoughts and ideas in their original form. The only way people learn about your ideas is when you express them. Sometimes, expressing them one way will lead to an assumption by someone else that is totally not like what you had in mind. That's why it's important to be careful about HOW you paint that picture of yourself for your interviewer.

In using the first few minutes to make a strong impression about who you are, don't worry about having to "impress" the counselor. What I mean by that is that I think a lot of students and I did this myself, think that interviews are a time to pull out all of my accomplishments and bowl the interviewer over with them. While it's important to highlight your good experiences, it's important to recognize that one of the goals of the interview is to see whether the student will fit in and get along with other relatively normal, similar people at the college. If you've published a book, that's great and I want to know that but don't feel stressed out by the fact that you haven't. I think that students want to outperform their classmates and feel bad when they don't have something spectacular to share. It's not about that. It's about demonstrating who you are. That sounds so cliche but it's true. People lead very interesting lives if they want to think of them that way. Not all great novels are about supermen. The responsibility really falls on the student to think about the things that she's done in over the course of seventeen or so years. A well-told story about growing up in the suburbs and loving it because community and family are important to the student is far more compelling than just telling me that you went on an expedition to the Himalayas and didn't gain anything from it but some new wallpaper for your computer. That illustrates the HOW you paint the picture. It's important to remember that you can't just assume your interviewer will understand where you're coming from....




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