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The College Interview: What Can You Expect?

The College Interview: What Can You Expect?

So far, you’ve poured your heart and soul into your essays, meticulously calculated your GPA, and explained your extracurricular activities. Yet, there’s one crucial element that often gets overlooked in the process: the college interview.

It’s the part that petrifies most students. 

Except what students don’t realize is that while it may seem like a nerve-wracking ordeal, the college interview is your opportunity to put a face and personality to your otherwise paper application. It’s a great way for those who aren’t natural writers to clarify parts of their application. 

Before we dive into this process, it’s important that you remember two major points: 

  1. The purpose of the interview is to not only get a feel for your personality, but also to determine whether or not you’d be happy in that particular college atmosphere.
  2. You are interviewing the university just as much as the university is interviewing you. 

In this blog post, we’ll talk about the various approaches universities take when to the interview, common interview questions you may come across, and tips to help you portray your best self in an interview. 

So, let’s get started!


Does every university require an interview? 


Universities approach interviews in 1 of 4 ways:

  1. No Interview: Unless you’re applying to a special program, there is no interview option or requirement. Your application will only include the application itself, transcripts, test scores (if required/provided) and any recommendations that you’ve sent in. That’s it. 
  2. The Optional Interview: Some universities give students the option to interview. 

Unsurprisingly, most students opt out. 

I highly recommend that you do the interview. 


Simply put, it adds another dimension to your application. What if you didn’t do a great job of expressing yourself and your ideas in your essay? What if the “activities” section was lacking or just not well written? 

Also, why would a university add an “optional” component to the application “just for fun”? 

It’s a filter to separate those genuinely interested in the university from those who aren’t. So, remove the word “optional” and sign yourself up for the interview.  

  1. The “Everyone is Required to Interview” Interview: Certain universities require all applicants to interview, no exceptions. 

In this case, once you’ve submitted your college application, you’ll receive a follow up email to schedule it. Even if you don’t receive the follow-up, if you know that there’s supposed to be an interview, then you should follow up with the admissions committee. 

  1. The “Seriously Considering You” Interview: If you’re moving the application ladder, a university may want to interview you to get a feel for your expectations and personality. 

If that’s the case, the university will contact you directly to schedule an interview. 

No matter the approach that the university may have, remember that it is your job to ensure to not only confirm that your application has been submitted, but that interview follow-ups are happening. 

So, make sure you’re aware of the university’s policies and reach out as appropriate. 



Now with that said, what should you expect in an interview? 

Let’s talk about the mode of interview: in-person at the university, in person with an alumni member residing in your area, or via Skype/Facetime. 

As for the interview itself?

Well, there are three ways it could go:

  1. The “conversational” style interview: Experienced interviewers are going to do their best to put you at ease. They know and understand that you’re just 17 or 18 years old and that this whole experience may be a little uncomfortable for you. As such, the interview ends up being more of a conversation than a formal, structured setup. 

You may end up talking about what you did last summer or what you’ve been up to in your extracurriculars. It’ll feel like a normal conversation with zero intimidation. 

The interviewer is simply trying to gage your personality and see if you’re someone who’d be happy on that particular college campus. If your vibe matches the university’s. 

No one wants you having a miserable college experience.

  1. The “formal” interview: The traditional approach that we picture when we think of interviews. Someone sits across from you spitting out a series of questions while you aim to answer each of them to the best of your ability. 

I’ve included a list of possible questions below along with a few guidelines on best practices for several of them. 

  1. The “it’s not really an interview, we’re just getting to know you” interview: A common approach amongst sports recruiters and athletes, these types of interviews are a way for the recruiters/coaches and even athletic teams to meet with you and see if you’d fit in with the vibe of the team. 

These can just be a series of formal/informal phone/text conversations, and even actual meetups with teams. 

While they may not officially be classified as interviews, think of it this way: any conversations or interactions you have with university-affiliated individuals should be thought of as interviews. 

Therefore, be aware of what you say and how you say it. Information can and will be passed on. 


If you are responsible for signing yourself up for an interview – as is the case with “optional” interviews- then check the university’s website for guidelines. 

Google “*name of university* interview” and Google will lead you to the university’s interview-info page. 

Be sure to register in advance (Sept-Nov of senior year) to secure a spot. 

Universities generally try and round out interviews by Dec-Jan, and registration can close in November.


Great, now with all that said, how do you prepare for an interview? 

First, familiarize yourself with the types of questions you may get. Keep in mind that the ones listed below are just some of the common ones, however, you may get some others thrown at you. 

For a more thorough list, just Google “college interview questions” and go from there. 

Here’s what we have:


  1. Tell me about yourself. 
  2. What is a major challenge/obstacle you’ve faced and what did you do to overcome it? 
  3. Tell me about a time you failed. How did you deal with it? 
  4. What do you want to major in/what are you interested in? 
  5. Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? 
  6. Why do you want to attend our university? 
  7. Why should we accept you?
  8. What do you hope to contribute to the university’s community?/How will you contribute? 
  9. What do you do for fun?
  10. What is your favorite book/last book you read? What did you like about it?
  11. Who do you admire/has influenced you & why/how so? 
  12. What are your biggest strengths & weaknesses?
  13. What three words would you say best describe you? 
  14. What high school experience was most important to you?
  15. What do you think about the current event *insert event here*?
  16. How have you served your community? What did you learn from the experience? 
  17. If you’ve played a sport, instrument, etc., then why did you do it? What did you just enjoy about it?
  18. What was your favorite subject in high school? Why?
  19. Do you have any questions for me? 
  20. Tell us about an extracurricular that’s meaningful to you. Why does it appeal to you?



  1. Create a Story Bank: Make a list of all the relevant stories that have shown periods of growth, challenges you’ve faced, moments of realization, etc. Now, that seems vague, so let’s get a little more specific. 

Look back at your “Activities” list. For each of these activities, list out at least 3-4 memories of moments when you’ve said, “oh shit”, or “damn, I can’t believe I did that”, or “oh, that’s how that was supposed to work? Wow, who knew?” 

Once you have a few stories listed out, add in moments from your school and personal life. Are there certain traditions your family follows? Any quirks in the family? Any challenging group projects when one person didn’t do anything? How did you approach it?

Feel free to add humor into it. 

Note: I know it’s hard, so, I’ll tell you the same thing that I tell my students: simply by the fact that you’ve existed for so long, you have stories to tell. Ask your parents and friends to help jog your memory. Once you get started, it’ll all just roll out. 

Aim for at least 5-10 different stories that lay out different scenarios and practice telling these stories in a limited time frame. 

  1. Time your responses: You have approximately 1-1.5 min to answer the “tell me about yourself” question. Other than that, all questions should be answered within 30-45 seconds. Go any longer than that and you’re probably rambling. 

If the interviewer wants to hear more about your point, he/she will ask you to expand on your point. 

So, practice with a timer (the one on your phone is fine), and if you’re practicing by yourself, then record a video of yourself as you respond. You may notice some wording issues or body language moves (ex. constantly touching your hair) that you don’t want happening at the actual interview. 

  1. Research the university: Most of us have the internet at our fingertips, so do your research! Figure out the specific programs – academics, research/study abroad opportunities, career development/advising, etc. – that you like, and study the info. You don’t have to memorize it, but you should be able to show the interviewer that you know what you’re talking about.

Note: Researching the university’s “features” should’ve been a part of your college search process, so this info should already be handy. 

You should be ready to answer questions like “what is it that you like about our university?” or “what made you apply here?” or other variations. 

  1. Tips on specific questions
  • “Tell me about yourself”

You have about 1-1.5 min to answer this question. Be careful as to how you craft this response because this question is practically designed for rambling. Don’t tell the interviewer where you were born – that’s old news. 

If you’re applying for a specific program, then talk about when you became interested in that specific field then show how your current coursework/extracurricular activities support your claim. After that, feel free to add a twist with humor or an additional unexpected activity that a “student like you” may not be expected to pursue. 

I’ll give you an example. 

I had a student a couple years ago who was interested in medicine and potentially interested in attending med school. Sure, he was taking quite a few science classes and an EMT certification course offered at his high school, but there was another aspect to him as well: he liked to sketch and he was phenomenal at it! Now, instead of simply having him mention that he sketched, we went a step ahead and had him take pictures of his work on his iPad and used that as a “show & tell” during his interview. 

How did he introduce it? Something like this: 

Interviewer: So, Kevin, tell me about yourself. 

Kevin: Well, I would say that I am definitely a science-lover, and hope to one day attend medical school. I’ve been taking AP Biology and the EMT course at my high school to see if I really would like medicine, and so far, I love the EMT course. When I’m not doing school work, I’m usually playing an intense game of ping pong with my brother, or dedicating 6+ hours to completing a sketch. I actually have pictures of a couple of my sketches on my iPad if you’d like to see them.

At this point, the interviewer can say “sure, I’d love to!” or “no, maybe a little bit later, we’re a little short on time and have a lot of ground to cover.”

Give them an option. Never shove your work in someone’s face. Simply make the offer and leave it at that. 

  • “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?”

Remember that story bank I asked you to create earlier? Well, this is where it comes in handy. 

State your strength: “I think I’m good at taking lessons from what I’ve read and implementing them”, then share an example of when you did that.

“For example, I once read that combining baking soda and vinegar can cause anywhere from a fizzling to an explosive reaction…and I just had to see if that was true, so I ….” 

Add humor in if you can, but if you’re not naturally a funny person, now is not the time to start.

Of course, I’d be reckless if I didn’t say that you should read the situation before you start trying to insert humor. It’s a delicate balance, but for the most part, it’ll be appreciated. Just don’t try and turn the entire interview into a joke. 

  • “Do you have any questions for me?”

YES! You always have questions for the interviewer, no exceptions!

Chances are you’ll be able to ask questions as you go along, however, that may not always be the case. Either way, make sure that you have at least 2-3 questions to ask, it shows that you’ve done your research and are genuinely interested in what the university has to offer. 

Keep in mind what I mentioned earlier, you are interviewing the university as well. You want to know if that particular university has all that you desire/prioritize. 

For example, if you’re shy or just concerned with whether or not you’ll make friends, then the question to ask is: what does the university do to help new students meet each other?

Or, “what part of your college experience at XYZ university did you really enjoy?”

“I found out about ABC tradition at the university and was curious, what is it like?”

  1. Be genuine. 

Oddly enough, this is the one section that I always had trouble with, even when I was in job interviews after I’d finished my Masters. 

What did I do wrong?

Simple. I sounded too polished, as if I was reciting memorized answers like a robot. 

My tip: loosen up a little. Don’t simply memorize your responses, instead create bullet points to remind yourself of certain points you need to bring up or the flow of your response. 

In the “Kevin” example, he didn’t recite that paragraph as I typed it. We simply created a loose flow to his response and highlighted a couple of points that he had to mention

He would start by identifying his interest in medicine mention the AP Bio /EMT class any hobbies that he wanted, but at the end, mention his sketches make the offer to view his art on his iPad. 

We had practiced the response to that question at least a hundred times (timed for 1-1.5 min) before we found a flow that worked for him. He didn’t sit there and memorize a paragraph to recite. That would’ve been too polished. Instead, by simply creating an “outline”, his personality came through as he naturally added his own wording variations, body language & facial expressions to his response. 

6. Create your “flow” to responses and practice it a couple dozen times

As I mentioned with Kevin’s example, create a rough outline for your responses to some of the most common questions. The hardest one will be the “Tell me about yourself” since that’s such a broad question, the others will be much shorter and easier. 

With that said, practice telling your stories (from your Story Bank) over and over again until you’ve figured out just how to incite the reaction you want. Comedians practice telling their jokes a couple hundred times before we actually see them perform. Why? Because they need to figure out just how to tell the joke or story to have it land. You will be doing the same thing. 


Dress business casual or business professional. 

Someone once told me that you can’t go wrong with dressing business professional, because you can always take off your blazer and dress down. 

Read the vibe of the university before deciding how you should dress. 


That sums up about 95% of everything you need to know about college interviews. The other 5% just depends on the university. 

Bottom line: It’s important to practice and remember that you are interviewing the university as much as the university is interviewing you, so be prepared!

Do your research and come up with questions you’d like to ask the interviewer. 

And don’t worry, the first interview is the hardest, but it gets much easier after that. 🙂 

If you end up with any crazy, strange or interesting interview experiences, please share! I’d love to know what’s happening out there and your experience could help others better prep for theirs.


Talk soon,