The College Interview: How to Leap out of the File and Distinguish Yourself!

The Applerouth Team
January 2, 2015
min read
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January and February are interview months for students applying Regular Decision. Here are some tips to make the most of this opportunity.

Why interview at all?

Many colleges now call the interview “optional.” So why should you take advantage of this nail-biting opportunity in the middle of an already stressful senior year? The college interview is one of the single best ways to pop out of the manila folder as a student the interviewer can picture at their university. In other words, it’s harder to turn down a person you’ve met than a file you’ve read. Here are a few other reasons it’s important to interview if the opportunity presents itself:

  1. Interviewing is a great way to show “demonstrated interest.” Knowing that students are applying to more and more schools, many universities track whether applicants actually show interest in their school. In other words, they don’t want to give away a spot unless they think that student will matriculate. Therefore, just jumping through the hoops of showing up for an interview gives the college the impression that you are a serious contender.
  2. Interviewing gives you a badly needed opportunity to flesh out your extra-curricular activities. As more and more schools require fewer and/or shorter supplemental essays, it becomes more difficult to differentiate yourself (after all, how does one fully describe “my most important extracurricular activity” in 200 words?). Interviewers can sometimes hear the enthusiasm in your voice more than in your writing.
  3. Interviewing usually makes them like you. More often than not, I like a student more after I’ve met them than after just having read their application, even if (especially if!) he or she is not the most stellar student on paper.

Nervous is Normal

Yes, you’re going to be nervous. But keep in mind—there is no subject you know as well as the subject of Y-O-U. The key to offsetting the nervousness is in preparation. Sometimes students say to me, “I can’t prepare because I don’t know what they are going to ask me.” But the reality is that there are only 20 or so commonly asked college interview questions. They can be found here. It pays to prepare an answer for each one, particularly the commonly asked “Tell Me About Yourself.” Type each one out and then say them out loud. Not only will this help you develop your answer, but this process helps you to remember better during the real thing. You don’t need to memorize your answer (in fact, you definitely shouldn’t), but it can help you brainstorm if you write out a potential answer.

Your Silver Platter

Not all college interviews proceed in the way you might think. We hope they will be straightforward: “What’s your favorite class?” or “Tell me about your participation on the lacrosse team.” But in reality, your interviewer may not have prepared a set list of questions to ask you. She may see herself as a gentle interviewer—wanting the event to feel like a conversation rather than an interrogation. While this sounds benign, it is important that you know how to take control of the interview. Students often tell me that their interview went “fine,” but felt frustrated that they weren’t asked key questions. The boy who was elected to the UNICEF Youth Board never had a chance to tell his interviewer how much he had learned about the global children’s crisis. The girl who had raised $20,000 for Alzheimer’s was only asked about her academics.

This is where your “Silver Platter” comes into play. I like for students to imagine they have a tray full of delectable sweets to offer their interviewer. They don’t want to leave the interview without having delivered every single one of those treats. With that in mind, before your interview, do a “brain spill.” Write a bullet point for every single item you want to discuss before the interview ends. Just the process of mining those items for yourself makes it more likely you will be able to fit them in during the conversation. There is no reason you can’t bring those up during your interview even if you aren’t asked about them directly. For example, the girl who raised money for Alzheimer’s might answer the question, “What are you interested in studying in college?” by responding “I’m not quite sure yet, but one thing I know is that I’d like to pursue work for the greater good. This semester, I held a fundraiser that raised $20,000 for Alzheimer’s. I really enjoyed putting together the entire experience and being able to quantify the good that came out of it, so I would like to find a way to do similar things in college.”

Another strategy to employ if your interviewer hasn’t asked you key questions is to say “there is one more thing I would like you to know about me” when you sense the interview is about to end.

Tell Me About Yourself

Another reason preparing your Silver Platter is a good idea is that it helps you to answer the question “Tell Me About Yourself.” I refer to this question as “the hardest easiest question” because while there is clearly no wrong answer, it can be such a missed opportunity. Many interviewers open the session with that question either because they haven’t prepared or they want to throw you a softball.

Here’s an example:

Sam Jones (not his real name) was the Valedictorian of his high school class of 300. He had made it to the semi-finalist position for a prestigious scholarship at UNC Chapel Hill. He had the wisdom to seek out some help preparing and when I asked him, “tell me about yourself,” he responded as follows:

“Well… dad is a lawyer, my mom works in a soup kitchen on Tuesdays, I have a little brother and a new puppy.”

“Sam! You didn’t tell me that you were elected Prefect of the Honor Council! You didn’t tell me that you worked as an intern at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta! You didn’t tell me that you helped teach computer software workshops to underserved children for all four years of high school!"

“Oh yeah, right Mrs. James—I guess I forgot all of that.”

And so we structured a three-part answer that allowed him to touch on each of his interests: (school leadership, foreign affairs, and technology literacy in underserved communities). Now, Sam has three major bullet points to give an impressive yet succinct answer to “tell me about yourself.”

Respond with Evidence

How does a lawyer win his case? With evidence. How do you win your spot at a prestigious university? With evidence that you are a good fit. How do you do that? With a simple but effective formula that looks like this:

Q = A + 1

In other words, the Question = the Answer plus one piece of evidence.

Here’s an example…

Interviewer: “Sam, what’s been your favorite subject throughout high school?”

Sam: “I have loved all of the sciences, but I particularly enjoy Chemistry. I am fascinated by the way things work on a microscopic level.”

It is critical to answer in a way that reflects “intellectual vitality.” Don’t be afraid to reveal your fascinations with things. The interviewer will likely ask follow-up questions based on your “plus one,” and you’ll have the opportunity to expand on things that are interesting or important to you.

Why This School?

Almost every school you wrote a supplemental essay for asked, “Why do you want to attend XYZ School?” or “Why is XYZ school a good fit for you?” It is highly likely that your interviewer will ask you this question, and you want to answer with the same degree of substance that you used in your essay.

Therefore, you want to avoid generalities such as “the campus is so pretty,” or “I like the location.” It will be far more impressive to your interviewer if you respond with specifics: “I hope to major in bio-chemical engineering and the department at XYZ school has a great inter-disciplinary major in conjunction with the chemistry department.”

It is also advantageous to point out how you plan to bring your extra-curricular involvement to the university:

“I look forward to bringing my experience chairing my high school’s Relay for Life Team to XYZ University.”

Some Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do shake hands firmly with her interviewer, look them in the eye, and use their name, if possible. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Jackson.”
  • Don’t wear excessive jewelry, perfume, cologne, or clothes that are too revealing. And above all—don’t chew gum!
  • Do use good eye contact, but know that it’s okay to look away when you’re thinking. No one naturally maintains eye contact 100% of the time.
  • Do be prepared to ask questions about the school. It further demonstrates interest.
  • Do write a thank you note after the interview (tip: it’s also a great opportunity to add that one thing you forget to tell them!).


Try to schedule your interviews from least important to most important to you. You will improve with each one. Interviewing is a skill that you will use over your lifetime. You will interview in college (for summer internships) and post-college for jobs. Think of each one as practice for the next. No one ever regretted preparing for an interview.


Monica James is the founder of Competitive Edge College Consulting. She helps students present their “best selves” during the college admissions process, whether it is crafting stand-out essays or preparing for college interviews. With a background in speechwriting, public speaking, and interview skills, and as an interviewer for her alma mater Vanderbilt University, she is keenly aware of what impresses admissions counselors. She works with clients one-on-one in a personalized fashion, helping them develop their stories into exceptional essays which promise to reveal their unique personality and to respond to interview questions with polish and substance. If you would like to learn more about how Monica can minimize the stress from this complex process, please email her at or visit the website at


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