College Interview Tips and Strategies - The Ultimate Guide

university interview

College interview tips and strategies by Ethan Sawyer and Monica James

I get it: Interviews can be scary. What should I wear? Are jeans okay? What if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to? How do I remember everything I want to say. OMGAGGGGGGGHHHHH.

I should probably just stay in bed.

preparing for a college interview

Before I was the College Essay Guy, I volunteered for a few years as an alumni interviewer for my alma mater, Northwestern (#GoCats). The range of students I interviewed was pretty huge—from those who’d clearly spent time preparing for a college interview to those who were, well, not so prepared.

Inspired by those experiences, I put together a Complete Guide to the College Interview, which offered college interview tips and strategies on everything from how to prepare for the “Why do you want to attend our college?” question to a giant list of commonly asked college interview questions. 

Then I met Atlanta-based educational consultant Monica James, who for years taught public speaking and interview skills to executives but has since been helping students prepare for their university interviews.

We got to talking (because that’s what we call it in the South) and we realized we were giving students similar advice, so what’d we do? Why, a podcast, of course.

Not a podcast fan? No worries. What you’re about to read is a super duper combo guide featuring the best of that podcast, and a nifty Table of Contents that includes clickable links AND the interview workbook that accompanies the guide, which you'll definitely want to use to take notes. Ready?


Trust me. You'll want a place to take notes as you prepare.

Next, scroll down and start reading or, if short on time, click to skip to the most relevant section below.


The best way to prep for an upcoming interview, IMHO, is to read through this guide, then follow the steps outlined in the section called “Preparing For A College Interview: A Three-Step Process (With Two Practice College Interview Tips and Strategies!)”

It’ll take you a few hours, but once you’re done you’ll feel super prepared.

Having said that, I realize not everyone reading this guide has a few hours (or even wants to spend that much time), so here's how to access the very short version of this guide:

Preparing for a College Interview If You Only Have One Hour

Skip ahead to the section called “Preparing for a College Interview If You Only Have One Hour,” which is right after the section called “Preparing For A College Interview: A Three-Step Process (With Two Practice Exercises!)”

All right, say buh-bye to sweaty palms, ‘cuz here it is...

College Interview Tips and Strategies: The Ultimate Guide


A couple reasons:

First, some universities believe that students who interview are more likely to accept an offer of admission (if they’re given one) than students who don’t interview. More on that in a sec.

Second, colleges will tell you that they interview because, “We want to see if a student is a good fit!” (Fit, btw, is like this huge buzzword in admissions that means either the school is legit assessing if your personality/strengths/goals will mesh with their culture OR or they’re using it as a euphemism—as in, “Based on his straight Cs and Ds junior year, gosh, we just didn’t feel that student was a great ‘fit’ for our college.”)

So here are two reasons to do a university interview:

1. To demonstrate interest in the school. Some schools track how much active interest you’ve shown: Are you applying early? Did you visit? Did you interview? Did you open our emails and click on something? Together, these factors can have some sway over the admissions decision (yes, even the email thing), although how much varies from school to school. So just doing the interview—regardless of how you think it went—counts for something.

How do you know if a school tracks demonstrated interest? That’s a totally different guide (and podcast!) but you can learn more about that by clicking here:

2. To provide additional information. Maybe you didn’t exactly crush it in your essays. Or maybe you’re so beautifully magnetic that words on a page just don’t do you justice. Or maybe you’ve done some awesome things since applying that weren’t in your original application. You can share these things in your interview. (Personal note: This actually happened to me (Ethan). In between applying and interviewing for Northwestern my senior year, I won a couple pretty big drama awards and got a chance to talk about them with my interviewer. She got excited, told me she thought I’d really love the NU Theater program, and actually convinced me during my interview to write to NU to change my major on my application. I did, and got in.)

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of preparing for a college interview, though, let’s ask:

Do Interviews Help College Admissions?

On Dec. 29, 2017, The Atlantic published an article called The Futility of College Interviews, where Hayley Glatter (former admissions rep at Northwestern #GoCats) asks: “[Because interviews are] a stressful and often irrelevant component of the application process... Is it time to do away with them?”

For years I’ve wondered the same thing.

Case in point: At a panel I attended at the 2011 NACAC Conference, an admissions rep for an Ivy League school was asked by an audience member how important the interview actually was (she used the word “actually”) and the admissions rep responded that, in essence, interviews didn't matter that much. They were more for the student to feel a connection to the school than for the school to evaluate the student.

Further, in a 2011 Daily Beast article, John Birney, senior associate director of admissions at Johns Hopkins was quoted as saying that “[Interviews] are not a significant factor in the vast majority of cases."

Am I saying that interviews are not important for any schools? Not quite. Stay with me a minute.

First let’s ask: How much importance in general do colleges ascribe to the interview?

According to the NACAC 2017 State of College Admissions Report, 6.2% of colleges attributed “considerable importance” to the interview, around 17% of attributed “moderate” importance, 31.9% attributed limited importance in the overall admissions decision, while 46% attributed “no importance” to the interview (presumably many of those schools don’t hold interviews at all).

Here, check it out:

what to expect at a college interview

So do interviews matter? Sometimes. And they matter to some schools more than others. More on that in just a minute.

When Does an Interview Really Matter?

The second part of the John Birney quote above goes, "But for a kid who is on the bubble, where the decision could go either way, a fantastic interview with an alumnus could make the difference.” (Translation: there might be some cases, perhaps few and far between, when the interview matters… maybe even a lot.)

How Important is the college interview?

It depends on the college. Google [name of the school] and the words “Common Data Set.”

Doing this will pull up a table that indicates how much weight the school places on each part of the application, including the interview. Here’s what I found, for example, by Googling “Wake Forest Common Data Set” and then looked specifically at Section C7:

Wake Forest cares about interviews.

Wake Forest cares about interviews.

What Colleges Require Interviews?

Take a look at this post from College Kickstart, which provides a list of Colleges Where Interviews are Required or Strongly Recommended (Class of 2022). Note that I haven't independently verified the schools listed here, so you’ll want to double-check.

How? (This is important, so pay attention!)

Call their admissions office and ask the person who answers how much the interview is considered a factor in the college admissions process (but do check out their Common Data Set first, as I’ve suggested above).

Too shy to call? Take a hint from the school’s website. Swarthmore, for example, points out that while the deadline for an on-campus interview is/was December 6, don't worry because “if you are not able to interview, it will not impact your admissions decision in any way” (translation: relax), while Yale’s website says, “An interview is not a required part of the application process, but we encourage you to meet and talk with a Yale alumnus/a or student interviewer when possible.” (Translation: make it happen.)

Do Certain Kinds of Interviews Count More Than Others?

I think so. Laird Durley, a great counselor whose opinion I really trust, pointed out that “the honest-to-god ‘Heck yeah, we are evaluating you!' interviews with admissions staff tend to be much more important than those 'merely informative' type interviews with, say, an alum.” The counselors and admissions officers I’ve spoken with generally agree with this view.

What follows are a couple minor points, and if you’ve already decided you’re going to interview you can just skip to where it says “The One Thing Colleges Are Looking For Above All Else (in Monica’s Opinion—but Ethan agrees).”

What If I Decline to Interview?

Here’s another time that an interview (in this case a lack of an interview) could matter. If you’re offered an interview and decline, it could look bad, or at least raise questions. (Why did he turn it down? Is he not that interested in our school? Does he have something to hide?) So, if you do get offered one, and you’re interested in the school, I’d recommend accepting it unless you have a really good reason not to.

Can a College Interview Hurt an Applicant?

Most of the colleges I’ve asked say that the interview almost never hurts the student. An interview helps humanize a student—it’s easier to turn down a file than a person. The only time Monica or I suggest that students not interview is if they’re terribly shy. Having said that, a lot has to do with preparation and even the shyest student can shine in an interview. There is, after all, no one who knows you better than you. In fact, you’re the #1 expert.

Should I Still Interview If the Interview Is Optional?

Absolutely! Interviewing is a great way to show demonstrated interest. More and more these days schools are tracking which students are likely to matriculate (i.e. accept an offer of admission) and, because an interview is a positive indicator that you’re interested, just jumping through the hoops of showing up for an interview can score demonstrated interest points.

Also, interviewing usually makes people like you. More often than not, Monica notes, “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.”


Intellectual vitality.

That’s it. That may sound a lot like intellectual curiosity but it’s different. How? Lots of kids have intellectual curiosity. But colleges want to see the kid who has actually DONE something with their curiosity. How have they acted upon it?

Fun Fact: Ethan calls this “curiosity with legs.”

Consider the student who reads books about game theory because he’s an avid investor. Or the one who works on the campaign of a state representative running for office because she’s fascinated by politics or the guy who wants to intern for the World Affairs Council because he’s into geo-politics.

Not all kids are so intellectual, of course. What about the more typical kid?

Quick story from Monica: “I worked with a young lady this year whose parents were divorced. Her favorite thing was spending time with her dad. They cooked together—but when I say cooked—they were like chefs. They experimented with ingredients and made gourmet meals. She was constantly reading recipes, learning how eggs affect the consistency of recipes, or how yeast behaves in baking. That shows intellectual vitality too.”

Just remember: curiosity with legs.

Okay, and maybe arms.

Okay, and maybe arms.

How Do I get a college Interview?

Different colleges do this differently, and while some schools (Wash U, for example) allow for students to register for an interview when they plan a campus visit, typically the interview is triggered after the application is in.

If an on-campus interview is offered, students usually sign up through a portal. Some schools (like Northwestern) have regional interviews, in which case the student will be informed that interviews are taking place, but then the student needs to sign up. (Side note: If your friends have heard about interviews for a particular school but you haven’t, don’t freak out. A quick call or email to the admissions office or your regional rep can’t hurt. Just keep it short and polite, saying in essence that you’ve sent in your application, that you’re from [wherever you’re from] and that you’re interested in the possibility of interviewing.)

Important note from Monica on email tone: “If an alum contacts you by email, be very thoughtful about how you present yourself over email to them. Sometimes kids just launch into an email without a few simple formalities such as starting the email with “Dear Mrs. James”. Many students start their email with “Hey, how does Saturday work for you?” I find that very off-putting. They should also close the email with something like “Sincerely” or “Thank you in advance for your time”, etc.”

Pro Tips for Being Ready: Do confirm your interviewer’s phone number and yours prior to the interview. Aim to arrive to venue 15 minutes early. This allows you to grab a table (and a hot beverage) if you're in a coffee shop.

Preparing for a College Interview If You Only Have One Hour

I’m about to get into the nitty gritty college interview tips and strategies of how to actually prep. It’s pretty comprehensive, y’all. But if you just have, say, an hour or so to prep, here’s what I’d recommend doing:
  1. Spend 10 minutes reading the “Preparing For A College Interview: A Three-Step Process (With Two Practice College Interview Tips and Strategies!)” section that follows so you know what to expect at a college interview.
  2. Bullet point your answers to the three essays I recommended writing below (rather than writing them). In terms of budgeting your time, consider spending:
    1. 10 minutes: Researching your “Why us” essay (see Step 1 below)
    2. 5 minutes: Thinking about what you want to study and why (see Step 1 below)
    3. 5 minutes: Coming up with three good questions for your interviewer (see Step 1 below)
    4. 10 minutes: Developing your Message Box (see Step 2 below)
    5. 5 minutes: Organizing all of the above and then emailing it to yourself (for quick review on your phone before you head into the interview)
    6. 20 minutes: Using these materials to practice answering the The Ultimate List of College Interview Questions (see very end of this guide)
    7. 5 minutes: Meditating because meditation is awesome

You can do this now.

Preparing For A College Interview: A Three-Step Process (With Two Practice College Interview Tips and Strategies!)

Step One: Write These Three Essays

Three questions that you're likely to be asked include:

  • Why our school?

  • What do you want to study and why?

  • What interests you besides academics?

So I advise writing:

  1. "Why Us" statement
    Keep in mind that this is primarily a research essay—not something you can invent from your beautiful imagination—so you’ll want to spend some time on the school’s website, learning what makes this school different, and thinking about how you’d add value.
    Resource: The step-by-step guide for researching and writing this essay can be found here.

  2. "What do you want to study and why" essay
    Resource: Essay Types A and B in Module 1.6 in The Essay Workshop in a Box can help you answer this questions by helping you find links between your past experience and what you anticipate wanting to study or do in life.  

  3. Short extracurricular essay (150-250 words)
    Writing this one out will actually help you answer a variety of questions (you'll see how in the exercises below).
    Resource: Here are three great resources for choosing an activity, then writing, and revising your Common App extracurricular essay.

The good news, if you’re reading this in December or January, is you’ve probably already written answers to these for your supplemental essays (yay!). If not (whomp, whomp), you’ll have a little more work to do.

Another reason to write these, though, is to come up with great examples (i.e. evidence) to support your interview talking points.

For more on this from Monica, check out something she calls...

The Basic Formula for a Great College Interview Answer

Many students tell me “I can’t really prepare because I don’t know what they’re gonna ask me.” But there are really only 20 or so commonly asked college interview questions (we’ll share these below). When I (Monica) work with students, I have them take a stab at each question and then help them improve their answer. The best way to improve your answer is with evidence. A lawyer wins a case with evidence and so do you. You convince your interviewer that you are an eager and curious student with the use of evidence.

Let’s start for example with one of the easiest and most often asked questions: “What’s your favorite subject?”

Basic answer: “Physics”

Better answer: “Physics—because I love studying motion and acceleration.”

Even better answer: I’m intrigued by physics because it’s the basis for all other sciences, plus it’s applicable to real life scenarios. For example, I’m a pole vaulter and I feel like understanding physics makes me better at what I do. When I run down the runway and leap from the ground, the more I bend the pole the more elastic potential energy is stored. When this potential energy releases, I’m propelled over the bar. Physics does all of that.

I give my students a really simple formula called Q=A+1 where A is the answer and the plus 1 is one piece of evidence.

A few quick tips as you write the three pieces above:

  • Make sure that your "Why us" statement avoids these pitfalls.

  • Your short extracurricular essay should incorporate these six techniques.

  • Have at least one unexpected answer to the "What do you want to study and why" essay (and click here for a really solid example essay).

Are you basically writing (or rewriting) your supplements? In a sense, yes, and doing so will give you all the content you need for your interview.

The next step is to organize your content. Why? Because, chances are, once you’ve written all this stuff your brain is going to be exploding and if (you’re like me and) you have some perfectionistic tendencies, you’ll start to stress about remembering it all. But guess what?


What to Take to a College Interview

Why? Because in the next step you’re going to simplify things.

Step Two: Develop Your Message Box

What’s a message box? A message box is basically a PR-term for the 3-4 points you definitely want to hit in the interview. And here’s a secret that every PR person (and most politicians) know: You can segue to one of these 3-4 points no matter what the interviewer asks.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s say, for example, you worked in your dad’s restaurant since the 8th grade, learning the ins and outs of a business while helping support your family. Think about how that could apply to any of the following typical interview questions:

  • What have you been involved in that you feel pleased about?

  • What’s the largest challenge you’ve faced and how did you resolve it?

  • What makes you unique?

So how do you develop a message box?

Spend about 45-60 minutes on the following (or, if you’re doing the “one hour” version of this, just pick one of the ideas below and spend 10 minutes on it):

  1. Do the 21 Details exercise that’s here.

  2. Take a blank piece of paper and spend 15-20 minutes filling the page with everything you’d want a college rep to know about you. Fill it with adjectives. Doodles. Memories. Basically everything that makes you, well, you.

  3. Ask your family or friends: What’s your favorite thing about me? What’s the most impressive thing about me?

  4. Then pick 3-4 of those things. That’s your message box.

What Colleges Require Interviews

Step Three: Come Up With Your Own Questions to Ask Your College Interviewer

Why? Because it’s the single best way to communicate your intelligence and interest, IMHO.

When I'm interviewing a student and I ask, "Do you have any questions for me?" and the student is like, "Not really," how do you think that sounds? Not great. I'm not saying it reflects negatively, I'm just saying it doesn't add anything to the student's application that I can write down.

When asking questions of your interviewer, here are a few dos and don’ts.

  • DO be specific. I’ll give you some examples in a sec, but I wanted to make this point first.

  • DO make sure your answer isn’t easily Googleable (i.e. DON’T ask what the average SAT score is for incoming freshmen).

  • DO build a connection. DON’T be afraid to ask the interviewer personal questions about what he or she likes and dislikes about their alma mater. Remember, people love to share their experiences and if you can get them to talk about what interests them and you can build a connection around that, they might leave the interaction with a positive impression—simply because you listened to what they had to say. (More on this in the section called How to Be Charming.)

  • DON’T bombard them with questions. Keep an eye on your interviewer’s body language so you know when to wrap up your questions. But if your interviewer is stimulated by the discussion, don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going.

  • DO be prepared. Have a list of 3-4 questions to ask. Read this guide so you know what to expect at a college interview.

Pro Tip: If you haven’t yet written and submitted your “Why us” statement, let your interviewer help you write it. How? Ask questions that may help you make a better case for why you’d be a great fit for the school. (Example: the answer to “What did you love best about your time in college?” can yield an insight that’s not likely to be on the school’s website.)

Okay, so what kinds of questions to ask college interviewer should you choose?

A. Ask a question that shows you’ve done your research

How? Ask great school-specific questions:

  • I know Columbia has all students study the great books, but I am curious about the science component of that experience--can you tell me a bit about your experience with it?

B. Pick questions to ask college interviewer that shows you're serious about your area of interest

How? Ask an advanced-level question in your field of interest/expertise:

  • Do the school's theatrical productions tend to focus more on interpreting existing works or creating new ones? How about in-class work?

Pro Tip: It’s okay if the interviewer doesn't know the answer to your question. It may lead to an interesting conversation, in this case for example, on the difference between "interpretation" vs. "creation," something you happened to write a paper on last semester.

C. Pick questions to ask college interviewer that invites a personal connection

How? Ask questions only the interviewer could answer: What did you love most about studying at CMU? What would you do differently if you could do college over again?

Remember that you're talking to a real person—not just a college rep—and that person has hopes and dreams, regrets and wishes just like you.

Be brave and dare to make a real connection.

Sample Questions to Ask College Interviewer

Personal Questions

  • What was the best part about X college? What was honestly the worst part?

  • What did you study? Which professors would you say I have to study with if I attend?

  • What would you have done differently in college?

  • What do you wish you’d known before you spent your first day on campus?

Academics and faculty

  • How would you characterize the academic pressure and workload?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the advising system?

  • In which classes that you took did you feel close to the professor, and in which did you not? And how did that go for you?

  • Do you know of any curriculum changes that are in the works, in particular anything that may impact me?

  • Are any new programs scheduled for the next four years?

  • Is the honor code working? How widespread is cheating?


  • What’s the cliche or stereotype of students at the school? To what extent is the stereotype true?

  • I know that most college brochures show lots of diversity, but in your experience what is the actual diversity on campus like? Are there clubs, activities, or housing options specific to [first-generation/Latinx, African American/international] students?

  • What political, social, or academic issues concerned students last year? How did the administration react?

  • What was the resolution?

Social life and campus activities

  • What do students do for fun that probably wouldn’t make it into the marketing materials?

  • How big is Greek culture (fraternities and sororities) on campus?

  • Are sports a big deal on campus? Do students go to games? Did you?

  • What’s one of the best nights you ever spent in college—again, something that wouldn’t make it into the marketing materials, if you can think of one.

Okay, we’re about to get into the exercises you can use to practice for the day of your interview. And by the way if you thought the stuff above was good and the stuff that follows couldn’t be much better/more useful THEN YOU’RE JUST PLAIN WRONG BECAUSE THE BEST IS YET TO COME.

Exercise #1: Segueing to Your Message Box

This exercise will help you practice segueing to your “message box” gems to ensure that you’re putting the best parts of yourself forward.

  1. Step One: Copy and paste “The Ultimate List Of College Interview Questions” at the bottom of this post into an email and send it to yourself so you can reference it on your phone. (Or you can print out this nifty little PDF.)

  2. Step Two: Find someone you’re comfortable with and sit with that person in a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted.

  3. Step Three: Have your partner ask you a random question from the list and try to answer the question while segueing to an item in your message box.

Example: Let’s say one of the things in your message box is the fact that you started a robotics team at your school and, even though it started out with just two members, now it’s grown to 12 and you even placed 2nd in a recent competition. And say you’re asked a question like, “What’s your favorite subject?”

This one’s easy: “I love [name something science related] because of [say why and make a connection to something related to robotics]” … then segue into “That’s part of what inspired me to start the robotics team at school.”

Example: “I love my math and computer programming classes! I love riddles and problem solving and nothing is more exciting to me than being given a challenging problem to solve, especially when I can’t figure out why a computer program I’ve written isn’t running. I really loved being Lead Programmer on my Robotics team in middle school so I started my school’s programming class when I realized my high school didn’t have a Robotics Club.”

Next level: “I love [name a subject not directly related to robotics—art, for example] because [name something related to something related to robotics—attention to design and aesthetic detail, for example] … then segue into “That’s part of what inspired me to start the robotics team at school.”

Example: “I love art! Visual Arts has been one of my favorite classes the last few years because, for me, the art-making process is so closely tied to problem solving, in that I’m trying to reach and create a visual expression, through a painting or sculpture, of a certain emotion or idea or feeling in my mind. That constant process of redoing my artwork kinda’ reminds me of the process of writing programs, especially when I’m trying to cut like 5,000 lines of code down to just 2,000 and still have it compile and run correctly. It’s like carving a sculpture! I guess seeing coding as creative problem solving is why I decided to start a Robotics Club at my school.”

This gets easier with practice, btw. Once you’ve done this a few times you’ll be connecting that robotics club to everything from reading to social life to “the one thing you’d change about your school if you could.”

So fix in your mind a couple of your message box topics and see if you can answer general interview questions by segueing to something from your message box. Have fun with this. It can feel like a game. It may already be starting to feel that way.

Once you feel like you’ve sufficiently hit all of your message box points in your interview, feel free to take your answers to wherever else they lead.

Here are a few commonly asked questions and how you can use this segue technique:

1. Questions About Your Academic Interests

What subject areas are you most interested in?
          My favorite subjects are…
          Which connects to [item from message box] in that…

What do you plan to study in college?
          I hope to study...
          Which connects to [item from message box] in that…

          OR IF YOU DON’T KNOW

          I’m not yet sure what my major will be, but I’m very interested in…
          Which connects to [item from message box] in that…

Do you know what career route you want to pursue yet?
          I hope to be a...
          Which connects to [item from message box] in that…


          I’m not yet sure what I want to be, but I’m very interested in…
          Which connects to [item from message box] in that…

Pro Tip: One bit of advice politicians commonly receive is this: Don’t answer the question you were asked; answer the question you wished you were asked. Now, obviously you can’t go crazy with this (think how annoying it is when someone is asked a question and then says something totally unrelated). I’m suggesting that if you’ve been asked “What’s your favorite subject?” you can rewrite the question in your mind to “What did you have to be really good at in order to be able to [win that big debate competition/create that app/insert message box topic here]?” Essentially, you can reframe the question in a useful way.

Now that you’ve had a little practice making connections between ideas you’ve probably realized either a) you’re a natural at this, or b) this is really hard.

Either way, here’s another exercise that will help you improve your interviewing skills. And this exercise is especially useful because, honestly, you won’t want to tie every single question back to those 3-5 message box topics. Doing so could feel, at best, forced, and at worst like you’re obsessed with those 3-5 things.

This exercise will help you think outside the box. So to speak.

Do Interviews Help College Admissions

Exercise #2: The “So What” Game

Part One: Write down (or say aloud) something meaningful about yourself. Could be anything from something that you love to something that feels risky to share. Once you’ve done that, ask yourself (or have someone else ask you) “So what?” Then see if you can go deeper with your follow-up thought. Then keep going: ask yourself (or have the other person) ask “So what?” again? Keep going for about a minute.

My example:

I sometimes find it difficult to be alone.

(So what?)

This may have something to do with being extroverted, but I sometimes wonder if there is something deeper going on with me.

(So what?)

It’s scary to think that I’m afraid to be alone with my thoughts—I’ve always walked around as a happy person and I genuinely feel happy most of the time—but now I’m wondering if I’m just bored, or perhaps restless on a deeper level that I haven’t been aware of?

(So what?)

Ah—just made a discovery—I’m not always like this, sometimes I am actually okay being on my own, I even like it, and I notice it aligns with the times when I’m staying consistent with my meditation practice, which at the beginning of the year was solid but lately has not been.

(So what?)

So something must be restless inside me right now; I’m guessing I’m anxious about something on a deeper level. Interesting!

See how this works? And when you practice this the first time don’t feel you have to tie it back to some positive quality that would make you look good in an interview—treat it just as a thought-exercise. Go for it, either on your own or with a partner.

Part Two: Try applying the “So what” exercise to a few interview questions.

How would you rate your academic strengths and weaknesses? Are you better in some areas than others? Do you know why?

          One of my strongest subjects is...
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)
          One of my weakest subjects is...
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)

What’s your favorite book? Why?
          I really enjoyed reading….
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)
                    (So what?)

Feels like you’re asking that question a lot? You are. Trust me, keep doing it and something interesting will eventually happen.

College Interview Tips and Strategies

You can play this game with a variety of college interview questions and doing so can help you feel prepared, as though these are paths you’ve hiked before.

Below you’ll find a big list of college interview questions that you may or may not be asked in your interview. And, by the way, I want to emphasize that you may not be asked any of these questions, as many interviewers just like to start with a simple question and see where the conversation leads.

Playing “so what” with some of the questions below, though, will at least give you some stuff to talk about, but more importantly the skills and flexibility to handle a lot of different kinds of college interview questions.

2. Questions About Your Extracurricular Involvement

Tell me about your current extracurricular involvement.
         I’m very involved in…
         I really like it because (note that this is just a version of “so what”)...
         From this experience, I’ve learned (again, “so what”)…

(You might focus on the values and skills you’ve developed)

Which activities do you hope to continue in college?
         I hope to continue…

What have you done during the last few summers?
         Last summer, I…
         I learned…

(Maybe you connect these to some core values or skills you developed, like independence or time management—again, see the list of “values and skills” linked in the question above.)

The summer before that, I…
         I learned…

What might you do with a year off between high school and college?
         If I had a year off, I would…

(Would you explore certain subjects on your own, start your own business or organization, travel abroad for a year…? If your answer is “relaxing,” what does that look like to you, and why is rest important in your life right now?)

How to Practice

Consider choosing some of the questions at the end of this guide and typing out your answers. Then, try answering them out loud. Find someone to practice with and use the same energy that you would speak with during an interview. Perfect practice = perfect performance. I emphasize the words “out loud” because neuro linguistic programming has taught us that saying things out loud helps us remember them better than the “whisper” we do in our heads. Some students practice in their cars. But don’t feel that you have to memorize your answers. There’s no need to say it exactly the same way—in fact, you probably don’t want to.

Counselor Shaun McElroy, who was also featured on the podcast, suggests also interviewing with someone who does not know you well—perhaps a friend’s parent or a teacher. He notes that the mock interview should take 10 minutes with another 10 to 15 minutes for feedback and discussion. 

Techniques for Specific College Interview Questions

The “Why This College” Question

Hat tip (again) to Monica for this section!

First, let’s talk about what doesn’t work very well.

  • Avoid Flattery: “I want to go to X University because of its reputation in the business community.” Why? It’s uninspired. Don’t waste this precious opportunity telling the school things about itself it already knows. They want to hear about you.

  • Avoid cliches like “I’ve been going to University of Georgia football games every year since I was three. I want to be a Bulldog and wear red and black.

Instead, talk about specifics that showcase YOUR talents and interests.

Let’s use the pole vaulter again as an example. He might say:

I’m looking for a university that feeds my fascination with physics and I was really excited to see that Rochester offers courses that intersect with my love of music. Seeing I could take “The Physics of Music” was great, and I’d love to learn about waves, frequencies, vibrations etc. and see how they might apply to my involvement in singing and acapella. I’m also interested in astrophysics, and would hope to study cosmology to further understand stellar evolution, another subject I’ve studied a lot on my own.  

That’s an answer that shows me the student has done his homework, even to the extent of finding particular relevant classes. It also allows him to show another side of himself: music.

Important: Again, the best way to prepare is to write the “Why Us?” essay, even if the school doesn’t require it. Use this opportunity to research specific classes, teachers, programs, activities, or characteristics unique to the university.

But, as I say in the “Why us” guide, don’t focus only on the University—chances are your interviewer knows why his/her schools is amazing. Be sure to use the “so what” exercise to connect it back to you.


I love that Northwestern has so many student theater groups.
          (So what? Why? What does this say about you?)
I’ve loved creating theater with my friends in high school and since I’m interested in a future in stage management, I’m looking for the chance to get lots of experience—especially outside the classroom—creating shows with other students who are making art because they’re passionate about it (and not just doing it for a grade).

See? Pretty straightforward. Now do this 10 times for the school you’re interviewing for—go back and forth between a) what’s awesome about the school and b) what this has to do with you—and you’ll have plenty to say.

Other college interview questions you may be asked about a particular school:

What activities or programs do you hope to take advantage of at our school?
         I hope to get involved in…

(Use names of specific clubs, organizations, and other opportunities that are unique to the university)
(Then answer “So what?” Connect it back to you. Because…)

What do you think you can contribute to X University?
         I think I’ll provide…
(Look to that values and skills list and come up with a few, like curiosity or cultural awareness, for example. Be sure to explain the experiences that helped you develop these attributes, such as your experience founding and managing a school club, or experiences living in multiple countries. Use stories to illustrate them.)
         Contribution 1 and Example or Story - [You can fill this out yourself!]
         Contribution 2 and Example or Story - [Samesies.]

What do you look forward to most about college?
         I’m particularly excited about...

How well do you do with independence? Give an example of a problem or task or project you’ve dealt with that required you to demonstrate your independence.
         When I was … I learned how to…
(Use specific examples of camps, summer programs, or times in your life when you had to be independent.)


To help students prepare for this question, Monica gives students a list of “Strong Character Traits” (I, Ethan, heart this). Monica asks students to highlight all the words that pertain to them. Then she asks students to go back over their highlights and choose the top three or four. But the important thing is that they choose the three or four for which they have the best EVIDENCE. (See note above on the Basic Formula for a Great College Interview Answer. )

For example, if they choose the word “Committed,” then they might follow up with an example of how they have volunteered at the Ronald McDonald house every Saturday for the last 12 months.

Or if they choose the word “auto-didactic,” the students might explain how they taught themselves Java online so they can develop an app that tells the time—just like a clock! (I’m kidding about this specific app idea, but not kidding that using specific examples is a good idea.)

As to the weaknesses, you really only need one. It’s unlikely that your interviewer will say “tell me another weakness.” I would avoid trying to sugarcoat your weakness too much or using a weakness that really sounds like a strength. For example, saying “Oh I really spend too much time studying” sounds forced.

We all have weaknesses, Monica points out.

It’s better to sound authentic but then explain how you’re trying to overcome the weakness.

For example: “I start many more things than I complete….I’ve got lots of ideas rolling around in my head and tend to get excited about them at first and then fail to get them to come to fruition. For example, I tried to start a club at my school to get people more open-minded about hearing each other’s viewpoints. While it sounded like a great idea on paper, I lost my momentum to execute it. But it’s something I’d like to pursue in college.

I like the authenticity of that answer as well as knowing that she does have a lot of ideas even if she has not yet figured out how to execute them.

Tell me about a challenge that you’ve overcome.
          When I was … I was challenged with.. (Challenge you faced)
          To deal with this, I… (How you overcame it)
          So what?

What are your personal strengths? Weaknesses?
          I think some of my strengths are…
          So what?
          Some of my weaknesses are…
          So what?

(Be careful to not blame outside factors such as your teacher when explaining your weaknesses; focus on how you’re working to improve them.)

What three words describe you?
          People often describe me as...

How to Not Sound Like Everyone Else in Your Interview

Imagine the answers everyone else will give and challenge yourself to come up with different adjectives, or find a way to say the same thing with a different word.

Want to see a list of some adjectives that are overused?


I’m kidding, here you go:

Common Adjectives Students Use

Less Common Ways of Saying This


Intuitive. Listener*.


Sanguine. Dreamer*.


Discerning. Shrewd.


Meticulous. Craftsperson*.


Inspired. Weird.


Eclectic. Aberrant.


Alive. Polymath*.

Note that, when asked for a series of adjectives to describe yourself, you don’t have to give only adjectives. I think it’s cool to throw a noun in there—see asterisked examples above. One student I worked with described himself as an “ardent, panglossian visionary” and another described herself as a “gregarious horse-whispering philosopher queen.” I love these.

It can also be fun to combine a couple of these and create an interesting metaphor or analogy for what you love to do or what you’re good at.

Example: In this video I describe myself as a “shaman midwife.” People are usually a little confused at first, but intrigued. When asked to explain, I tell folks the brainstorming process feels shamanic in that the “essence objects” exercise helps students access their unconscious mind to generate images that we then interpret and assign meaning to during the essay process. And this work is like midwifery in that this “baby” (the college essay) is gonna be born with or without me—my job is to make the process as painless as possible.

Obviously you don’t need to substitute with these specific alternatives each time. Overall I’m just challenging you to find ways to stand out.

OH AND BY THE WAY: This can definitely be taken too far. If every answer sounds overly-clever and plotted out (or worse, like you’re speaking from a pre-written script), you could end up sounding like the girl in the 2016 animated version of The Little Prince (a beautiful film, btw, if you’ve not seen it).

what to expect at a college interview

What do you do in your free time?
          When I’m not at school or involved in extracurricular activities, I like to…
(Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate your initiative and intelligence. i.e. learning photography, playing in a band, or reading Russian Lit sound better than playing games on your iPad, hanging with your friends, and going to the mall.)


When I (Monica) interview for my alma mater, I always ask kids to tell me about their reading lives. It’s my favorite question. But even for kids who don’t love fiction, with a bit of forethought, they can think of things they read. For example, if they tell me that they read the New Yorker because they like the short stories, that certainly impresses me.

Or if they don’t particularly engage with fiction but they like non-fiction, I’d want to hear some examples that jive with their outside interests. If someone tells me they’re interested in investing then I might want to hear that they read books about the stock market or if they love to play chess that they read books about strategic opening moves on the chess board. Most kids think that when they are asked about reading, it always implies old fictional classics like Moby Dick!

Students who read newspapers interest me too. Some will tell me that they get notifications of breaking news on their phones. I know that this generation is getting their knowledge of the world in so many ways outside books.

Or, if they follow the Twitter feeds of public intellectuals like David Brooks from the New York Times or even smart comedians like Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, or John Oliver—that sort of counts!

But I really would suggest that they pick up a book before their interviews.

How to answer the Current Events Question

I always ask students “What current event has caught your attention?”

Students don’t need to know everything that’s going on in the world, but many students really have no idea. Many are busy with sports and APs and don’t keep up with the news. I suggest that for several weeks leading up to interview season that they at least listen to NPR on their drive to school or watch CNN during the five minutes they have for breakfast.

Also, if they have a particular area of interest, they might dive into the news about that.  If they’re interested in the environment, for example, pull up a few articles about the latest theories on global warming. Or if they’re into the stock market, read some of the financial news headlines.

the hardest question you'll be asked

I (this is Monica again, btw) believe the hardest question is also the easiest.  It’s this:

Tell me about yourself...

While there’s 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.

Quick example: Sam Jones was the Valedictorian of his high school class of 300. He’d made it to the semi-finals 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 like this:

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

I said to him, “Sam… You didn’t tell me that you were elected Prefect of the Honor Council! Or that you worked as an intern at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta! Or 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 that stuff.”

So I teach students a concept I call “The Silver Platter.” (Note from Ethan: This is similar to the Message Box, but you may like Monica’s metaphor even more—check it out.) I like for students to imagine they have a silver platter full of cupcakes 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. Identify your cupcakes. (So basically do what I, Ethan, am suggesting in the section called “Preparing For A College Interview: A Three-Step Process (With Two Practice College Interview Tips and Strategies!)”

Back to Sam. We (Monica and Sam) 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). That gave Sam three major bullet points to give an impressive yet succinct answer to “tell me about yourself.”

Keep in mind that, once you launch into the answer, you won’t be delivering a monologue. Once you get started, your interviewer will probably interrupt you and ask you questions. But the benefit of having prepared this answer is that you’ll have a structure of knowing where to begin. Once you highlight the three points you want to make and “preview” them for your interviewer, you can help her concentrate and anticipate where you’ll take her on your “story of you.”

What To Do If You Have No Idea How to Answer A Question

More than 90% of the questions will definitely be about you, and you’ll know the answer. But occasionally, there’s that one question that you simply can’t prepare for.

Example from Monica:

I once had a young lady come to me for the first time AFTER she’d had a disastrous interview. She was actually being interviewed by a panel of teachers at her own high school who were screening for the Jefferson scholarship at UVA.

Everything was going fine until one teacher asked her the following question:

“What do you think about the ideas of Betty Friedan?”

FYI: Betty Friedan was a very famous feminist who wrote a book called The Feminine Mystique. But she was famous in the 1960s! There was little reason that this 17 year old girl would have ever heard of her.

Nonetheless, the young lady pretended to know….and quickly buried herself in quicksand.

If you’re asked a question that you have absolutely no idea how to answer, the best answer is “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” And then you put your lips together and be quiet. I’m serious about that. Why? Because, within moments, the interviewer will move on to the next question and there will be no harm done.  

There are, however, a few very open ended college interview questions that need some thought but that you’re perfectly equipped to handle.

For example, I like to ask “What’s a problem that your generation faces?”

While that question isn’t necessarily about you, there’s certainly no wrong answer and there are so many ways to answer it. Is it global warming? Is it the clan mentality of our two party system? Is it a lack of general civility? Think about your value system—what do you care about? What worries you?

Quick note from Ethan: Here’s a list of values to help you decide, if you’re not sure. I also love to ask students: What really makes you mad?

And this may be obvious, but probably steer clear of hot button issues (gun control, abortion, etc.)

How to Not Sound Full of Yourself During the Interview

Hat tip to my colleague Shaun McElroy for this one!

When discussing your accomplishments, consider using “we” instead of “I.” For example, if the interviewer asks you about your favorite club or course, chances are you might want to say “I love robotics! Or “I adore history.” That’s fine. But consider following up with a more inclusive we part: "I love robotics because we have great group that works really well together….” or “I adore history. We have such interesting discussions. For example…”

What to Wear to a College Interview

For the college interview, you don’t have to dress up, but you don’t want to look sloppy either. Jeans are fine as long as they’re not torn and you wear a nice shirt on top. You don’t want to distract from your own message.

What to Take to a College Interview

Quick note from Ethan: No strong perfume or cologne either. Some folks are allergic.

The handshake is really important. It’s your first point of contact. I suggest that a nice firm handshake is always appropriate. You want to look your interviewer in the eye as you shake his hand.

I’m asked about eye contact a lot. I think kids worry about that too much. Think about it. When we’re asked a question, it’s normal to look away to think for a moment. In fact, the field of neurology has taught us that we tend to look up and to the left when we’re gathering a memory, particularly an honest one! Then, once we’ve gathered the thought, we return to the eyes of the interviewer to deliver the answer. We all do that quite naturally. But what I sometimes see is that some kids look away when an adult is speaking. I don’t know if it’s that they’re bored or intimidated, but it’s important to retain eye contact when the interviewer is speaking.

Try not to fidget.

Students shouldn’t twirl their hair or crack their knuckles or twist the paperclip they find in their pocket.

But gesturing is great—it’s perfectly fine to use your hands as you talk.

Generally, we say don’t worry too much about your body language. Concentrate on your content and the rest will follow naturally.

But if you're super interested in body language, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language offers some simple tips.

what to take to a college interview

A resume. While your interviewer may not require or ask for it, it can be useful, as interviewers can learn a lot about you in a 30-second scan and it can provide some great talking points. Also, if your interviewer has many interviews to do that day or writes up her interview report several days after you’ve met, having a resume handy can help remind her of what you talked about.

Also, it shows that you’re prepared and interested in the school. And keep in mind that the majority of interviewers will not have access to your application.

What to Do If You Get a Bad Interviewer

Not all university interview will go the way you anticipate. We hope they will be straightforward: “What’s your favorite class?” or “Tell me about your participation on the lacrosse team.” But in some cases your interviewer may not have prepared 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’s important that you know how to take control of the interview. Students often tell me that the interview went “fine,” but felt frustrated that they weren’t asked certain questions. The boy who was elected to the UNICEF Youth Board, for example, never had a chance to tell his interviewer how much he had learned about the global children’s crisis. Or the girl who had raised $20,000 for Alzheimer’s was only asked about her academics.

Cue the “The Silver Platter” or “Message Box” (same thing)! Take a look at Exercise 2 above on how you can practice segueing to your 3-4 items in your Message Box.

One more example: “What are you interested in studying in college?” can lead to “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.” The news industry calls this “pivoting” and you can pivot too.

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

How to Handle a Skype, FaceTime, or Phone Interview

Four quick tips and tricks for a Skype or FaceTime interview:

  1. Be sure you’ve got the right software downloaded well in advance and practice with it.

  2. Be aware where you’re looking. Often on Skype we don’t worry where we’re actually looking, but to really look like you’re looking at your interviewer, occasionally look directly into your computer camera. It feels weird, so you don’t have to maintain that—but doing so occasionally can increase the feeling of connectedness.

  3. If you’re using your phone, don’t hold it selfie-style the whole time. Prop it up somewhere.

  4. Lighting. If it’s day time, try sitting near a window—nothing looks better than good old-fashioned daylight. If it’s at night, spend 2-3 minutes setting up some decent lighting (could just be moving a lamp) so the interviewer can see your face. You might even practice the call with a friend or family member so you can get feedback on how you look.

For a phone interview, try doing it standing up. This energizes your voice. Sitting down on the phone makes some of us lazy speakers.

How Are Scholarship Interviews Different?

While the initial screenings are pretty much identical to regular admissions interviews, scholarship interviews often have a weekend component. In other words, the students are invited to the university over a weekend where they attend seminars and social events as well as interviews.

I explain to students that during those weekends they should assume that there is never a time when they aren’t being evaluated in some way.

For example, sometimes they are placed into groups and asked to solve problems. I don’t mean math problems, I mean usually challenges facing their generation. They are asked a question and asked to brainstorm about it. While they do so, they’re being observed.

What are the observers looking for? Things like creative thinking, sure, but they’re also looking for things like how well the student listens to other people’s ideas. Are they bombastic or do they behave in a collegial manner? Those things matter when you’re part of a tight-knit community of scholars.

Also, at social functions they may be having dinner with students who are a year or two older and already a part of the prestigious program. In those cases, it’s more important that the older students LIKE them than are impressed by them. So what’s the easiest way to become liked by someone quickly?

It’s called being charming rather than interesting.

How to Be Charming (Yes, Really)

By asking questions about the OTHER person. In other words, have you ever left a social event thinking “Wow, I really liked meeting that person!” If you did, ask yourself the follow up question “Why did I like him so much?” You might realize that it was because he asked lots of questions about YOU. THAT’s being charming.

What’s the best way to be interesting? Be interested.

We could probably put that on one of those “success” posters.

What Colleges Require Interviews

Protecting Yourself During Your College Interview

Interviews should be held in a public place such as a coffee shop. They should never happen at the interviewers home or hotel room. If the interviewer suggests that, just politely decline by saying “Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview, but I would feel more comfortable at X coffee shop.” And then inform your school counselor. Why? To be safe.

Always tell your school counselor you have an interview, where and when. Let them know how it goes.

Be wary of your interviewer “friending” you. If you receive a request, simply ignore it and inform your counselor.

What to Do After the Interview

I'll keep this simple. After the interview, email your interviewer a heart felt thank-you. This should include specifics (two or three points) of what you appreciated about them. That's it!

What Interviewers Report Back on You, the Interviewee

Here’s what Carnegie Mellon asks their interviewers to report back on (and I would say this is similar to other colleges and universities):

  • Why is the student considering Carnegie Mellon University and what academic program(s) is he/she interested in studying? Why? Include specific colleges and/or majors.

  • How will this student contribute to the Carnegie Mellon community?

  • Rate the student on a scale of 1-4 (4 being highest).

    • Enthusiasm

  • Rate the student on a scale of 1-4 (4 being highest).

    • Self Confidence

  • Rate the student on a scale of 1-4 (4 being highest).

    • Ability to Communicate

Yale shares a couple of sample write ups here.

Penn states:

Always endeavor to answer the following three questions:

  • What is the student like?

  • What does the student like?

  • What would the student be like at Penn?

They have a template they want their alumni to follow when they report:

What qualities or characteristics of this applicant would help them to be successful at Penn? (3-5 sentences in the box below, for example…)

  • Do you think the student would be engaged in the classroom and involved in the community?

  • Did they share a compelling personal story or exhibit interesting ways of thinking?

  • How might they have an impact on campus as a classmate, roommate, teammate, leader, peer, etc.?

Which academic and extracurricular topics were of greatest interest to the student? (3-5 sentences in the box below, for example…)

  • Did they describe any of their favorite classes, projects, or activities?

  • What were some of their most formative academic or extracurricular activities?

  • Did the student express any long-term academic, professional, or personal goals?

In what ways do the student’s interests, talents, and goals align with opportunities available at Penn? (3-5 sentences in the box below, for example…)

  • Why did this student choose to apply to Penn, and to their intended school, program, or major?

  • Did they speak to any specific features of Penn’s community or programs?

  • Did they speak to any unique qualities of the university that they found compelling?

What is your overall or “bottom line” assessment of this candidate’s potential impact at Penn? Please be candid, sharing any relevant examples to support your assessment.  

If this student applied to a coordinated dual degree or specialized program, please describe their fit for this specific program, in addition to their potential academic fit with Penn in general. No response is required for single-degree applicants (College, Engineering, Nursing, Wharton).

Dartmouth has sample reports that give you insight on what they report out on.

The school looks at at these categories:

  1. Intellectual Engagement and Curiosity

  2. Commitment and Personal Motivation in Activities

  3. Character

  4. Then they ask for a summary.

  5. And finally an overall rating:

  • Outstanding: A rare individual; superior; truly distinctive within a strong applicant pool.

  • Highly Desirable: A very appealing candidate with notable academic and personal strengths. One who possesses special talent in one or more areas and who will contribute significantly to the College.

  • Desirable: A generally strong candidate who likely would be a positive addition to the student body and who should contribute to the life of the College.

  • Acceptable: Shows promise of academic success and personal development with no significant weaknesses. Like many others.

  • Acceptable with reservations: Shows some strengths and potential as a Dartmouth candidate but with reservations noted above.

  • Not Recommended: Does not present the overall academic promise or personal strengths expected of a Dartmouth student for the reasons expressed above.

And can also be found here in blog post version.



That’s it.

Now go rock that interview and, if you like, let me know how it went in the comments below.