Several years ago, at a USC counselor conference, we read applications submitted by the previous year’s freshmen applicants. One of the files included a report written by an interviewer, who described the prospective student as “boring.” It was jarring to see a respected admissions officer label this student a dud. But even more surprising was the fact that the student was admitted.
How could this happen? The truth is that interviews have little impact on admissions decisions. The “boring” student had strong recommendations, and a teacher who has seen a student every day is in a much better position to judge how the student will contribute to the college community than an interviewer who has spent a half hour with him. Admissions directors understand that well-qualified students can be extremely anxious and may not come across well in an interview, and sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right between a student and interviewer.
Knowing that it won’t make or break your application should help students feel more relaxed about interviews. Schools that do offer evaluative interviews generally use them to confirm the information in other parts of the application. Sure, there are things you can do in an interview that will tank your application, like spouting racist views. Admissions officers think about how you’ll interact with roommates, so likeability certainly is a plus. But if boring an admissions officer doesn’t keep you out of a school like USC, you can probably feel confident that you aren’t likely to ruin your chances if you’re nervous and not at your best.
Of course, the fact that interviews aren’t a major factor in admissions decisions means that having a great interview won’t get you into a school. But it’s possible that if it came down to two similarly well-qualified students, and one had formed a bond with an admissions officer during an interview, that admissions officer might be more inclined to advocate for that student in an admissions committee meeting. So you do want to make the most of the opportunity.
Being prepared will lower your anxiety level and help you create a better interview experience. Have some clear ideas about your strengths, interests and goals that you can communicate during the meeting. Be ready to talk about how you plan to pursue your academic interests at the school.
Interviews are usually optional, and only worth having if you’ve done your research. Alumni from Columbia University interview prospective students, and they are passionate about the Core Curriculum, one of the distinguishing features of Columbia. If you’re not familiar with it, the message you’re communicating is that you’re not interested enough to find out the most basic information about the school. That’s a wasted interview.
Have several questions prepared so that when the interviewer asks if you have any questions, you’re ready to communicate a real interest in the school. You should be seeking information that isn’t obvious from the website. If you ask an interviewer about the school’s business major and they don’t offer business, you don’t come across as a serious candidate. It’s fine to ask what students do on weekends, but it’s also a good idea to ask about specific academic programs, especially those that are unique to that school.
If you approach the interview as a conversation, where you and the interviewer are exchanging information, it can actually be enjoyable. It’s not about this person holding the power to deny you, as the USC case makes clear. By engaging the interviewer in a dialogue, you’re more in control of the interview. The more you initiate conversation, the less time the interviewer will have to ask you questions. If the interviewer is an alumna of the school, ask about her experiences. Not only will you get valuable information about the school, but when you show an interest in other people, they’re much less likely to find you boring.