CBO - Summer 2019

What every student needs to know to prepare for Admissions Interviews

For students applying to small, liberal arts colleges in the United States, it is likely that they will complete at least one admissions interview. For Canadians, this will either take place on an online medium like Skype, or with a local alumni of the university. First, there are a few facts you should know about interviews.

1. Many admissions offices cannot interview all students who have applied. If a student has not been extended an interview, it doesn’t mean the university is not interested. Especially as an international student, it could just boil down to resources and availability.

2. Interviews are only one part of the holistic admissions process. However, they may be the only opportunity to turn an application into a real person. The impression a student makes matters.

3. If a student plans on visiting a campus, they may be able to schedule an in-person interview with admissions.

Now, let’s talk about how to prepare and what to expect for your interview.

Preparing for Interview Questions with Talking Points

The questions that a student receives don’t really matter. What matters is if they were able to articulate all of their talking points. If a student gets a question that they are struggling with, they can always reframe it to pivot more towards something that they wanted to talk about. This is a skill that I suggest your students practice with you or a parent.

1. Have the student make a list of the Top 5 most important things that they want to discuss during the interview. These are the things that they definitely want admissions to walk away with at the end of the meeting. These are talking points.

2. Give students a list of common questions for them to practice. Remember the goal is for the admissions team is to determine if the student is a good fit for their campus, so their questions will reflect this. The student should practice inserting talking points into their answers.

  • Why are you interested in this university?
  • Why are you interested in the major that you have chosen?
  • How will you contribute to our campus community? 
  • What do you plan to do after university?
  • What are your three greatest strengths? (Or some version of describing your best qualities)
  • What is your greatest weakness? (Or some version of showing self-understanding of your failures or inadequacies)
  • Outside of academics, what is most important to you?
  • What achievement are you most proud of?

3. Set up a mock interview with the student. Choose some questions and do not to share them with the student ahead of time. Throw the student some curve balls as well to practice answering strange questions under pressure. For example, “What three things would you bring to a deserted island?” or “What author would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?”

The good news about curve ball questions is that they are a great space to bring in talking points. Encourage students to pre-think of objects that represent something important to them or people that reflect their values.

4. Students should practice being descriptive, but concise, aiming for about three minutes with their answers, with a strong cap of five minutes.

5. Look up if the university has interview prep tips or sample questions on their web page. Most universities call the interview a “conversation,” and encourage students to treat it less formally than an interview.

6. The student should create a list of questions that they want to ask the interviewer. For alumni interviewers, they probably really loved their university experience to offer to do interviews, so make sure they ask them about it!

Choosing a location for in-person interviews

Most local interviewers will simply give a time and place of an interview. If they let the student suggest a location, the local library or community center can be an excellent place for your interview, especially if you can reserve a private conference or study room. A coffee shop, book store, or other local meeting place can be a good second choice. Just remind the student not to feel pressured to buy something. The focus should be on the interview, not on being a customer.

During communications to set-up the interview, the student needs to be responsive and write complete and formal emails.

Tips for Arriving at the Interview

1. Students should dress appropriately and comfortably. Most universities suggest that students wear something that they would to “Picture Day” at school. So, a slightly elevated, casual.

2. Whether online or in person, the student should be early!

3. If the interview is occurring in a busy public place, the student should make sure that they have worked out with the interviewer how they will find each other. Meet at a specific landmark? Carrying something with the university’s insignia?

Admissions officers vs. alumni

Interviewing with admissions officers is really different than with alumni. Expect an admissions officer to have a more formal group of questions and pacing. Since they interview many students, they are using this time to draw contrasts and comparisons. Preparing three minute responses to talking points, as described above, will give a student very solid preparation. Expect them to be very prompt with the timing of your interview.

Interviews with alumni are much less predictable. The alumnus may be in any discipline and could have graduated recently or 50 years ago. They may have a lot of experience interviewing or they may have very little. Many will treat the interview like a conversation and may not get through many of their pre-written questions. They also may not stick to the assigned length of the interview, so make sure you don’t schedule something else immediately afterwards.

The 50/50 Ratio

The student should talk 50% of the time and the interviewer should talk the other 50% of the time. A great way to do this is for the student to follow up an answer to a question with a question of their own. For example, the student just answered “How will you contribute to the campus community?” They can follow up with “What were your favorite activities that you got involved with on campus?”

Adjusting to Alumni Interviewers

1. The interview begins the moment the student receives the first email from the interviewer. Tips for responding: Be prompt and respectful. Use honorifics like Dr., Mr., or Ms. To avoid a lot of back and forth, give several date and time availability choices to the interviewer, so they can schedule easily. Provide a cell phone number, in case of emergency.

2. When a student meets their interviewer, they will probably start with “small talk.” The student should feel bold enough to steer the small talk into some of the questions that you wanted to ask the interviewer anyways. After spending a couple minutes commenting on the weather or last night’s hockey game, if the interviewer hasn’t started asking more personal questions, the student can jump in and do so.

  • What did you major in at university?
  • Where are you working now?
  • What was your career path?
  • How long have you lived in this city?
  • What was the admissions process like when you applied? Did you have an interview?

3. If the conversation is unfolding informally or the interviewer is taking up much of the speaking time and the student should feel empowered to pivot the conversation in order to get in some of their talking points. Here’s a tactful example of how they can accomplish this: “I’ve noticed that we only have about 15 minutes remaining and I want to make sure to respect your time. Do you mind if I tell you little about a project that is really important me and inspired my interest in [intended major] or [intended career]?” It is guaranteed that they will say yes!

4. A student should show genuine interest in what information the interviewer has to give and be genuinely grateful for their time. At the least, the interviewer volunteered their time to give this interview. At the most, they could end up being a fellow alumnus and potential mentor.

5. Follow up with a Thank You note. Email is absolutely fine, but the student can mail it to them if they have been given the interviewer’s address.

By Jenika Heim


Have more questions?

EducationUSA Canada supports students through the application process, including mock interview practice. If you have questions, contact Jenika Heim at ottawa@educationusa.info.

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Contact Donna Billey for more information at 1-888-634-5556 x103 or donna@mzpinc.ca.