It’s college application season again and I’m doing two alumni interviews this afternoon with high school students who are hoping to get into my alma mater. I just got off the phone with one very nervous-sounding mom.
Applying for college is stressful for young adults. And, apparently, that much more stressful for their parents.
“You have no idea, Jennifer,” said one friend, whose son is now a first year college student.
I remember how nervous I was doing my own college applications. College application season was nerve-racking as heck. I’ve also seen my husband’s cousins and my little sister go through the process (Dad, I’m glad you didn’t have a heart attack!), and I’ve written dozens of letters of recommendation for young people, including one for our neighbor/babysitter/research assistant who I’ve known since she moved in across the street when she was twelve.
As much as I believe that kids want to get into good schools and as much as I know it’s harder than ever, there are some simple steps teens can take to present themselves in the best light possible during a college interview.
4 Tips to Ace Your College Application and College Interview
1. Know why you want to go: Even if it’s not your first choice school, you need to have some compelling reasons for applying. If you don’t, why are you spending money on the application fee and wasting your and your interviewer’s time? I always ask, why are you considering this school? Answers like, “Because my father went there,” or “Because my parents wanted me to,” or “because it’s an Ivy League,” aren’t good enough. Answer’s like, “Because there’s a strong art program and I can combine my interest in design with my interest in science,” and “Because it’s a big school with so many educational opportunities and I have a myriad of interests and I don’t think I’d be happy at a smaller Ivy League,” and “Because I really want to work with Professor X and Professor Y, who are both in the Psychology Department, and I’m thinking of studying children and autism in graduate school,” make an interviewer take notice. If you want to do well on your college application and your interviews, know why you are applying in the first place.
2. Be honest: It’s really a mistake to answer questions with canned responses that you think the interviewer wants to hear. You have to be honest and be yourself. Like editors, interviewers can tell right away when you’re withholding something or not telling the whole truth. I interviewed one promising young woman once who evaded the first five questions I asked her. There was nothing tricky about my questions (I asked things like, so what are your favorite subjects in school? And she responded, “Do I have to answer that?”) I left the interview feeling like I did not know her at all, and wondering what she had to hide.
3. Show your strengths but don’t pretend you have no weaknesses: No one likes a braggart but everyone likes to share success. Interviewers are eager to learn as much about you as possible. But when you are perfect in every way (school president, graduating with honors, head of the debate team, head of the cello club, lead singer in every musical in the last three years) it starts to feel pat (see #2). There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m not sure what I want to study in college, but I’m thinking about math or maybe animal husbandry.” There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I haven’t been as involved in X as I would like. I’m hoping to change that when I go to college, and I’m excited there are opportunities to do so.”
4. Be curious: An interviewer will always ask, at some point, “Do you have any questions for me?” Since this question is inevitable, make sure to have some questions! Genuine ones, not ones that you already know the answer to. You could ask, for example, “What did you like least about your school?” or “What kind of student do you think thrives most at your college?” or “What were your favorite classes and how did you find out about them?” This way you’ll learn, really, if the school is the right one for you.
Applying to college and worried you won’t get in? Read these two recent college application admissions essays. One helped a student gain early admission to Smith. Another helped a student get a Ford Foundation scholarship.
Published: January 11, 2013
Updated: January 11, 2020