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Pretend your college interviewer is grandma's friend

[This is my Local Living section column for June 24, 2010.]

My first college interview was a disaster.

It was a long time ago, so the details are, thankfully, vague. I was not being questioned by college officials, exactly, but by representatives of a prestigious summer program run by the Telluride Association. My counselor promised that the program would raise my academic skills to a new level and look good on my applications.

Unfortunately, no one told me how to prepare for such an interrogation. There were many strained silences. It was so painful, I was relieved when the rejection letter arrived.

It took me a while to realize how helpful that experience had been. Similar practice interviews would be good for students today. Right after that embarrassing failure to communicate, I knew I should have read more about the program and thought of some questions for the interviewers before I went in. I should have considered what there was about me that might impress them, and think of ways to talk about that without sounding conceited.

Having been burned the first time, I was better the second time and the third, when I began to do interviews with admissions officers at colleges I wanted to attend. These days, interviews are usually required or recommended only at very selective colleges, so the pressure is intense. For 20 years, I was a volunteer interviewer for one of those colleges, trying to get the interviewees to calm down. A little thought, and maybe practice with a friend or parent, can help. Even more important is your attitude going in.

The point of the interview is to show that you are a good person and that you are polite and interesting and have a sense of humor about yourself and the unnerving admissions process. That means you have to be, as you have been told many times, yourself, which is not so easy in those circumstances.

My favorite piece of advice for nervous interviewees is to pretend that you are not at a college interview, but at your grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. One of her good friends, a woman you don’t know, is sitting next to you at the dinner table. She asks some friendly questions. You have fun answering, and ask her some questions, too. Do the interview in that spirit, and your best self will emerge.

The college already knows how smart you are and how much you have done after school. You don’t have to repeat all of that stuff — unless you are asked, of course.

Good interviewers will explore subjects that might reveal something interesting and impressive that you might not have put on your application. One applicant told me, when I noted his interest in journalism, that he had started an underground newspaper at his school because the official student paper was so boring. He thought that was too undignified to mention on his application, but I loved it.

It is true that one purpose of the interview is to make sure there isn’t something deeply twisted about you that you did not mention on the application and that your school is barred from telling colleges under a threat of a lawsuit by your parents.

We interviewers, it turns out, are not very good at unearthing such stuff. Newspapers later revealed that interviewers for my alma mater failed to discern that one admitted student had murdered her mother and that another successful applicant had made up almost everything in his résumé.

If you get some weird questions, answer them with a smile. Be daring. Confess to an academic or personal failing. Express a contrarian political view. Just make sure you have a good, specific answer for why that particular college would be good for you, and the rest will take care of itself.

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By Jay Mathews  | June 23, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  express an contrarian political view, handling college interviews, make a joke, pretend the interviewer is a friend of grandma, take risks, think of some questions beforehand  
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If I had to undergo a college interview, I would treat it more like a job interview and I would be doing a lot of the questioning. I would ask both probing and pragmatic questions like "What difference will your college make for me when I go looking for a job?"

Another question might be: "Why do some students leave your college without getting a degree?" And how about, "What percentage and why do students at your college change majors?"

Go into a college interview all business and the interviewer will definitely remember you and respect your mature view of your future.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | June 24, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

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