prepare for the college interview

How to Prepare for the College Interview

You’ve applied to your favorite colleges. Maybe a few require a face-to-face interview. How do you prepare for the college interview? Need some advice?

Former college intern and Guided Self Assessment alumna, Kristina Zhang, put together this great information based on her experiences with the college interview process. Let’s hear what she has to say, and they’ll we share some final thoughts at the end.


Interviews are usually pretty laid back. I would say dressing business casual is a really safe bet. Jeans, depending on the location of the interview are also potentially acceptable. For a few interviews, I had to go to my interviewer’s place of work. In those situations business causal is the best option.

Men: A nice dress shirt (no tie), polo, sweater, and khakis, sometimes jeans

Women: A nice blouse or shirt, nice trouser like pants or dark jeans. Dresses are fine, but I would try to avoid them, because modesty standards vary from person to person.

Note from At The Core: we might suggest that business casual is always a safe bet. You can’t be sure how the interviewer will react to jeans.


Allow the interviewer to initiate the handshake. If you arrive first and are already seated when your interviewer arrives, make sure to stand while shaking his/her hand and make introductions before sitting down. (Our image with this blog fails to do that!). Handshake etiquette is quite important, and is the first step of a first impression. Make sure to maintain eye contact when handshaking. The handshake should last the duration of a short greeting such as, “Ms. Jones, it’s a pleasure to meet you”. Make sure your grip is firm but not crushing.

During the interview, maintain eye contact and an open posture. Align your shoulders with those of the interviewer. Keep both feet flat on the floor, sit straight, don’t fidget, and avoid putting your hands in your lap. Instead place your hands on either the armrest or the table.

Most importantly smile every so often during the interview! It creates a more personable vibe.


I recommend bringing a small notebook and pen to take notes with. The interviewer is not only trying to gauge your personality. He/she is also trying to sell their alma mater to you. Jot down qualities of the institution you find special or things that stand out every once in a while. This will let the interviewer know that you are interested in their school.

Make sure you do some research prior to your interview. One of my Northwestern classmates during his interview mispronounced the name of the journalism school, which he was applying to. Needless to say, the rest of the interview was quite awkward after the interviewer corrected him. Look up the various programs and activities of the institution and inquire about them during the interview. Understand the academic structure of the institution so you have a better understanding of what the interviewer is describing when they talk about academics. Prepare some questions to ask during and after the interview. Remember the interviewer was once a student too. Don’t be too apprehensive about asking questions about campus life. During my Northwestern interview, which I thought was my best, I asked my interviewer about the party culture of the school and its prevalence. It made the entire interview much more relaxed and personal, and it gave me more insight about the school, which ultimately helped me make my decision.


Make sure you can answer these questions, and make sure you really think about them. They will not only help you understand yourself better, but will also help with interviewing.

  • Why are you going to college?
  • What do you want to get out of college?
  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
  • Why do you want to go to ________?

Other questions that may pop up:

What are you interested in majoring in? If you are undecided, it’s perfectly fine. Entering college, most students are. Instead tell about your interests, and potential majors that may interest you. If you are decided, tell them why you are interested in the major of your choice.

What can you contribute to ___X___ University?
What makes you stand out? Why are you different than all the other applicants? What can you offer that others can’t? This question is your chance to stand out among all the applicants.

What is your greatest weakness? For this question, a lot of people try to come up with a masked strength. Something like, “I am too much of a perfectionist, I need to be more satisfied with almost perfect” or “I always try do too many things at once. I need to delegate more.” Interviewers can see right through these responses.

Instead, say something you genuinely need to improve on like, “I’m a little disorganized” or “I tend to procrastinate.” Then, list the things you are doing to improve your weaknesses.

Some others:

  • What is your greatest strength?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What’s your favorite book and why?
  • What are your favorite subjects in school?
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What achievement makes you the proudest?
  • What kind of learner are you?
  • Talk about a time when you failed.
  • What extracurriculars are you involved in?
  • What are you passionate about?

Thanks Kristina for the great info!

When interviewing for a specific program or major, the bottom line is being able to convey why THAT school and why YOU.

Let’s use a medical school interview as our example. How do you know based on your experiences, that being a doctor is right for you and how did you arrive at this answer? Why not a different “helping” profession like nursing? Are you motivated by your wishes or those of another (like a parent)? The all important “why” needs to be more than “I want to help people.” Yes, that but what else?

Be able to discuss your strengths (empathy, grit, maturity, drive, ability to handle a challenge) with examples. You need to do more than simply say “I have empathy.” You have to give an example of when you demonstrated a strength. You want to show you have the maturity with your behavior and your questions/interaction to handle the work. Tell stories about your experiences as evidence of the point you are making.

An interesting question that may come up is aimed at evaluating your ethics. What would you do if a classmate was cheating? Spend a moment thinking about that.

Ideally, you will be able to discuss your experiences. Having those will make the interview easier because you will have actual examples to talk about. Examples of experiences include volunteering, job shadowing, career camps, career tech, special academic programs, etc.

Practice, practice, practice!

Being skilled in interviewing does not come naturally to the majority of people (especially teens)! It is a skill that needs to be practiced. Start practicing with a parent. Up the challenge with another trusted adult like a teacher or coach.

Finally, let’s end with some out-of-the box ACTUAL questions admissions counselors have used with their interviewees? (Some are a little strange!)

  • If you could talk to your 8th grade self, what would you tell them?
  • What do you care about?
  • If you did not HAVE to study or work, and had all the time/money in the world, what would you like to do?
  • What’s the thing you did/participated in high school (academic or extracurricular) that you’re the most proud of?
  • What is the best mistake you have made? Favorite failure? What did you learn from the experience?
  • If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be? Why?
  • What brings a smile to your face and tear to your eye?
  • Tell me something your application doesn’t state about you.
  • Breakfast food: sweet or savory?
  • If you could be anything found in a kitchen, what would you be and why?
  • How should we decide who to admit from amongst all of the great candidates for admission?
  • How are you different today from your first day of high school?
  • If you could take a class on anything for a semester, what would you want to learn?
  • If you were going to make as much money as you needed to be happy, what would be your dream job?
  • What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? (This one is just silly…Any Monty Python fans out there?)

Pineapple on pizza?

  • Does pineapple belong on pizza?
  • If you were TIME magazine’s Person of the Year twenty years from now, what would it be for?
  • How would your best friend describe you?
  • Discuss a current event with me.
  • If you could chose only one person to write the ideal recommendation on your behalf, who would you chose, why would you chose that person, and what do YOU think that person would say about you?
  • If Hollywood were to make a movie of your life, who would play you, and why?
  • Towards the end…Is there something I didn’t ask you about that you wish I had?
  • If you had to identify yourself as part of bike, which part would you be and why? (Hmm…)
  • What’s the thing that you cannot shut up about when talking to friends and family?
  • Why are you applying/going to college?
  • Describe your favorite color to somebody who is blind and has never seen before.
  • Tell me a joke.
  • If you didn’t go to college, what would you do?
  • How do you want to make an impact in today’s world or what problem to you want to solve?
  • What’s more important: effort or results and why?
  • If you could be a musical instrument, what would it be?
  • Teach me something.

What a list! (We found these courtesy of Facebook.)

The theme seems to be just have a conversation. Be open. Be prepared to share about yourself so they can learn more about you than what they read on your application.

Does answering the question “tell me about yourself” send your student into a panic? Are they struggling to answer some of these questions about strengths, interests, weaknesses, and future plans? Guided Self Assessment is a perfect tool to support your student. We can help.

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