I looked my interviewer in the eye, blinking away sweat from my forehead and trying not to cringe from the terrible aftertaste of the iced tea we both ordered. It was 95 degrees and we were both slowly fusing into the cast iron chairs that were only bearable because they were in something that resembled shade.
After a breezy but sweaty 45 minutes of gabbing about everything from data visualization to volunteering to the perks of living in the Bay Area, we reached a sudden lull.
“So, do you have any questions for me?”
I came prepared but wasn’t expecting to learn anything new. After all, I had pretty much memorized the admissions blogs and application info, and had a working knowledge of all the course numbers.
I asked him what he did as an undergrad. Gilbert and Sullivan, lots of chemical engineering, and oh, a fraternity. I tried to stifle a laugh upon the discovery of MIT greek life (but here I am, in a sorority and eating my words two years later).
Next. What was his favorite class? What did he recommend I do as a freshman? What were some events and programs I couldn’t miss? All a blur now, but I distinctly remember him describing a solution to a chemical engineering problem that involved dozens of golf balls. (As of today, that is still the extent of my chemical engineering knowledge.)
And our conversation reached a natural end after an hour and a half. We walked in opposite directions, happy that we met each other, and happy that we could throw away the remaining two-thirds of the iced tea we tried not to drink.
Some of you might be having your first (or eighth) college interviews — and I know it’s hard. Exactly two years ago I had mine for MIT, and I had no idea what I was doing coming into it.
What should I wear? Should I have a notebook? Should I bring my resume? Should I show off my knowledge about the college? Should I show off my knowledge in general? Should I order coffee or tea?
In the end, these were all questions that were nice to have answered in advance, but they never came up directly.
First, some words of wisdom from an Educational Counselor, a recent graduate who is currently enjoying sunny Berkeley:
The number one thing is to be yourself. Take it seriously, but not too seriously. I’ve had interviewees over-prepare, and interviewees who did not give it any though. Realize that the ECs are there to find out who you are as an individual so they can relay that experience to the admissions committee.
A college interview is an experience. Remember that the interviewer doesn’t know anything about you beyond what they may have gathered from a transcript or very basic info — and the interviewer is human too. Even if you know you only have 90 minutes or less to make a great impression on someone, it is unlikely you would immediately launch into a listing of your greatest accomplishments in descending order. Treat your interview the same way!
There are a lot of things that can come out during an interview beyond the straightforward answers you can give to the basic getting-to-know-you questions. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Think about your accomplishments and what you are most proud of. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t talk about something you worked on during high school for at least 3-5 minutes, it’s hard to tell whether or not that was really an important experience to you or just resume filler.
- While preparing, think about why you did the things you did in high school and how they are meaningful to you. In general, what is meaningful to you?
- Think about what are you interested in learning and how what you’ve done reflects that. Or if it’s something new to you, express your curiosity and reasons for looking into a new field.
- Use every opportunity to show off traits that might not come through on a resume. If you are curious, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you are funny, let it show! If you and your interviewer both happen to follow theoretical astrophysics, well… you’ll have a ball.
- Use the interview as an opportunity to learn more about the school from someone who has had very unique experiences. They might have fantastic advice for you or point you towards trying something new!
- Thank your interviewer after your interview and possibly with an email or a nice card. (It doesn’t hurt!)
And don’t sweat it. The interview is one piece of a large picture of you a college is trying to put together, and unless that piece is missing or is incredibly offensive… it probably won’t ruin the image as a whole. :)