Interview Tips from an MIT Educational Counselor by Kim Hunter '86
Thoughts on how to prepare for your alumni interview
Please note that, as of August 2018, our process for assigning interviews has changed (though Kim’s observations on the interview and our interviewers remain helpful). A description of the current interview process is posted here.
I was an interviewer myself for many years before leading the Educational Council but think it would be helpful for you to hear some advice from a current interviewer named Nikki Springer. Here are some suggestions she has for you as you prepare for your interview:
I can’t believe I graduated from MIT 10 years ago! Each time I am lucky enough to be back on campus it immediately feels like home, and I remember my own interview like it was yesterday. I’ve been an EC for six years and have interviewed 50+ applicants in the places work and life have taken me: Bentonville, Arkansas, Springfield, Missouri, Seattle, Shanghai, and New Haven, CT. I’m currently working on a joint MBA/PhD in Environmental Management at Yale and have been the Regional Coordinator for the New Haven, CT area for the past three years.
Like most ECs, I LOVE interviewing applicants. It’s a unique and amazing way to stay connected to MIT and the students I meet are inspiring in so many different ways. Everyone at MIT genuinely wants your interview experience to be as low-stress and rewarding as possible, and to that regard, I’ve put together a list of tips for applicants based on interviews I have conducted. Remember that every interview will be unique, and that is what MIT wants, but these suggestions should help to alleviate a bit of nervousness regardless of where, when, and with whom your interview is with.
1. Don’t wait until the last minute to contact us.
ECs know that the college application season is a stressful and busy time for applicants and that sometimes it can be hard to find a convenient time and place for your interview which is why the admissions office has deadlines for contacting your EC. While most of the applicants I have interviewed contact me before the deadlines, there is always a small rush of requests right before (or right after) the deadline. It’s in your best interest not to be part of that rush. If circumstances lead you to a last-minute request for an interview, try to be especially flexible in your availability, as your EC also has to scramble to accommodate you and have time to write your report before the application deadline.
2. Be nice in your emails – first impressions count.
Your EC only has a very limited amount of time to get to know you and make a recommendation about you. This includes the email (or phone) communication to set up the interview. The vast majority of applicants are perfectly nice in their communication, but I’ve had a few experiences with applicants who are curt, demanding, or rude in their emails, or applicants who fail to demonstrate any sort of command of the English language, and I don’t hesitate to include that in my interview report. Remember that part of what ECs look for are NICE people, and this includes people who are nice in their correspondence. This is especially true if you are contacting your EC at the last minute and asking to be quickly accommodated. (See #1)
3. Dress nicely – but not too nicely.
ECs know that the students we interview are real kids, and that is what we expect. I’ve interviewed students in three-piece suits with their hair slicked back and a briefcase under their arm – they look sharp, but overdressed. This is not an interview for a Wall Street bank. I’ve also interviewed students who look like they have just rolled out of bed after a night of too much fun. If you shouldn’t wear it to the grocery store, you shouldn’t wear it to your college interview. It’s perfectly ok to wear the same clothes you wore to school that day, whether that is a uniform with a blazer, your team jersey and sneakers, or jeans and a non-offensive t-shirt.
4. Bring something cool.
I always encourage the students I interview to bring something they are proud of to share with me. I have had applicants bring editions of their school newspaper or literary magazines that have articles they have written, laptops to show me websites they have built or movies they have made, engineering projects they are tinkering with when they should be doing homework, and yearbooks that include photos or layouts they have worked on. It often seems to help break the ice when we have something physical to discuss, and it makes you, the applicant, much more memorable to us, especially when we have a number of interviews in a short period of time.
If you do bring a “show-and-tell” object, though, make sure you are prepared to talk about it. Being able to present and discuss your work will be a huge and important skill in college and beyond, and presenting something cool to your EC is a great opportunity to practice. Remember that your EC may or may not have any idea about the fields you are most interested in (or they may be an expert!!), so prepare for both scenarios. Being able to explain something to someone outside of your field is critical as you begin applying for grants, fellowships, or pitching projects to clients. We call this the “grandmother test” – can you explain your highly technical work to your grandmother in a way that she will understand? Of course, if your grandmother went to MIT than that question takes on a whole new meaning… It certainly isn’t a requirement that you bring anything, but if you have something special to share, I highly recommend it.
Note – if you are formally submitting artwork or other materials in conjunction with your application, the interview is not a substitute for that. Feel free to bring and/or share these things with your EC, but make sure you also follow instructions from the admissions office about how to officially submit that material.
5. Every interview will be different, and there is no “right” answer.
Hopefully you know this already, but ECs don’t have a standard set of questions we ask each applicant. There are no math problems to solve and there is no way to ‘study’ for the interview. Each EC has his/her own style and each interview will have its own vibe. Don’t rely on friends or classmates to tell you what their interview was like – yours will be different. Some interviews flow naturally as a conversation, while others take on a more traditional question and answer format. Either is ok and not a judgment on the applicant. If you are asked a series of questions, however, avoid one-word answers – the more in-depth and genuine the information you provide us is, the better our report will be.
The best way to prepare for an interview is to review the things that YOU want to talk about. I often ask the applicants I interview “What else would you like the admissions office to know about you?” This is a great opportunity for you to fill in and round out your application with information that doesn’t seem to fit elsewhere, but only if you come prepared to share that with us. Make sure you feel confident answering probably the two most common interview questions: (1) Why do you want to go to MIT? And (2) Tell me about yourself.
6. It’s ok to Google us. But not too much.
ECs know we are part of the digital world and social media. It’s no surprise that most applicants I interview have Googled me and know a bit about my major, year of graduation, that I completed my master’s at the “other” school in Cambridge, etc. If you can smoothly work in some questions regarding our background, more power to you, but don’t feel the need to compare yourself to us, and don’t dwell on our own backgrounds. However, avoid questions that ask us to directly compare MIT to another institution that we may have attended, regardless of whether or not you may be submitting an application there as well. Also, please refrain from sending us friend requests on Facebook and/or connection requests on Linked In during the application cycle. I’ve known applicants and ECs who have become friends and/or kept in touch for many years, but it’s best to wait until after the application decisions have been made before continuing this relationship.
7. Don’t bring paperwork – most ECs take notes.
ECs are not supposed to know your grades or test scores, or see recommendation letters from teachers or coaches. Our assessment of your application is to be based only on our interview experience with you. Most ECs will take notes during the interview, and that is to be expected, but please refrain from bringing copies of transcripts, test scores, and the like. Some students bring a small resume/CV with a listing of extra-curricular activities, which is fine (but not required), but please remove any grades or test scores before your interview.
8. Come prepared with questions for us.
The interview is really more of a two-way conversation than a formal interview, and we are happy to answer questions from students. Feel free to ask us about the classes we took, how we decided what to major in, where we lived, our activities, if we missed home, etc. Keep in mind that every EC is different and that things at the Institute continue to change, so no two MIT experiences are completely alike, but we wouldn’t be ECs if we didn’t enjoy sharing our own MIT experiences. If you do ask questions, however, make sure they are intelligent ones that show you have done at least a little bit of research on MIT. You don’t need to know everything about the UROP program, for example, but a question like “Are there any opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research?” tells us you have hardly looked at the website. Just like you wouldn’t go to a job interview and ask what the company does, don’t come to your MIT interview and ask overly simplistic questions. This is a time for you to help learn whether MIT might be a good fit for you, so help yourself make the most of it.
9. Try not to be too nervous – but we understand if you are.
Every EC knows that the college application process is a stressful one, and that all applicants are nervous during the interview. It’s ok – if you weren’t nervous at all, we would likely think you were either (1) overly confident; or (2) not that interested in MIT. My advice is not to let it get the best of you. If you are asked a question and need a moment to think before you respond, that’s ok. If you start to ramble and realize you are off on a tangent, that’s ok – pause for a minute, smile, and start again. I would rather an applicant tell me upfront “I’m really nervous,” than to try to hide it and stammer through the interview. Remember that all ECs, regardless of our age, background, or occupation, are all volunteering to conduct interviews because we believe that MIT is an amazing place and we want to help the next generation of MIT students succeed.