As a member of the Alumni Interview Committee for the University of Pennsylvania, I can confidently say that I’ve seen and held all manners of interviews and have filed reports back to my Alma Mater ranging from a “Definitely Accept! S/he will thrive here!” to a “Unfortunately, I do not think s/he would make a great fit.” And more often than not, the final decision made by the school in question will match the report made by the original interviewer. Now, before you jump to conclusions, I need to clarify that interviewers are not the gatekeepers – the program admissions officers are. But as I always tell prospective students at the start of the interview, while the person holding the interview does not hold the keys to opening that door, they can choose how hard they want to knock on it!
So what are interviewers looking for in a candidate? How do you ensure your interview goes well? Here are the top 10 tips and tricks that have had a huge impact on making or breaking interviews I’ve conducted in the past:
- Display Confidence, Not Arrogance - Have a firm handshake and be able to look the interviewer straight in the eye. Show confidence in your body language, but make sure it is not arrogant! This may sound cliché, but it is especially true if athletic performances are in question. Plenty of NCAA Division 1 college coaches have said this grabs their interest from the get-go as they want to sign athletes who are ambitious, confident, and not afraid to take on challenges. Even if your aspiration is not athletic in nature, being able to show these qualities will make you a more attractive candidate. If the interview is online, you can modify this approach by making sure that your webcam is on and that you are giving the interviewer your undivided attention!
- Dress to Impress – While a full-on business suit may not be necessary (some interviewers will even ask that you come in casual), do take care to show proper grooming and er on the professional and conservative side of your look if possible. For example, should the interviewer call for a casual meetup at a coffee shop, dark neutral jeans, flats, and a nice blouse along with minimal natural make-up (if you wear it) and a neat ponytail is a better choice for a girl aiming to go to an elite boarding school than going with ripped jeans, beat up Chucks (as much as you may love them!), and your favorite band t-shirt.
- Know Your Why – Have a specific reason as to why you desire to attend the program you applied to. For example, “Because it is an Ivy League school” never got a lot of brownie points from me when it came to why students want to study at the University of Pennsylvania, largely because the same cookie cutter answer could be used just as ineffectively for any of the other 7 Ivy League schools. Reasons that were much more impressive included: referencing certain professors students wanted to work with, specific programs offered by the school, what careers this opportunity would lead to, as well as compelling family reasons.
- Be Ready for Cliché Questions – Interviewers will often ask questions such as “What is a book you have recently read that you enjoyed?” and the trick is to not give a cliché answer. Even if you read a book that most people may have, such as Harry Potter, the trick is to not give the interviewer a book report, but rather to provide insight as to what made you enjoy it so much. Was there a character you deeply identified with? Is there a theme that speaks to you on a deep level? Is there a quote that is extremely motivational to you? This is an opportunity to show depth of reasoning and personality, even though the question may appear to be typical on the surface.
- Be Ready For Off The Wall Questions – Questions such as “If you were a Pokemon, which one would you be?” are an invitation for the interviewer to get to know you on a deeper level, hence once again, it is all about the why. So instead of just saying “If I were a Pokemon, I would be a Pikachu!” think of why you would be the best Pikachu ever – and sell it! As cheesy as it may sound, own your Pikachu-ness! Use some of your own personality, experiences, likes, dislikes, etc to back up the answer.
- Show You are a Complete Human Being – While a summer program, college, etc. may have academics as their focus, it is not the whole picture. Interviewers want to see that you are a good fit for the program in other matters too. Make sure to discuss opportunities related to your hobbies, examine the lifestyle offered at the school/program of your choice, and show your value to the residential community. Interviewers can see what you have been doing based on your resume, but this is a key opportunity to explain the why behind it!
- Practice Makes Perfect – As the saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Make sure to practice potential interview questions with somebody whose input you trust and value – be it a teacher, parent, mentor, or friend. This will give you confidence to shine on the big day! That being said, please do not memorize answers to questions word for word as if they were from a Shakespearean script. At SIS Education, we offer interview practice with trained coaches who have conducted many interviews in the past should you choose to take your practice to the next level.
- Have Your Credentials Ready – Be it your resume, certificates you have won, etc., be sure to have this kind of documentation handy, just in case!
- Make Sure to Ask Questions Too – Even if you have poured over the school’s website for hours on end, not asking questions makes you seem uninterested. This is your opportunity to find out information from a primary source and get insight which may not be readily available online. Be it questions about future opportunities, past program participants, dorm room food, or student life in general – the only bad question is the one you failed to ask!
- Display Gratitude – Writing your interviewer a nice thank you note (or email!) within 24 hours of your interview shows that you are grateful for the time they took to give you the opportunity to learn more about the school/program/etc. you are hoping to get in. Make sure to be sincere and genuine in your language choice here.
So there you go! The next time you have an interview for a wonderful opportunity coming up, follow these ten steps and make sure to practice. With a bit of preparation and understanding, the chances of that door opening for you are all the better. You’ve got this!
P.s. Some modifications have been made.