By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local
For 30 years between November and February, college hopefuls from Montclair and nearby towns would ring my doorbell and sit down with me for half-hour interviews. Later, in a written evaluation, I would discern what to tell my alma mater about each candidate’s character and academic and extracurricular strengths. Nowadays, alumni interviews typically are held in public spaces — I liked Panera on Bloomfield Avenue for these conversations — although I’m pretty sure moving interviews to a neutral spot has not made them any the less nerve-wracking for applicants.
By the time a student has submitted an application to college, much is already written in stone: high school transcripts; pursuits of extracurricular enrichment; and summers spent working (or not), taking courses (or not); traveling (or not); or checking books off a self-generated reading list (or not). It’s all history by the time a student sits down in the fall or winter of senior year to discuss their collegiate ambitions with an alumna or alumnus who has volunteered to vet would-be matriculates.
Whether you believe you have it altogether or you’re worried you won’t make the cut, take advantage of the opportunity to connect with a college on your list—whether it’s a reach, target, or safety school. You can’t rewrite your history, but you’ll have 30 fresh new minutes to make a case for yourself. Here are suggestions for making the encounter go as positively as possible.
- Interviews usually are considered optional. Opt in. Turning down an interview may be read as arrogance unless there are extenuating circumstances that prevent you from meeting. Explain in an email or, better, a phone call. Some, if not most, interviewers will be happy to conduct the interview by phone or Skype, if that’s the only way you can connect with them.
- Respond promptly to an invitation to interview, and be on time or, better yet, early. Once you’ve submitted your application, be sure to check your email for messages from your colleges or their representatives. And don’t forget to check your spam file. You don’t want a non-response to be an interviewer’s first, perhaps only impression. It suggests you’re not interested. By the way, even interviews that don’t happen are written up, and you don’t want “Did not respond to numerous attempts to contact” to be submitted to the admissions office. If, for unavoidable reasons, you’re running late to your appointment, respect your interviewer’s time, and let them know.
- If you’re not wild about your interviewing skills, practice. Do you know anyone who conducts college or job interviews? Ask them if they’d hold a mock interview with you, and request feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.
- Dress like you made an effort. The old school term is “smart casual,” which means informal but neat.
- Look your interviewer in the eye and extend a firm handshake. It sounds hokey, but offering a confident handshake is kind of like striking a Superman pose—it can give you a surge of “I got this!” while making a positive first impression.
- Bring a résumé/activity list. Alumni interviewers typically don’t know much about you, other than your name, address, and high school. I always liked it when a student brought me something in writing. Proof your résumé carefully, and offer it at the onset of your conversation. And don’t be put out if your interviewer turns it down. A résumé helped me keep track of an applicant’s accomplishments and refer to others that may not have come up in the interview, but some interviewers simply prefer to base their evaluations on time with the applicant.
- Be prepared. Certain questions or prompts are standard. “Tell me about yourself.” “Why are you interested in our university?” “What’s your favorite book?” “What would you call your greatest weakness?” (With that last one, be sure to explain how you’ve addressed it.) You often will be asked to discuss your schedule, favorite classes, summer activities, careers you’re considering, achievements, awards, extracurricular pursuits, how you spend your down time, prospective major. Keep in mind your interviewer probably knows where you come from. They may even have a child who attends or graduated from your high school. Don’t make any claims you can’t back up.
- Answer questions with some detail — but don’t ramble. Watch for clues of your interviewer’s waning interest. And don’t talk over them.
- Even if your interviewer does not represent one of your top choice schools, research the school as though it is. Spend time on the website familiarizing yourself with the academic programs that might interest you (e.g. foreign study, relationships with other universities); the calendar (Is the school year divided in semesters or quarters? Is there a January session?); and the extracurricular scene (clubs, intramurals, Greek system). Formulate questions rooted in some understanding of the college. Anything less will imply low or no real interest.
- Come with questions about the college, particularly those relating to academic life. The interview is an opportunity to tout your interests and accomplishments. But it’s also an opportunity for the interviewer to sell you on the college. Help them do their job by asking about aspects of the school that matter to you.
- Don’t worry if the interview does not run longer than half an hour. Interviewers often schedule back-to-back meetings. An abrupt ending to your conversation likely means there’s someone else waiting. Don’t take it personally.
- Send a thank you note. You likely have your interviewer’s email address. Send a message within 48 hours to show your appreciation of their time and commitment to their alma mater. Mention something specific about the interview that you found helpful or are glad to know about.
Bottom line: be yourself. In the end, the dance between college and applicant is about determining if there’s a good fit. The interview isn’t likely to make or break your chances of getting into a school, but it will give you an opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the institution and your readiness for college.