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How to ace the college interview

The college interview is one of the least understood, yet most exciting parts of the US university application process

Peter Davos
Image Credit: Supplied picture
Peter Davos, Founder and Managing Director of Carian College Advisors, a Dubai-based educational consultancy.
Gulf News

The college interview is one of the least understood, yet most exciting parts of the US university application process.

Well-prepared applicants should look forward to the interview - whether it be on campus, via Skype, or with an alumnus/a interviewer here in the UAE - as a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the university to which they are applying, as well as to convince the interviewer as to why that university provides the proper “fit” for them.

I have continually emphasised that applying to US universities is matchmaking process, both on behalf of the applicant and the university itself.

More than any other part of the application, the interview provides insight as to whether the student truly is a good match for the university to which she seeks admission.

It could mean the difference, along with the personal statement, between admission and denial among similar candidates with borderline academic qualifications.

The interview allows the university to assess the student’s enthusiasm for studying at a specific institution, as well as his potential to contribute to and participate in campus life. 


Though the undergraduate interview is typically optional, students should always request one, if it is available. Not every university offers interviews, so make sure to check with admissions web pages on individual university sites to see if they are offered.

In admissions terms, requesting and participating in an interview is a show of “demonstrated interest”, signaling to the university that you are serious about applying and enrolling there.

Simply conducting an interview, however, will not enhance your chances of admission. You must be well prepared, follow instructions, and be able to answer a simple, fundamental question: Why are you applying here? What makes this university right for you?

The more generic your answer is, the poorer your interview assessment will be. I have interviewed students that knew absolutely nothing about Johns Hopkins University, other than it was located in Baltimore and it had an excellent medical school.

Needless to say, those applicants did not make a compelling argument for admission. Students should do as much research on the university as possible and be able to very clearly cite specific reasons - professors, school spirit, facilities, alumni, etc - which motivate and inspire them to attend that particular institution.

Types of interviews

There are two main types of admission interviews: those conducted by an admissions officer and those conducted by an alumnus/a volunteer.

The former is usually conducted at the admissions office on a university campus, though Skype interviews are becoming increasingly popular in regions where there may not be many alumni present.

The latter is conducted in a public place - usually a cafe - in a mutually agreed upon location in the student’s city of residence. While an interview conducted by an admissions officers carries more weight, interviews with alumni are incredibly valuable because applicants can ask insightful questions from a former student.

What is social life like? What is the area like surrounding the campus? What was the work-life balance? How happy were you with the career services office? How strong is the alumni network here in the UAE?

Admissions officers will be able to give you standard, pre-packaged answers, but alumni can be very helpful in relating their actual experiences as a student to you.

As most applicants from the UAE do not have the opportunity to travel to the US to conduct an on-campus interview, they should indicate they would like to request an alumnus/a interview on their applications, when prompted to do so. If this option is not available, I recommend applicants email the university admissions office and request a Skype interview.

If an alumnus/a interview is requested, an interviewer will contact you and suggest a mutually agreeable time and place to meet. Please be mindful that these interviewers are volunteers and this is a way for them to give back to their alma mater.

Be flexible in your schedule and always respect the interviewer’s time. The interview should be relaxed, casual, and informative. Remember, that these alumni love their universities, so any slights will be taken very seriously. 

What interviewers look for

As a Johns Hopkins alumni interviewer for over a decade, I developed a keen intuition as to which applicants were genuinely interested in becoming Hopkins students and which were applying to the university just for the sake of applying.

Without even asking about or looking at grades or standardized test scores, I became very adept at predicting which students would ultimately be accepted and which would be rejected, after a 45-minute conversation with them.

As interviewers, the key criteria we looked for was the student’s knowledge of the university and enthusiasm for becoming a member of the university. This was critical, because our mission was to get to know the student beyond the test scores and grades.

If a student could not provide a compelling set of reasons why the university to which he was applying to was right for him, then it seriously weakened his case for admission to that university.

Admissions is a competition, in which your achievements and backgrounds are compared to those of your peers, as well as your motivations for applying. If you are applying to a university primarily because of its ranking or reputation, and do not know anything about the school’s history, culture, traditions, location, or character, how do you think your genuine interest in enrolling will be assessed as an applicant?

Every highly selective university rejects more students than are academically qualified to complete the work there than it accepts. There are simply too few places for all applicants that meet the academic standards and expectations of highly selective academic institutions.

Universities want to create an incoming freshman class of academically qualified applicants that will be active participants in campus life, as well as “fit” with the culture and character of the institution.

They also want to increase their yield, ensuring that accepted students will ultimately enroll in their university. The individual conducting the interview - whether he be an admissions officer or alumnus - would like to believe that his university is one of your top choices and, if admitted, you will enroll.

If your academic, personal, and extracurricular profile meet the university’s standards, and you are genuinely enthusiastic about enrolling there and can make a compelling argument as to why, then you will have a greater chance of being admitted. 

Peter Davos is Founder and Managing Director of Carian College Advisors, a Dubai-based educational consultancy.


Fact Box

Here’s some practical advice


1) Be specific. What exactly about the school attracts you to it? Average class size, a strong core curriculum, proximity to a major city, a specific professor that is a leader in her field, strong school spirit, a new biomedical research laboratory are all good reasons for wanting to attend a school. Even if you have not had the ability to visit in person, research the university’s website, and third-party websites to learn everything you can about the school.


2) Follow instructions. If the interviewer tells you that the interview is casual and you show up wearing a business suit, then this will reflect poorly on you.


3) Be punctual. Show up 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled interview time or even earlier if the interview will take place in a building or area you are not familiar with. There is no excuse for being late and doing so will make a very negative initial impression on your interviewer.


4) Be prepared. You should have 4-5 questions about the university to pose to your interviewer at the conclusion of your interview. These should be well prepared and the answers should not be readily available online. For example, asking how much merit aid is available for international students and how large the Muslim Student Society are good questions, while asking how many students study at the university or how many volumes the library has, are not.


5) Be polite. Always make sure you send a thank you email to your interviewer immediately after the interview concludes. I recommend student draft these on their smart phones in advance and have it ready to mail as soon as the interview is over. A simple two-sentence note thanking the interviewer for his time and expressing interest in attending the university will suffice. Typically, interviewers complete and submit their interview assessments as soon as it is over, so do not delay is sending this out.