College interviewing tips

For several years I’ve been volunteering as an alumni interviewer for my alma mater. It’s enjoyable to spend a bit of time interacting with a younger generation and exploring their interests; my optimism is buoyed by their potential.

At my university, the process is managed through a web portal. At the beginning of each application season I set my availability and geographic area. At set times for each application period, I am offered interviews which I can accept or decline (for example, if I personally know the student, which would be a conflict of interest). The only information I am given is name, phone number, email, high school, and major if they’ve declared one. I know nothing about the student’s academic qualifications or background.

I then reach out and schedule an interview. For the past few years meetings have been virtual, though I am hoping that in-person interviews can resume soon; I personally dislike virtual meetings for a number of reasons (see: Zoom fatigue). In-person interviews are required to be in a public space, like a coffee shop or library. I prepare some basic questions to gauge the student’s interests and personality, and mostly allow the “interview” to proceed as a natural conversation as much as possible. After the interview, I return to the online platform and write three brief paragraphs of my impression of the student in response to prompts given to me. Overall, it’s a low-pressure situation that gives the admissions committee an additional perspective on the student from someone who knows the university’s offerings and culture.

I recently offered a mock interview to a high school student to help them practice and I realized I had a lot of advice to help students with the process. I searched online to see what advice was already out there and was pretty disappointed, so I decided to compile my own list:

Advice for college alumni interviews

  1. Don’t stress—the interview is the least important part of the college application. Also, it’s as much about giving you the opportunity to engage with an alum and get excited about the school as it is them evaluating you.
  2. It’s more important to be likeable than impressive. Remember, the interviewer has an emotional connection to their alma mater—they want to see passionate, thoughtful candidates who will value their time at the school and contribute to the school’s ongoing success, not someone who chooses a school because of a reputation.
  3. Send a resume in advance. Very few students do this for college interviews and it is by no means required. I appreciate it because it allows me to get a sense for your interests without you having to rattle them off, and then to ask you about things where we might have a mutual interest, increasing connection and likeability.
    • Unlike a professional resume, activities and hobbies are highly recommended.
    • Include links to other resources when appropriate, for example if you have a portfolio, been featured in a news story, or created something worth sharing.
    • Get feedback from others, both substantive and proofreading.
  4. Prepare answers for common questions.
    • Don’t prepare word-for-word, but look up common interviewing questions and know how you’ll respond. Most interviewers start with “tell me about yourself”1, so prepare your “elevators speech” that is brief and engaging.
    • Stories and anecdotes are the best way to connect; listing things is the best way to bore your interviewer. So think of the stories you’ll use to illustrate each question. Look up the STAR method for tips on how to best organize your responses.
    • Find a balance between your personal experiences (past) and goals (future). How have your past experiences prepared you college and how will you leverage your college experience to achieve your goals?2
    • Be mindful of the length of your responses. Too short is unengaging, rambling on becomes boring. This is a hard one to balance but you’ll get the hang of it with practice.
  5. “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” —Robert McNamara
    • This also requires balance; you should answer the question they asked and then use that as a jumping off point to provide additional valuable information without going off on a tangent.
    • Example: “What extracurricular activities do you do?” “I play hockey and volunteer at the library. But what I’m really passionate about is art. I like to take the things I see in the world and interpret them through the medium of stained glass, which gives me a greater appreciation for the natural beauty in the world. I’m currently working on a piece that shows a rover on Mars to highlight both human achievement and the wonders of the universe.” Far better than just rattling off a list, you answered the question while showing your passion for your interests.
  6. Every interviewer is going to ask “Why did you choose [school]?”—this question is the most important and you need a thoughtful reason that connects your own experience to the college’s offerings.
    • DO NOT SAY clubs or outstanding faculty or size or location—those all may be your criteria, but they’re not unique to the school; they don’t make the interviewer feel that their alma mater is special or that you care about it particularly.
    • You may already have a great answer about a previous college visit, experience with high school programs offered, family who attended, etc. If so, use that. Just make sure to connect it with your own experiences and goals. For example: “I learned about Duke from the TIP program and every year I did a residential summer studies course. I really connected with the faculty and loved my time on campus, so it was easily my top choice. Right now I am thinking of pursuing a career in clinical psychology and Duke has an excellent psychology department.”
    • If not, you need to find a specific thing at the school that appeals to you. A particularly well-regarded department, a specific faculty member, an undergraduate lab you want to work in, etc. Foe example: “I do Model UN and frequently in my research I’d use papers from the Fletcher School, which is very well-regarded school for global affairs. That’s how I came to learn about Tufts. Even though Fletcher is a graduate school, the fact that it’s on the Tufts campus is a huge draw because they offer public talks and events which I plan to attend. I’m interested in joining the Peace Corps after college and this would be a great way to explore challenges and opportunities around the world.”
  7. Have good questions—Near the end, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions for them. This may be the most important part of the interview because it shapes final impressions and gives them a chance to share. Your questions should both engage the interviewer and demonstrate a thoughtfulness about the college experience.
    • Some good questions: “If you were able to go back in time, what would you do differently at [school]?”, “What about your [school] experience shaped your thinking about the world?”, “What about your [school] experience changed your path in life?”, “Are there any unique experience or tradition at [school] that I shouldn’t miss?”, “Do you have any advice for someone preparing to matriculate at [school]?”, “What DIDN’T [school] do well?”, “In your opinion, what are the character traits of successful [school] students?”
    • Do not ask about specific professors, dorms, clubs, financial aid, etc., unless it connects to something your interviewer has shared with you. Your interviewer won’t know the answer and it doesn’t fulfill your objective in the discussion, which is to make a good impression.
    • People like to hear themselves talk, so give your interviewer that room. You don’t have to add anything to their answer beyond “that’s great advice” or “sounds really interesting” at the end.
    • Ask at least one great question even if you go over the scheduled interview time. If you still have time you can ask a second question or even a third question, but don’t keep asking once you’re past the scheduled time and never ask more than three.

If you’re an interviewer, what advice would you add? If you’re a student, how did your interview go? Do you wish you’d prepared any differently? Share in the comments below!


  1. A question I personally despise.
  2. Several times here I talk about your future goals. I don’t mean to imply that you need your whole life planned out now. The point is to display thoughtfulness about how your college experience will impact your future, even if you have no idea what you want to do.