“You take care of your interview cheat sheet, and your interview cheat sheet will take care of you” — Ancient College Admissions Proverb. Image from my personal library.

Gather ’round ladies and gents, for today is the glorious day in which you will learn how to rock your college interviews with poise and enthusiasm without totally freaking out in Panera. Because today is the day I’m going to teach you how to make an interview cheat sheet. No, not the sketchy kind scribbled on looseleaf by the shady dude from your AP Calculus class (requiring a payment of $20 bill and a packet of cigarettes behind the science lab). Jeez guys, this is a place of honor.

You won’t be using this cheat sheet during your interview; instead, you’ll be using it to do your pre-interview research, and yes, studying. Because the night before a college interview, reading the entire contents of College Confidential’s forums will not help you, but three pages of concentrated information about you and your college of interest absolutely WILL. I made these college interview Sparknotes before every alumni interview I had, and they were a huge help in keeping me focused and confident during the interview.

Before we start, I’m going to share a little prototype with you — the cheat sheet I would have used if my college offered alumni interviews. It took me, at most, forty-five minutes to whip up, and it might be useful as a jumping-off point for creating your own.

I like to put the college’s crest or logo centered at the top of the page; it makes the packet seem sophisticated and professional, and  most importantly, it keeps you from mixing up information about two or three different schools — that is precisely the kind of chaos and confusion we’re trying to avoid here. Your cheat sheet is going to be comprised of three equally important sections: information about the school, information about yourself, and questions to ask your interviewer at the end of your interview.

About the School

This section’s purpose is to show that you have a genuine interest in the college — that you’ve done your research, know your stuff, and are ready to show the interviewer that you are the perfect fit for his or her alma mater. An important note: this part of your sheet is not for cheap factoids and statistics found in the college’s promotional materials. No one cares when the college was founded, how many majors it offers, or how many books are in its libraries. I promise.

At the top of the page, you’ll put your intended school (College of Arts & Sciences, Engineering School, School of Nursing, Architecture School, School of Education, etc.) and your intended major within that school. Make sure you do your research for this part. Don’t be that guy who talks for hours about his passion for engineering only to be told by a bewildered interviewer that the college in question doesn’t have an engineering school. And be careful with specific major names — some schools offer a “Drama” major, some a “Theatre” major, and some a “Theatre Arts” major. They all mean the same thing, but getting it right shows an attention to detail that will stand out. And for the love of Benedict Cumberbatch do not say you want to major in “Pre-med,” “Pre-law,” or “Pre-comm.” Those aren’t majors, those are tracks.

Next, jot down a short list of reasons why you love this school. What makes your insides turn into a puddle of sunshine and warmth when you think about it. Maybe it’s the funky traditions or the homey atmosphere of the surrounding college town. Maybe it’s the residential college system or maybe it’s the strength of its alumni network. This is going to make up your answer to the inevitable “Why University of ____?” your interviewer will send your way. Make sure you’re being honest with your reasons, try to choose traits that are very specific to that college, and do NOT say “because it’s a prestigious/high-ranking/famous school.” It’s tacky, awkward, and will definitely raise the interviewer’s eyebrows. It makes you seem like an academic gold digger, and you are certainly above that.

Now, you’re going to write down what classes or professors stand out to you. Don’t go for the Game of Thrones seminar you read about in Gawker or the rockstar professor who got interviewed by the New York Times. Really spend some quality time with the school’s course catalog shopping around for three or four classes that draw your attention. You don’t have to wax lyrical about them, just have their names and course descriptions handy in case you need something to talk about.

Next, write down what programs, clubs, or teams you would be interested in tackling during your time at this school. Again, make sure you do your research. That school may not have a club polo team, and it may not offer roles in the drama department to non-drama majors. You just never know. And once again, try to find activities that are specific to your school — do they have a semester at sea program? An EMT program? A dedicated volleyball fan section? Spend some time on the school’s website and look for a few quirky extracurriculars — you might surprise yourself.

About You

This bit will be a breeze if you have a copy of your resume on hand or have already completed the Common App activities section. All you’re putting here are the high school extracurriculars in which you participated, which ones were the most meaningful to you, and why they were so meaningful. Also, make a list of non-academic hobbies you pursue — they don’t have to be wildly impressive; they just have to exist on the paper. Easy.

In this section, feel free to include anything else you feel might be asked of you during your interview. Favorites include “five words you would use to describe yourself,” and anything related to your course of study. If you’re an aspiring architecture student, jot down a few of your favorite buildings (it goes without saying that the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Space Needle are off-limits). If you’re a music major, write down a few of your favorite pieces, and if you’re a filmmaker, make sure to list what movies make your heart sing.

Questions, Questions, Questions

At the end of your interview, your interviewer will ask if you have questions. And because you spent time on making such a marvelous cheat sheet (go you!), you will. You must ask questions; they show that you’re engaged and curious about this college. Not asking any questions makes you look unprepared and uninterested, and also ends the interview on an awkward note. The actual content of these questions is totally up to you, but make sure they’re not easily google-able. “Do you have a Civil Engineering major?” is not a question you should be asking this late into the application process.

I suggest asking the interviewer a bit about his or her time at the college, and a bit about campus life. Nothing ground-breaking, but something that serves as a branching-off point for conversation. That’s what an alumni interview is: not an interrogation, but a conversation.

A few final tips: enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm. Even if attending this school would be your most horrific vision of hell, act like it’s the best future you can possibly imagine in your dizziest daydreams. Don’t be insincere or mocking — interviewers will pick up on that in an instant; instead, really imagine yourself happily attending the college in question. Just turn on the charm, take deep breaths, and sip your cappuccino politely. Show genuine interest in the anecdotes your interviewer shares about his/her time at the college and be ready to send a thank-you email when it’s all over. You’re going to be wonderful!

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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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