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As application deadlines roll around, college-bound seniors are left to think about what comes next. Before allowing some time to breathe, a lot of colleges offer applicants in-person interviews to get a more personable dimension about the application in addition to their on-paper credentials. Just when you think it’s over, there it is–smack dab at the top of your inbox, an email from an alum of your dream college who wants to “chat” with you in a week or two.
A couple years ago, I was right there in that position. A highly respected alum who hailed from the college of my dreams was to interview me…and he wanted to conduct the business in a Panera. I had imagined that it would be in a fancy building with me in my finest blazer, hair up, pearls on, and my interviewer in a business suit with a most stern and critical look. I had daydreamed about using strong adverbs like ‘indubitably’ and ‘inexorably’ noticeably but not too often, and humbly bragging about the fine young woman I hope to be in college. But like I said, we ended up meeting at a cozy and relaxing Panera with my interviewer donning a simple college t-shirt.
As this was my first college interview (and really, my first in-person interview anywhere), I was quite nervous and antsy, desperately thinking of ways to avoid a slip up. However, the closer I got to the interview, the more I realized that I shouldn’t try to be so ideal that I lose my humanity. Rather than scrutinizing myself for being me, I told myself to prize my strengths and embrace my weaknesses as nothing less than valuable–the infamous “just be yourself.” As scary as it sounds to boast what I think are my weaknesses, this tactic proved quite useful. The interview that was slated to last half an hour to 45 minutes ended up lasting one and a half hours long.
One of the main realizations that helped me get through my interview without breaking into a nervous sweat was that unlike trying to depict yourself in writing, which is oftentimes a trial and error process with endless revisions, you only get to depict yourself once. It’s not worth it to try to be someone that you think is more appealing to colleges by acting like someone else; the only thing colleges want is for someone to be sincerely a good person, and being sincere, unlike writing, doesn’t take practice. All it takes is to be yourself.
That being said, you want yourself to be presentable and professional. I know all too well that those dirty pickup lines are right up your sleeve and ready to be whipped out, but you don’t want to end up telling your interviewer that if you were her derivative you could lie tangent to your curves. Your grade in math says that for itself. Instead, interviewers want to know what you’re like outside your test scores, grades, and common app essays, and that stuff is hard to prepare for.
My interviewer asked me to tug along my resume and two writing samples, one of which was an application essay. Now, these essays were short, and generic, and just the typical, suck-up, college admissions essay. I didn’t want my 500 word essay to sum up my existence, so I broke those essays down. I decided I’d talk about my “love for learning” (something which every applicant describes themselves as having) and channel it into something I genuinely loved to talk about, which at the time were certain pieces of literature. I’d described myself as a “team player,” but as an introvert, I decided I’d talk about team projects in school and how I used my introversion as a tool to help a team get things done rather than pretending I was a people-person, discussing how I’d rather prop open a book alone than anything else. Expand on generic ideas like these, because although they seem self-explanatory, your interview is the only chance you get to bring these ideas as close to reality as possible.
Then, I compiled everything I loved about the school, academically and otherwise, into one huge list and specifically picked out the ones that I could relate to the most. As someone who loves to hike, bike, ski, and generally be outdoors, I had several things to talk about already–the school’s own skiing mountain, the various lakes and trails surrounding campus… Basically, I pinpointed all the reasons why this school was so alluring, where and why I could see myself committing to four whole years on their campus.
Once I got to my interview, though, everything changed. I dressed appropriately, brought a writing utensil and notebook, and two copies of my resume and writing samples just in case. However, before I even sat down, my interviewer told me usually only 1 out of the 12 people he interviews is actually accepted by the college. Yikes. As if that wasn’t enough, he then asked me if I wanted to get a cup of coffee before beginning…how dare he? Blood drained from my face. I was prepared well-enough to jump right into it and spin out a love letter to the college with my carefully scripted words, but I could not, for the life of me, figure out what the ‘right’ answer to this question was. If I get something to drink, will the line be so long that I force him to wait for me and even leave, or will my mouth be full when it’s my turn to speak leading to minutes, hours of awkward silence? If I don’t get something to drink, will my interviewer think I’m negative or unapproachable because I refused his request, or will he think I’m too overzealous because I want to jump right into the interview? Do me a favor. Don’t torture yourself. Just go get the gosh darn cup of coffee if it so pleases you.
After that spectacle I made in my head (and the few minutes of deep breaths I took as I got my coffee), I felt much more serene about the interview. Just like that, I answered all his questions and made conversation as sincerely as possible, saying the first answer that popped into my head and expanding on it as needed. I said my favorite president was FDR, not because of the New Deal that saved America but because of how inspirational it was that he suffered from polio but remained strong enough to govern an entire country. I talked about the latest articles I’d read on The Onion, and how I thought comedy and satire are the best ways to get a point across to an audience. We got into conversation about Holden Caulfield’s perfection and even talked about how I thought all the characters in The Great Gatsby were bogus. Once I let go of my fears and anxieties about giving my interviewer the ‘right’ answers, I was free to talk about myself in the context of college and the future. This sincerity brought along confidence, and that contributed to my interview immensely.
After my interview, during which we discussed things from the movie Animal House to how humbling it would be to be surrounded by the intellectuals at a top 10, Ivy League college, I decided to further our conversation in my follow up email. I asked him more about his experiences at college and any tips he might have had for me in the college process as well as in the future, and we had an email thread going up until my decision returned.
“FYI, I submitted your recommendation today. I shouldn’t say this, but I feel good about your chances.”
Although the stressful hours of preparation helped me feel confident about my knowledge of the school, in the end, it wasn’t the scripted answers to his questions that aided me but the ability to speak for myself, as myself…and honestly, that’s the best advice I can give.