“If you could be any crayon in the Crayola 64 pack that comes with the sharpener on the back, which would you be, and why?”
In some cases, a college hopeful’s chances of making a strong first impression come down to a quirky question like that. You can prepare for the SAT or ACT, but what do you do when your interviewer throws you a curveball?
More often than not, college admission interviews are about getting to know why an applicant is interested in the school and what that student can bring to campus. In some cases, however, interviewers will pepper the meeting with unexpected questions to see how students respond under pressure.
For example, when Tim* was interviewing with Georgetown University, he was asked which building on campus was his favorite and why. The interviewer also asked him to translate a few phrases from Latin to English.
Meanwhile, as soon as Nicole sat down with her Columbia University interviewer, he posed a simple request: “Talk.” For some students, this instruction can be disconcerting, since there is no specific question to guide an interviewee’s answer. A different applicant, Jessica, said that at her Columbia interview, the interviewer gave her a grim scenario: “You live in a village that is under attack. The whole village is hiding, when all of the sudden a baby starts crying and no one can stop it. Would you kill the baby or let the whole village die?” She was struggling to figure out not only what she would do in that scenario but also how she could convey her assets as a prospective student in her answer.
Not all curveballs come in the form of a conversation though. For example, when Michael was applying to the University of Chicago, his interviewer asked if he would like to play a game of chess. Not only was Michael put on the spot, but he also had to decide whether or not he should try to win.
So, what can you do if your college interviewer surprises you with an unexpected twist?
- Keep your cool. If an interviewer poses an eccentric question, she has realistic expectations about it catching you by surprise. The most important thing you can do is try not be rattled. By keeping a level head under pressure, you are proving that you can handle challenging situations with grace.
- Be a good sport. If you’re asked to play a game, then use the opportunity to show off the skills you touted on your application. If you’re asked to weigh in on a hypothetical situation, imagine a dream scenario. This isn’t about blindly saying yes to any request; it’s about demonstrating that you are intellectually curious and willing to explore different possibilities.
- Demonstrate creativity. When Jessica was asked the question about her hypothetical village being attacked, she answered creatively by thinking up a third option that her interviewer hadn’t offered. Instead of confining herself to two terrible options (choosing to kill the crying baby or letting her whole village die), she told the interviewer that she’d try to stop the baby from crying in a different way or to move the members of her village to a different location. Even though Jessica’s interviewer tried to get her to pick between one of his two original options, Jessica was persistent in finding a different way to deal with things. In the end, the interviewer applauded her for sticking to her morals and being so determined.
Frequently asked (difficult!) questions
Being prepared for a curveball question is good, whether you are applying to a college, internship, or job. Still, you shouldn’t lose sight of the more frequent and often challenging questions that often arise on college interviews. Here are some common questions that have a way of stumping applicants, along with tips on what you can do to answer them well.
Why are you interested in this school?
While this question isn’t a surprise (in fact, you should expect to answer this question or a version of it in every interview you have!), it is the most important question you will have to answer, and for that reason, it’s difficult in its own right.
What to say: While you can start by talking about broad factors that influence your decision (location, academic rigor, school community, and so on), be sure that your answer as specifically as possible. You should discuss several school characteristics that are exciting to you—and the more unique they are to the college, the better. The best way to come up with these detailed facts is to research a college ahead of time. You want to prove to the interviewer that you’ve really taken the time to think about what this school offers that other colleges do not.
For example, if you are planning on majoring in biology, and this school as some Nobel Prize–winning professors in the biology department, talking about how it would be exciting to learn under them is a great piece of information to include in your answer. If the school has a specific extracurricular activity, academic requirement, or housing option that is really exciting to you and rare at other colleges, include this in your answer as well.
How do you plan to contribute to our campus?
Like the previous question, this is a chance for you to show what you know about the school. In addition, it’s an opportunity for you to share what you are passionate about.
What to say: Be honest and talk about the things you care about—not what you think the interviewer wants to hear. This question is less about your specific interests and more about seeing how you commit to something that makes you excited. If you are truly honest, your passion will come through in your answer.
College is about more than taking classes. In many cases, you won’t just be living in the community; you will have a part in shaping and growing that community as well. Think about the kind of campus community you want to help create. Is it one in which you share your love of dance on the through choreography? Is it one in which you represent your school in national tournaments with your award-winning debate skills? Is it one in which you help students feel safe by participating in a mental health organization?
Sometimes, interviewers will ask specifically about how you plan to make an impact at their schools that you couldn’t make elsewhere. Again, this is where research is key. Discuss specific extracurricular, residential, or local opportunities that you are excited to be a part of.
Why should we accept you over other students?
This question requires you to talk about the unique qualities that make you stand out from other applicants. You’ll want to emphasize your talents while still being humble.
What to say: There won’t be just one quality that makes you different than other applicants — saying that you are more driven, ambitious, excited, or any other single adjective won’t make you stand out. Instead, talk about how a combination of your passions and talents come together to create a unique individual, and how that combination can fill one of the many roles that creates a dynamic student body. For instance, if you are someone who moved around a lot as a child and have an interest in writing plays, then you could highlight the fact that you would give a voice to people who aren’t usually represented in theater and convey broad cultural understanding. Or perhaps you are someone who loves computer programming and has an interest in environmental sciences, in which case you may be excited to partner with other students to make the campus greener through a tech-based initiative.
Ultimately, this question is a chance for you to go beyond the accomplishments listed on your application and share the experiences and insights that set you apart. Think about how your individual experiences—being the oldest child in your family, helping a friend through a crisis, and working part-time at your neighborhood store—have collectively shaped the person you are.
What is your greatest weakness?
This question—or its equally intimidating cousin, “When did you fail at something?”—is one of the most common queries students will hear during their college admission interviews. More than ascertaining what you struggle with, this question is intended to elicit information about how you cope with challenges.
What to say: The most important part of your answer will be how you frame your weakness/failure and what kind of narrative you tell. It’s essential that you talk about what you’ve learned from what you are struggling with and the steps you are taking to develop the skills you need to overcome this challenge.
For instance, if your weakness is that you are afraid of speaking in public and dislike in-class presentations, then talk about what you have been doing to overcome this challenge. Have you and your teacher been working on alternative presentation formats, like recording a video? Are you working toward a personal goal of participating in each of your classes at least once every day? Your interviewer knows that everyone has weaknesses; she wants to know how you set yourself apart from others in the way you deal with your own challenges.
What other schools are you applying to?
Whether your interviewer is this direct or she asks a more general question like, “How are the schools you are applying to similar and different?” your interviewer is likely trying to gauge how interested you are in her school and how likely it is that you will accept a spot there.
What to say: While college interviewers are often instructed not to ask this question—or not to let the answer affect the assessment of the student—the safest option is to answer in a more general way. Talk about what the schools you are applying to have in common and why this specific school stands out on that list.
Here is an example of such an answer: “I’ve looked at a few mid-sized schools that have strong economics programs, extensive study abroad opportunities, and chances to get involved with intramural sports. I know I want to go somewhere that places a strong emphasis on academics and gives me lots of opportunities to explore my interest in business development inside and outside the classroom. One of the things that really stood out to me about XYZ College is your program that allows econ majors to spend a summer interning in China. It would be such a privilege to apply what I could learn in your economics classes as a participant in that program.”
Do you have any questions for me?
At the end of the interview, it’s likely that your interviewer will turn things around and ask you if you have any questions for her. Not only is this another chance to show that you care enough about this school to have researched it in advance, but it’s also a time when you can learn information about this college that you are still curious about.
What to say: Always prepare a couple of questions to ask your interviewer before you meet her. Be sure to not ask about anything that could be easily found on the school’s website, such as, “How big is your incoming class?” or “What is your acceptance rate?”
The best questions are the ones that show you know a lot about the school or ones of a more subjective nature. Here are some examples of questions you could ask:
- “I noticed that XZY College partners every incoming first-year with a senior student. What was it like for you to be partnered with an upperclassman when you started college? How did that help you get acclimated to XZY College?”
- “I’ve read that every student at XZY College has to write a thesis before graduating. What was your thesis about, and how did going through the thesis-writing process make you a stronger student?”
- “What do you wish you would have known when you started school at XZY College?”
- “What was your favorite class at XZY College and why?”
- “What do you wish you could change about XZY College?”
Schools have different policies on the role interviews play in admission. While some colleges consider them a mandatory part of the application process, others may deem them optional, and some may not offer interviews at all. If you have the chance to take part in an interview, it’s a good idea to seize this opportunity to show your interest in a school and learn more about the college through your interviewer.
As a former college interviewer, I can tell you that, generally, interviews play a relatively small role in the decisions that admission office makes about applicants. This is especially the case when an interview is not required; after all, it would be unfair to put too much weight on a part of the application that not everyone will be submitting.
The best way to think about a college application interview is as a supplement to your application. If admission officers are indecisive about whether or not to offer you admission, they may consult your interview as extra information to help them make a decision—but their focus will primarily be on your academic transcript and other materials.
If you are planning on going in for an admission interview, remember to follow the advice above and prepare by researching the school. You can also write down a few of your accomplishments beforehand so you have a bank of ideas you can draw from when you are answering questions.
Also remember: interviews can be a lot of fun! This is a great way to make your transcript, scores, and essay come to life. Show the interviewer what an incredible asset you’d be to any college that is lucky enough to have you.
* All names in this article have been changed.