My palms were sweaty, my anxiety high. Was I at the right Starbucks? What did he look like? Should I grab a drink or wait patiently at a table? Were notes allowed? Was I overdressed?
As I stared nervously around looking for my Yale interviewer, I tensed. I received a text that read, “Already here, in a green coat.”
I searched the patio. There was a gentleman wearing a green sweater sitting at a table in the corner, casually reading a newspaper. On the table there was a book with big white lettering. I squinted at the cover—even with glasses my eyesight is horrid—and made out the word “Yale.”
Here we go, I thought.
I walked over, introduced myself, and began a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with the Yale University alumnus (well over the expected time length).
This was my first college interview. I had scoured blogs and YouTube videos to uncover insight on questions, what to wear, how to act, what I should talk about—but I never felt fully prepared. To everyone I met that Saturday, I must have seemed like a nervous wreck! Though my preparation was extremely helpful, I learned through that first shaky interview the best way to excel was through experience.
I had read time and time again the old mundane mantra: “Just be yourself.” What does that even mean?! I worried about telling the interviewer anything controversial, meaningless, or offensive. I thought I should “act on my best behavior,” only speaking of my success. If the inevitable question came up, “What has been your greatest challenge?” I would admit a sizable challenge and move straight to emphasizing my overcoming it through an extensive, stressful effort, recognizing my “personal growth” as the most important takeaway. That’s what they wanted to hear, right?
I quickly found out that’s a load of horse pucky (translation: it’s a lie).
Having completed several interviews by now, I know that many alumni take joy in the interview process, especially the retired and spirited ones. Though the interview may mean little to the admission council, alumni want to give everyone the best chance at being admitted.
What do I mean?
Many applicants try to create a faux student who excels at everything and never really fails. However, the interview process is meant to be a personal experience with someone from that school. They have at least four years of experience to share, but you have at least four times as much experience to sift through and relate to them.
They want to know all about you. What makes you tick? What do you enjoy reading/watching/listening to? Who do you admire? What challenges have you faced? What are your strengths, and, more importantly, what are some of the weaknesses you’re trying to improve? The interviewer has heard about how building houses on a mission trip is formative. They’ve probably heard hundreds of applicants describe the death of a loved one or a major transition to a new school. That’s not to say these can’t be inspiring stories worth sharing if they have truly changed you, but almost everyone applying has had similar experiences. Think about the intricacies. Break down your daily routine. Examine how you spend your time—hobbies, extracurriculars, employment. Now, answer the question on a personal level. Why do you do those things? That’s what the interviewer is asking, just in a different form! When they ask, “What do you enjoy reading?” they’re really asking, “What are your favorite subjects to study and why?” For Yale, one of the favorite interview questions is, “If you could meet anyone from the past or present, who would it be?” Translation: “Who do you admire?”
After tackling a few of those types of questions during my interview, I finally mentioned one of my political endeavors. It comprised a major part of my application, but I was initially worried that because it was such a sensitive issue, it might lead down a slippery slope to my rejection. After a good 30 minutes, I intentionally let it slip. That was my greatest tactical move—we ended up talking about it for at least an hour. He asked great questions, and we had a wonderful conversation!
Looking back on that interview, it was inevitable that I would have sweaty palms and a nervous face walking in. But exposing both my sensitive achievements and my flawed shortcomings made me personable, outstanding, and memorable. If you hide yourself behind a façade of success, you become the candidate that needs “no help” getting admitted, rather than the candidate who values the human interaction of the alumni interview and dearly desires a stand-out write-up.
Before your college interview, research the school intensely, review your activities and commitments, and, above all, relax and be yourself. Know the interviewer only desires to relate wonderful news—that you are a great candidate for the university. Give them reasons to support that claim, and rest easy knowing that your application just gained a new gold star.
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