It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have to go into a room and have a stranger decide your future. If you’re also a top student (like I was), it’s even more nerve-wracking to not know if you’re really going to get to go to a top-tier, super-elite school like Harvard, Princeton, MIT or Yale and have your future and career almost completely laid out for you, or if you really even have the slightest chance of getting in at all.
That’s why I’ve laid out the top questions students often hear during their Ivy League college interviews. Even if you’re not applying to the Ivy League, this will work for any other competitive top to mid-tier college, too.
So, whether you’re applying to Harvard and Princeton, or Boston University and NYU, studying these questions will help you be more prepared in terms of what to expect from your college interview, and how to be more confident during the interview itself, because nothing will take you by surprise.
As an overview though, college admissions officers want to know that you have the maturity to speak clearly, that you can be comfortable even in a nerve-wracking situation, that you can look them in the eye, smile, chat, have a solid “adult” conversation on an adult level, and are clear in terms of who you are at this point in your life and where you want to go. These questions will help you get there:
1. “So, what are you interested in studying in college?”
What college interviewers are looking for here, is an answer that reveals your academic and possible future professional plans and interests, but also shows uniqueness and a background (however slight it may be) related to your answer.
In other words, just saying you’re interested in pre-med is fine, but saying you’re interested in pre-med because you spent time interning over the summer at a make-shift hospital in India, or at an inner city hospital in Chicago, is better because it shows you have actual experience to back up your goals. .
The main thing that will get you bad marks here on this question? Being too vague – that’s what this question is trying to screen for. Your college interviewer wants to make sure that you have the focus and ambition needed to truly succeed in a top Ivy League college (and in life). They want to make sure you’re someone who has a plan and has a direction…even if that direction later changes course. Just show them that you have an initial thought-out plan.
So, if they ask you this question, pick an academic subject and back it up, even if you end up changing your major 4 times once you’re in. First, get in!
2. “What high school accomplishment are you most proud of?”
Here, your college admissions interviewer is trying to get a sense of what you value, as the accomplishment you are most proud of will not only show off your best strengths academically (or extracurricularly, as could be the case) but will show him/her what things and pursuits you actually identify with, in your own life – and that gives them great information about YOU.
The main thing that will get you bad marks on your college interviewer’s report with this question? Not showing a real passion or energy behind your answer. You can’t expect someone to be excited about what you’ve done in life, if you yourself aren’t that interested.
3. “Tell me about your family background? Where did you grow up?”
What the admission officer is looking for here, is a sense of trying to place you = what I call, trying to paint a picture of your home life in their mind. Did you grow up in a big city, a suburb, a rural farm? Were you home-schooled, or did you attend a highly competitive science magnet in your area?
They are trying to place you, but they are also trying to discern how you yourself feel about your background. There’s no wrong answer here, except a one-word answer. That will get you a bad mark on the interviewer’s report, and you don’t want that. If someone asks you a question, expand and expound!
4. “What is an example of something difficult you’ve had to go through, or an important event perhaps that took place in your life in the last few years?”
Here, as with the question above, the admissions committee (through the college interviewer’s report that they will write about you) is simply trying to get a sense of who you are, what you value, and what stands out in your mind. They are simply trying to understand who you are as a person, and how you see yourself in relation to others.
The one thing that will get you bad marks on this question? Not having a strong and solid answer. It’s really not so much what you say with any of this, but how you say it. Always speak with confidence and self-reflection = that’s what they really like. Don’t be afraid to show them who you are as a thinker and a person. The fastest thing to get you dinged on all of your questions is, again, a weak, one-word response!
5. “Why Harvard” or “Why Princeton?” or “Why Columbia?” or “Why Berkeley?”…
Most likely, you already wrote an admissions essay covering this question, so I strongly suggest you review all of your essays before going into your college interview. Your answer “Why Harvard, or University of Pennsylvania, or Columbia, Brown, Duke, UCLA, MIT, or NYU?” (just to name a few), should focus on that particular school’s program, core curriculum, professors, classes and extracurriculars that are specific to your interests.
The focus should be academic at the core, but don’t be afraid to let your personality and true interest in a school’s outside extracurricular activities also shine through. Do your homework and understand the differences between different programs and how they’re set up with their own unique flavor, especially when we’re talking about the Ivy League colleges and universities.
In the end, your college admissions interview should be conversational, interesting, educational and engaging! In other words, just try to have a very real and connected conversation. Most interviews last 20-40 minutes, and if you’ve gotten this far, it’s a very good sign that you are already on your way!
[I’m a former Harvard admissions interviewer and a Harvard graduate. I currently run the Ivy League admissions firm: www.IvyLeagueEssay.com out of New York. I provide expert advice on college essays and applications to students all over the world, and specialize in the Ivy League and “Top Ten” schools. Feel free to contact me for more information, and get into the college of your dreams!]