Entrance interviews: Tips from a survivor

Interviews, be they for jobs, schools, colleges or universities are a highly stressful business.

In both my academic and working life, I have had to undertake numerous interviews, and, thankfully I have a success/fail ratio of about 2 to 1. In short, whatever it is that most interviewers expect, somehow, I seem to have it.

Of course as a journalist, a teacher and an occasional trainer, it could be said that I do have the “gift of the gab” as it were.

Indeed, I always do my best to promote my interpersonal skills as a major selling point at every opportunity when applying for new jobs or courses.

However, there is more to passing an interview than simply knowing what to say.

Here, there are my top tips on how to navigate that final, often fatal hurdle to realizing your college study dreams:


1. Think Independently

Especially in the context of university or college entrance interviews, in almost all cases the interviewer is far more interested in your capacity for independent thought and improvisation than in hearing you regurgitate the same stock answers that you think they “want to hear”. Do not follow a script, do not just say what you think the interviewer would like you to say. Instead, make rough notes on the broad range of topics and key points you want to cover in the interview. Be prepared to improvise, to change tack and to adapt your answers in order to fit with the natural flow of the conversation.


2. Over-preparing is just as bad as under-preparing

Anybody who has ever watched US drama or comedy shows on TV knows how much Americans love to talk! This is why, especially in the context of US universities, it is often the case that admissions staff cite the failings that students from China and other Asian countries are “too shy, too quiet, and too indecisive.” You need to challenge and defeat these ill-conceived stereotypes by speaking clearly, confidently and with the conviction and the belief that what you are saying is genuine, accurate and appropriate to the situation. Preparation is key. Research the school, its history, its standing and its more illustrious alumni. Have a clear vision of why this is the school you want to study in, and why you should be allowed to do so. Think not only of what the school can do for you, but also consider what you can bring to the school and its community. How will your being admitted enhance the school’s standing? What contribution can you make? You need to consider this point carefully and be sure to articulate it as best you can at the interview.

Conversely, it’s also important not to prepare too much. Especially at the higher end schools and universities, there will be a huge number of candidates interviewing each day. You may only have a few minutes to show the interviewers your best. If you waste that time waffling through page after page of pre-prepared notes, you could irreparably damage your chances of admission. Don’t do it. Also, engaging your audience is a key part of an interview or indeed any similar such verbal assessment. You don’t want to come across as droning, boring or otherwise tedious candidate. Keep your answers succinct and to the point. Elaborate where you can, but be aware of your audience. The minute you see their interest begin to wane, wind up your answer and prepare to answer the next one.


3. Be professional and mature at all times

In both the US and the UK the words “well-rounded”, “mature” and “professional” are often banded around by colleges and universities when we ask them to articulate how to describe their ideal candidate. But what do these “buzz words” actually mean?

Let’s look at well-rounded first of all. Again, common criticisms of students from this part of the world revolve around them being too timid, too focused on academia, but again this is usually not the case, but in interviews with foreign institutions we need to challenge these prejudices by projecting an image of confidence, both academic development and an accompanying “common sense”.

Maturity is perhaps a little easier to define. Going to university or college is for most people that final step from adolescence to adulthood. The interviewers want to see this newly emergent adulthood in you when you interview. Don’t sit there playing with your phone while you wait to be called, don’t bring mum and dad with you to the interview. Of course your parents want to be supportive, but if you project the image of being overly dependent on them then it hardly projects the image of confident, self-assured young adult.

Professional also ties in, to some extent with maturity. We need to project the right image. Dress smartly. A suit may not be necessary, but jeans and a t-shirt is certainly not appropriate. Get there early, but not too early. Know exactly where you need to be and when, then plan to be there about 10-15 minutes ahead of time. Any less and you risk being late, any more than that and you risk being an imposition to the institution you are attending. As in all cases, it’s important to strike the right balance.


4. Above all, stay calm, and be confident.

College interviews are some of the most stressful encounters you will experience in your adult life. Their outcome and your eventual academic destiny will leave a lasting impact that will echo through the rest of your life. Remember however, that you must have something that they like, otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the interview in the first place. Keep that thought inside you as you enter the interview, do your best and with a bit of luck, all will be well.

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