US College Interviews

Guides / USA

For those working at schools in the UK, the way in which a US college interviews students can often be quite confusing.

In the UK we are conditioned to the fact that being invited to interview is always a good thing: the final stage in the process, a sign that you are almost admitted, something to be congratulated. When students report that they have ‘got’ an interview with MIT or Yale or Harvard it is hard to not react in this way.

Yet, the reality can be completely different. Yes, there are a very few universities where the interview forms a compulsory part of the application procedure and it forms a key part of the selection process, but in most cases the interview is more informative or a check to see if who the applicant is in person matches who they are on their application.

Most of the time, the interview will be conducted by a former student of the university, and the purpose of the interview is much more about keeping them – a potential donor – connected with the university than it is about the student getting in. These ‘interviews’ often take place in cafes, with the alum knowing very little about the student beyond a name and an email address. These interviews are typically offered to every student who applies, so to ‘get’ an interview means very little.

An example from my career as a school counselor is illustrative. I had a very impressive student: Head Boy, liked by everyone, from an unusual background and clearly destined for good things. He applied to Harvard, and the usual former student contacted me to come and interview him. After the interview, the alum came to debrief with me and told me that this student had given “one of the best interviews I’ve ever conducted,” before following up with “it’s a shame his grades aren’t going to be strong enough.” I concurred; with ABB predictions the student was not a realistic candidate and I had been discouraging the application for months.

So then, what is the point of the interview? Well in some cases it does serve a purpose in the process, and if you are interviewing with an admissions officer you need to treat it seriously. If it’s with an alum, see this as an opportunity to find out more about that university. Ask them questions about why they went there, what they’ve done since, how the university has helped them in their career. Clearly you should dress sensibly, read through your application (which they almost certainly won’t have access to) and know more than the basics about the university (a good tip is to look at their admissions page and what they are looking for in a candidate, such as for Harvard), but beyond that there’s no need to spend hours in preparation. See this as more an informational interview: even if you give the world’s best interview, it almost certainly won’t make any difference to your chances of getting in.