College Interview Tips — Interview With Sara Zessar, Founder of Discovery College Consulting



TUN sits down with Sara Zessar, the founder of Discovery College Consulting, to discuss how students can prepare for their college interview. 

TUN: Sarah thanks so much for joining us. 

Zessar: Thanks for having me. 

There are two main types of college interviews, which are evaluative and informative. Can you explain the differences between these two types of college interviews?

Sure. Evaluative interviews are what they sound like. They’re used to evaluate an applicant. They become part of a student’s application, and they’re used along with all the other parts of the application to make an admissions decision. 

Informative interviews are sort of less formal. They’re more of a chance for a student to just ask questions and learn more about the college. Having said that, just because it’s sort of put out there as an informative interview rather than an evaluative interview, you very likely will be interviewing with an admissions counselor who is the person who’s going to be reading your application. So, it’s still good to make a good impression. 

Absolutely. Let’s continue by speaking more about evaluative interviews. How big of a role do evaluative interviews play in the college admissions process? Can they make or break a candidate? 

I can’t speak to the role they play at every college, because it really depends on the school. Having said that, before I became a college consultant, I did alumni interviews for my alma mater. What we were told as alumni interviewers was that our interview and the little report that we would write up after the interview was given the same weight as a recommendation letter. We were also told the interview could only help the applicant and that it couldn’t hurt them. 

Now, again, while I can’t speak to the role they play at other colleges, as far as whether they can make or break an applicant, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far. But, I would say that if an applicant is borderline for admission and they have a really good interview, that could potentially push them closer to an admit. And, if they’re borderline for admission and they have a really bad interview, that could potentially push them closer to a denial.

Great. What are some of the common evaluative college interview questions that students should prepare for? As you run through the questions, could you offer advice as to how they should answer them?

When I was doing these interviews, I always started with, “Tell me about yourself.” 

I think that’s a really common way for an interview to start, and that’s a really broad, open-ended question. So, I always tell students to have a few things in mind that they want to talk about if they get that question.

Another one is, “Tell me about your high school. What have you liked about it and what have you not liked about it?”

I think with that question, certainly you want to focus on the positives. But, if you’re specifically asked, “What do you not like about your high school or what would you change if you had the chance,” it’s okay to address that. 

“Which high school classes have you most enjoyed?” 

If you are set on a certain major, it’s great to talk about classes related to that major. If you aren’t, then mention whatever classes you’ve enjoyed.

“What activities are you involved in and which ones are your favorites?”

Like the “tell me about yourself” question, you don’t want to rattle off a laundry list of all of your activities. You would want to focus on a few activities, and I would pick ones that you’ve had an in-depth ongoing involvement in. It’s certainly important also to mention any awards you’ve won or accomplishments you’ve had in that activity and any leadership positions that you’ve held.

Another question is, “How have you spent your summer?” 

Part of your summer — and this is totally acceptable — may have been spent hanging out with friends, going to the pool and playing video games. But, those are not the things that you should focus on. In answering this question, you want to talk about things like a job, volunteering, summer camps or summer academic programs, sports and things like that. 

“Can you give an example of a time when you demonstrated leadership?”

I always tell students, leadership doesn’t have to be through an official title or position, so keep that in mind if you get that question.

“What has been your proudest accomplishment?”

Unless they specifically ask about an academic accomplishment, it doesn’t have to be something academic. It could be outside of the classroom.

“Tell me about a challenge you had to overcome.” 

Again, unless they specifically say an academic challenge, this could be something outside of academics. 

“What do you want to major in and why?” 

For students who know what they want to major in, this is a pretty easy question to answer. If they don’t know what they want to major in, I would advise talking about a few of the things that you’re considering. But, don’t just say, “I don’t know.” Have some things in mind that you’re thinking about and you can talk about those. 

For the last three questions I’m going to mention, I’m going to just tell you what they all are and then sort of give advice that pertains to all three of them. 

Those are, “Why are you interested in this college?,” “How would you contribute to this college?” and “What are your long-term goals and how does this college fit into those goals?”

You’re definitely going to get questions that are specific to the college that you’re interviewing for.  This is your chance to really demonstrate that you have done your research, that you can give specific reasons and examples about why you’re interested in that school and explain why you’re a good fit for it. 

You definitely want to spend some time preparing for that so you can give those specific reasons and examples. 

Check out TUN’S interview with Gabrielle Dorsey, the executive director of Bridges Educational Consulting, for more advice on the most common questions students can expect during a college interview and how they should answer them.

Great. I know that it’s common advice that applicants should show up to their college interviews with questions of their own. What should these questions look like? 

That depends somewhat on who the interview is with. If you can find that out ahead of time, that’s really helpful because it could be with an admissions counselor, a current student or an alum. And, the questions you would ask would kind of be different depending on who is doing the interview. 

If it’s an admissions counselor, you can ask very specific things about the college, about academic programs, activities, sports, campus life and if you have questions about the admissions process, that’s okay too. 

If it’s a current student or a recent alum, focus on their experiences. “What did they like and not like about the school?” “Why did they choose that college?” “Would they make the same choice if they had to do it all over again?” Certainly, you can ask those questions to an alum who graduated a long time ago as well, but they may not be as relevant or helpful. 

For someone who maybe graduated a long time ago, you could say, “What are some of your favorite memories of the school?” and “How did that college prepare you for where you are now with your career?” 

What should students wear to their college interviews?

I tell students, you don’t need to get really dressed up. But, you obviously don’t want to look like a slob either. 

For boys, I would recommend a button-down shirt, a polo or a sweater. 

For girls, I would say a blouse, a nice shirt, sweater or dress. 

Avoid jeans and sneakers, if you have other options. 

For boys, khakis or a nice pair of dress pants. 

For girls, khakis, dress, pants, a skirt or a dress. 

Great. So, I want to speak a little bit more about informative college interviews. What are the main benefits of these interviews? What will students gain from them?

Again, like I said earlier, this is really just a chance for a student to ask questions and learn more about the college, especially if they have questions that weren’t addressed in a tour or an information session.

So, it’s really just a way for them to gather more information and decide, you know, “Is this somewhere that would be a good fit for me and that I want to apply to?

To wrap up, is there anything that we’ve missed? Do you have any other additional tips to help students prepare for their evaluative or informative college interviews?

I do. First of all, it’s important to prepare. You can use the questions I mentioned earlier and just think about or even make some notes about how you would answer those questions. But if you do make notes, I would recommend that you don’t bring them to the interview. 

This is easier said than done, but relax and be yourself. This is a chance for the college to learn more about who you are beyond what’s in your application. If it’s an evaluative interview, certainly. If it’s informative, you still want to make a good impression. So, don’t try to be someone you’re not. 

Send a “thank you” after the interview. I think an email is totally fine. If you don’t have that person’s email address before the interview, make sure you ask for it at the interview. 

I also always tell students, if it feels like the interviewer’s wrapping up and there’s something you were really wanting to talk about and haven’t had the chance to do that, I think it’s totally fine to say, “There was something I was really hoping to tell you. Could we take a couple minutes to talk about that.” 

As long as you’re polite about it, I think that’s totally fine. That’s pretty much all the advice I have.

Thanks, Sarah, for joining us today.

You’re welcome. Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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