Alumni interviews can feel like a big deal. At last, the interview process isn’t anonymous; you aren’t just filling in a piece of paper or online form that some stranger you’ll never meet will read. Instead, you’re actually sitting down face-to-face with an authority figure who has some inscrutable amount of control over your future with that college.
This isn’t the most useful perspective to bring with you to the interview, and there’s no need to be too intimidated. The bottom line: alumni interviews do matter, but they aren’t going to be the deciding factor that gets you accepted. Even more importantly, the most valuable aspect of the interview might not be the most obvious.
Do They Affect Your Chance of Admission?
There isn’t a lot of consensus about exactly how much weight alumni interviews carry, and it can vary from school to school. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, says on its website that these interviews matter. Harvard, on the other hand, says that “you will not be at a disadvantage” if you aren’t able to have an interview -- which, if you think about it, suggests that their interviews don’t actually carry much weight.
One thing is clear, though: a great alumni interview isn’t going to make up for it if you’re significantly lacking in other areas. If anything, a bad interview is more likely to impact your chances of getting in than a good one -- and obviously not in a positive way. A truly terrible interview may be the deciding factor that means the acceptance letter goes to someone else.
Who’s Interviewing Whom?
If you’re going to an alumni interview for your dream school -- one that you’ve determined is a perfect academic and social fit through extensive research and at least one visit -- this interview can be mostly about the alumnus or alumna getting to know you. In other words, in this specific scenario, the alumni interview has the most obvious and straightforward role of the interviewer determining your suitability for the school.
In just about every other scenario, though, the tables are turned. The interview is at least as much about you interviewing the alum as the other way around.
Think of it this way. Sitting in front of you, you have someone who knows the school inside and out, who spent his or her college career there, and who the college thinks is representative enough of its alums to trust with this task. This is the perfect opportunity to ask questions, learn more about the school, and get a better sense of whether it’s the right fit for you.
If you approach the interview with this perspective, it will help you see the process in a healthier way. The interview isn’t just a test to see whether you’re good enough to be admitted. Instead, it should be a mutual assessment to establish whether you and the school are the right fit for each other.
What to Expect
Because your interviewer is just a person doing this on a volunteer basis, and there isn’t a set standard structure for alumni interviews, there can be a lot of variation between interviews even for the same school. Depending on your interviewer, you may meet at his or her home, your home, a coffee shop, or another mutually convenient place.
The interview usually consists of a series of questions that the interviewer poses to you. Some interviewers may be able to skillfully weave these into conversations in a way that makes you feel like you’re just chatting rather than being interviewed. Others will be more straightforward in verbally presenting you with a list of questions.
The type of questions you can expect cover your time in high school, your personal and social life outside of school, and your expectations of and desires for your college experience. For instance, you may be asked for an example of your personal growth in high school, what your interests are outside of school (and why you’re drawn to these things), and what you’re most looking forward to in your college experience.
After the interviewer has heard your answers to all of his or her questions, there will generally be a chance for you to ask questions as well. This can vary somewhat; if the interview is particularly casual and conversational, it may be a back-and-forth exchange of questions and information throughout.
Tips for Your Interview
With all that said, the interview is still a valuable opportunity both for you to impress the interviewer and for you to gain some information about the school. To ace your interview, keep these tips in mind!
- Research the school and have a few talking points in mind to demonstrate why you’re interested in that college (and why you would be a good fit). For example, is there a particular professor you want to study with? Are you interested in a major that this college offers that many others don’t?
- Prepare questions for your interviewer. Remember, this is your chance to learn more about the school and whether it’s a good fit for you! This also helps demonstrate your genuine interest in the college. With that said, make sure your questions aren’t the kind that can be answered by checking the website. Asking your interviewer something like “How many students attend this school?” just makes it sound like you haven’t done your research.
- Treat the alumni interview like a job interview. This means being there on time, neatly dressed (though you shouldn’t overdo it by wearing a business suit!), and remembering your manners.
- Put your best foot forward, but be yourself. Interviewers don’t want to hear you reciting perfect answers that you’ve memorized for common questions; they want to know who you really are.
- With that said, there’s a very good chance your interviewer will ask you some variation of “Why are you interested in this school?” While you shouldn’t have an answer stiffly memorized word-for-word, give some serious thought to this question so you have points to talk about.
What to Avoid
- Don’t talk about your test scores, grades, and so on, unless it’s absolutely relevant to another point you’re making. Your interviewer doesn’t know (or care) about these numbers; he or she is there to understand you as a person, and the school already has your academic report on file.
- Don’t forget you’re in an interview, even if the conversation is flowing naturally. This means not telling your interviewer about the time you “borrowed” your parents’ car to go sneak into a club while they were out of town, for example.
- Don’t put on an act for the interviewer. This is a pretty big umbrella, but it means you should absolutely not:
- Pretend that your interests are different than what they are. If you’re going to major in chemistry but love to unwind with a good novel, don’t pretend you only read academic articles on chemistry!
- Go overboard with an act of self-confidence. Confidence is great, but arrogance isn’t, so don’t brag about your great grades or amazing achievements. Mentioning them is fine, but let the interviewer ask questions instead of launching into a bragging monologue.
- Come into the interview and recite memorized answers. This will only show the interviewer that you know how to memorize and parrot scripts, but won’t give him or her any real information about you.