Many colleges use interviews as components of their admissions process. Yet with so much emphasis on the importance of “the essay,” the so-called experts and the internet seldom pay much attention to college interviews. Although there are countless books on how to write essays, a recent internet search revealed only one book devoted to college interviews.
However, interviews can prove even more important than essays. I am personally aware of multiple cases where great interviews catapulted applicants past higher-ranked candidates into Harvard. Why?
Most people are unaware of the specifics of the holistic grading systems utilized by highly-selective colleges. These schools usually give separate grades to each applicant’s academics, activities, and human qualities. Of course, human qualities are entirely subjective, and they are not chronicled in grade transcripts, test scores, or even lists of activities.
The powerful effect of the human attribute in admissions grading should not be underestimated. Unlike academics and activities, the scoring of human characteristics does not follow normal mathematical curves. Instead, they are binary, all-or-nothing, yes or no. Nobody “kind of” likes you; they either do, or they don’t really care. Because these attributes are entirely subjective, their numeric sub-score usually skews an applicant’s overall grade, up or down. This significantly affects the grading, both analytically and personally. Nearly a decade ago, when I asked our Harvard representative to tell me which attribute is the most important factor in admissions, Sophia said, “Usually, it’s the nicer kids who get in.”
Essays, recommendations and interviews are the sole informers of a candidate’s all-important human traits. Chronologically, the interview is the last differentiator. Most college admissions representatives review and grade an applicant’s file before the interview report arrives. In fact, for most schools, interviews are usually not requested until after the “first read” is conducted by the admissions office. As a result, the interview report is the single new piece of information used to separate the best candidates into those who will be accepted, and those who will not.
The key to a great interview is understanding the interview process. First, recognize who is conducting the interview. Most college interviews are conducted by alumni volunteers, not by admissions representatives. The admissions committees seldom meet applicants.
To achieve the best possible interview report, one must understand the interviewers themselves. Alumni choose to interview because they love their colleges and want to see good students attend their colleges. While applicants think of the interview as an interrogation, interviewers are just hoping to meet a great candidate. In fact, the most common complaint of interviewers is that they do not meet enough good candidates and, when they do, their colleges don’t offer admission to “their kids.” Interviewers don’t want to spend their time filtering out bad candidates; they want to find great candidates and advocate for them.
What is the goal of the interview? A 45-minute interview cannot contribute significantly to the evaluation of a candidate’s academic prowess or achievements in activities; that information is already available in the application itself. However, because it is usually the only opportunity for a college to meet applicants, an interview is valuable for learning more about a candidate’s interpersonal qualities. That is the primary information that admissions representatives want to see in interview reports; many of them skip or skim sections written about academics and activities.
With some strategy and practice, college applicants can take advantage of the opportunities of interviews and transform them from something scary into something powerful. The starting point, however, is to place more emphasis on your human qualities than your resume. If there’s one thing that interviewers want more than anything else, it’s simply a good conversation.
Originally published in Khaas Baat in September 2016