Admissions interview tips from the Interviewer

I recently found myself interviewing prospective candidates for Rice University’s freshman class of 2015. Below, I’ll tell you about some of my interviews and explain to you some things your child should and should not do in his interview for college, high school, or really anything. In general, your child should be able to talk intelligently about his accomplishments, explain why he’s a good fit, and show enthusiasm to the school to which he’s applying.

Do Some Research and Know Your Message 

Sitting across from me was a precocious young man with a resume longer than Rice’s 3-mile outer loop running track.  As he rattled off his accomplishments, I couldn’t help but thinking I’d rather be outside running that loop, not because I enjoy running, but because I would rather be anywhere else but in the same room with him.

“And when I was in fifth grade, I won my math class’s bridge building contest, and–and–I got the award for best manners,” my eager high school senior rattled off.

After about fifteen minutes of him reading me his resume, I interrupted him, “I can see from your resume that you’re very accomplished; tell me something that’s not on your resume.”

I can’t remember his answer.  He lost me at resume point number 128. I think somewhere along the way, he also mentioned that he really liked UT because his brother went there and had a great time.

This student wasn’t prepared for the interview. He rambled; I mean, he read his resume line for line. And he didn’t know anything about Rice; in fact he told me about UT instead. You can avoid his pitfalls by spending a few minutes thinking about what type of image you want to convey and that image fits in with what you know about the school to which you’re applying.

But Don’t Forget You’re Human

My next candidate was even more qualified; he probably possessed twice my cognitive ability. On paper, he looked as if he should be able to go to any school of his choice: perfect SAT and ACT scores, tons of AP classes, and a class rank that would land him at UT no questions asked — and from a well known, celebrated high school.

Simply put, this young man was the epitome of prepared.

“My name is Albert Einstein; I have impeccable grades and test scores, am an admirable do-gooder, and I want to attend Rice because of its stellar reputation for world-renowned research.”

If I were a computer search engine looking for key phrases on, “how to get into the top school of your choice,” I would have put his response at the top of the search results. But I like to think of myself as a little bit more sophisticated.

At one point in the interview, his responses were so well rehearsed and on message that I felt like I was back in my mock trial days cross-examining a witness and not getting anywhere.

“It’s clear to me that your answers are well-prepared, but quite honestly, I can’t tell who you are as a person,” I said hoping that he would reactivate his human switch. “So tell me a little bit more about why you want to come to Rice,” I inquired of my brilliant interviewee.

“Because I want to conduct research that will change the world through scientific innovation; innovation like what I’ve been doing since second grade at the Center for Disease Control originally as an intern but most recently as an Associate Professor in Pathology and at the same time as volunteering 40 hours a week at the Center for Kids who Can’t Read Good.” (okay, so I slightly embellished his response)

“That’s great,” I said, “But what will you do outside of your prize-winning research, you know, like on weekends and after class?”

He hesitates, looks down, then asks me, “Is there a Center for Kids who Can’t Read Good near Rice?”

Come on! Give me a break! Tell me that you think the residential college system is cool, or that you like how Rice has a beautiful campus, or you like it’s urban location relative to so much cultural activity.  Tell me anything to remind me that you’re actually human and not just some sort of automaton! Don’t over-prepare.

Show some passion 

Next up was a young lady from a small town. Her test scores were good, top 10% or so, but they weren’t as high as the city slickers I talked with before her. Her resume wasn’t as long as the first guy, and her answers weren’t nearly as polished as the second guy.

But when I asked her why she wanted to come to Rice, she stumbled.

Ordinarily, I’d fault a candidate for stumbling, especially when said candidate was the President of the Speech and Debate team as was her case. But in her case, I think she stumbled because she genuinely had to think about my question and process everything that she wanted to say.

“I first visited Rice when I was a sophomore and instantly fell in love,” she started. “I like the college system; I like how inclusive it is and how easy it seems to make friends not just with people from your major but across all disciplines. I think the campus is beautiful. When I’m here, I just feel so happy…”

Honestly, even after her initial stumble, her answer wasn’t eloquent, but in it I could tell she had a passion for academics, for success, and for Rice. She wanted to be an Owl, and I wanted to see her matriculate.

I gave this interviewee the highest marks of the day.

Interview Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  1. Understand the story you wish to convey about yourself.
  2. Research the school to which you’re applying including preparing intelligent questions.
  3. Practice your responses and professional mannerism.

Don’t:

  1. Get so lost in a prepared pitch that you don’t actually answer the questions.
  2. Forget that you’re talking to a human being who wants to like you.
  3. Over practice.

Shelby is the Founder and President of General Academic. He graduated from Rice University in 2007 with a BA in political science and is a former management consultant.

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