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I get it; interviews are scary.

It is an hour in front of someone judging you, and I can understand being nervous.

As a former Harvard interviewer, though, I’d tell you to relax. Interviews are not nearly as terrifying as they sound, and if you follow a few basic tips, you’ll do great.

Interviews are conversations

The best interviews don’t feel like interviews; they are conversations. You want to ask just as many questions of your interviewer are they do of you and just let the conversation flow.

Remember that most interviewers are alumni volunteers, and they volunteer to do this because they loved their experience at their school and want to encourage other people to make the same choice. If you give them the opportunity to talk about their experience, they will love that (and by extension think more favorably about you).

What to ask

The more questions you have prepared, the easier it will be to stay in a conversation. Use your questions as a springboard to get your interviewer to tell you more about the college you are applying to and to talk about their experience and reflections. I highly recommend asking questions like:

Why did you choose your school?

How did you choose your major?

What was most surprising to you when you got to college?

What was your favorite class?

Did you build close relationships with your professors?

Did you make lifelong friends in college?

Did you live on-campus or off-campus, and what was that like?

Did you feel the student body was diverse?

What extracurriculars did you participate in?

You can probably imagine a million others. Ask whatever feels natural in the flow of conversation, and don’t feel like you have to wait until the end to jump into these kinds of things. It feels way more natural as an interviewer to have a flow going that isn’t just them asking you a question and you providing an answer over and over.

What interviewers will ask you

As far as the questions they will ask you, it really depends on the interviewer. For your reference, however, here is a list of the specific questions Harvard sends to its interviewers as recommendations. Many interviewers will deviate from this list, but it is a standard place to start.

  • Describe your school community.
  • What courses are you taking?
  • Which courses do you enjoy? Why?
  • Which do you least enjoy? Why?
  • In which activities are you involved? Why? Which do you most enjoy? Why?
  • What are the important activities in your school? Why?
  • What do you do in the summer?
  • Do you have a favorite book?
  • Or, which book have you recently read? Do you prefer reading online? What blogs or sites do you read regularly?

Interviewers ask these questions to learn more about your passions and motivations. It says so explicitly in my Harvard interviewer handbook. Here is the quote: “As you talk about something of importance to the candidate, your questions should point toward discovering motivation, commitment, and level and quality of contribution. Your questions should be open-ended to encourage candidates to provide their own insights and reflections about

their experiences.”

You are being asked these questions to give you the opportunity show who you are; they aren’t being asked to test you or trip you up.

Remember this is not a job interview

At a job interview, you are supposed to show your knowledge and competency.

In a college interview, you are encouraged to be more open and honest so that you not only explain what you’ve done but also delve into why you did it and how it affected you.

The worst thing you can do is just answer the question and leave it at that. Don’t do this:

Interviewer: Describe your school community.

You: It is good. Average I’d say.

This is the kind of dialogue that makes your interview want to run away and hide (trust me, I’ve been in this situation. Instead, try the following:

Interviewer: Describe your school community.

You: I come from a pretty diverse public school. We have a high achieving contingency certainly, and there are a number of advanced courses like AP classes, etc., but we also have a pretty high dropout rate. Personally, I’ve been incredibly thankful to attend such a diverse school because I’ve made friends who come from a wide variety of backgrounds. I figure in college, I probably won’t be exposed to the same kind of diversity so I’m glad I got to experience that in high school.

That is so much better!

An interviewer can see that you are reflective, appreciate diversity, and are able to carry on a conversation and say something interesting.

Depending on where you are in the interview, this also might be a good time to ask your interviewer about what they thought about the diversity of the student body in college or the colleges efforts to recruit students from diverse backgrounds now.

Follow basic etiquette

Focusing on having a conversation and being open, honest, and reflective is the most important part of an interview, no doubt, but no post on interviews could be complete without a couple of notes on interview etiquette.

You don’t want to overdress. Wearing a suit is a little too formal for a college interview. Keep in mind, however, that there is such a thing as underdressing too (e.g. jeans with holes).

Most interviewers would be fine with jeans and a sweater, polo, blouse, etc., but I recommend erring on the side of caution and maybe opting for khakis or black dress pants just to be safe (there is still a contingency of anti-jean people in the older demographic so you never know).

You may want to bring a resume with you to give your interviewer some background about you or so that they can reference it when they get around to writing your report. Keep in mind that most interviewers do not have access to your full application so providing them with some written material can be useful.

Finally, write them a short thank you note within 24 hours to thank them for their time. Remember that they are usually volunteers and not paid to talk to you or write you a long report so thanking them can make a big difference.

This isn’t hard

As I said at the beginning of this post; none of this is hard.

If you go into it ready to be honest and open and you have the mindset of having a conversation rather than being in an interview, and if you are prepared to be open and honest in your answers, you will be fine.

You don’t need to rehearse your answers over and over beforehand. Canned answers almost always sound fake anyway. You may want to think about the things that matter most to you, your passions and interests, etc. before you walk into the interview, but 15 minutes of reflection is more than sufficient preparation.

And remember, interviews in most cases make very little difference. A spectacular interview can help you and a horrible interview can hurt you, but 80% of interviews make very little difference. So I recommend you don’t worry about it too much and just enjoy the experience. Chances are if you have fun, the interviewer will have fun too.

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