Since October, I have had the privilege of interviewing many high school students applying to Princeton University. Each student I’ve spoken with has been impressive in a distinct way, and has had unique weaknesses as well. Based on my experience conducting interviews, I think the following advice may be helpful to university applicants across the board.
1. You will likely be instructed, in the beginning of your interview, to “Tell me about yourself!”
Do NOT go into an interview without knowing how you will respond to this question. It is not good form to sound like this: “So..my name is XYZ and…I grew up in XYZ…and um..I really like science…”
In my experience, the best answers flow seamlessly, and feel like a story that give an overview of where the interviewee is from, where they grew up/studied, what they are interested in (academically and outside of school), and ends clearly. In order to get that seamless, story-like flow, I think it’s easiest to tell your story in chronological order, but that’s not required. Once you state these basic things about yourself, I think it is a great idea to say what you are passionate about, and to include academic/career related topics and also hobbies/other interests. Mentioning hobbies and non-academic interests makes you sound more relatable, and indicates that you understand that there is more to a person than just the academic stuff. If your response to “Tell me about yourself” ONLY talks about what you are interested in academically, that kind of means that you think that academics are all there is to a person, and that’s not attractive to any university.
Whatever you talk about, though, use this question as an opportunity to guide the conversation. An interview is a two way street; don’t feel that the interviewer holds all the power in shaping the conversation. If you really emphasize something while answering this question, chances are that the interviewer will ask you about that specific thing. For example, if you say “I am REALLY passionate about disparities in access to education, and I’ve studied it a ton independently and have tried to pursue service relating to this topic.” there is a good chance your interviewer will ask you to speak more about how you became interested in education disparities, and how you’ve tried to learn more about this field. So if you really want to talk about something specific, make a big deal of it when answering this question. And conversely, if you don’t want to elaborate on something, don’t bring it up when answering this question.
Finally, make sure it is clear when you are done answering the question. One of the things I’ve seen a lot is when the interviewee trails off at the end with something like “and I’m also interested in xyz, so…..yeah…”. Be confident in what you are saying, and end with inflection in your voice that signals that you are done answering and that you are confident in what you’ve just said. Also, you don’t want this to sound too rehearsed because that just comes off like you’re giving a monologue rather than having a conversation, so keep that in mind.
2. Be prepared to speak about your co-curricular involvements
You will almost certainly be asked about what you were involved in outside of school OR you will be asked to speak more about specific co-curricular activities. Which case you fall into depends on whether or not the interviewer has had a chance to look at your application before your interview. So be prepared to speak about your involvements outside the class room at length. You should be prepared to explain what the activity is/was, why you participated in the activity, what your specific role is/was, what difference you made specifically, the result of your efforts (individually or as a team), what you learned/gained, what you enjoyed, and what you found challenging. Thinking through these questions for each of the extracurricular activities you participated in will allow you to speak eloquently about your experiences at the time of the interview.
Also, some interviewers ask questions like “Tell me about a time you had to work on a team.” or “Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge and how you addressed it.” Try to answer these questions following the STAR method. Thinking through your experiences in and outside the classroom in advance will allow you to most effectively convey your thoughts during the interview.
3. When asked about why you want to attend XYZ university, be specific
If you bring up things about the university that you could find on the front page of a university’s website, you are doing it wrong. It is much more impactful to speak about specific things that you have researched about the school which you are excited about. These things should be very specific to what you want to study academically or activities you want to participate in. Additionally, you want to show what you will bring to the university. The university knows it has great opportunities, but you need to show what you can contribute and why they should accept you.
An academics example: Saying that you want to go to XYZ University because they have good research opportunities in the ABC department is not that impressive. Saying that you want to go to XYZ University because you love the work of a certain professor and that you want to work in his/her lab and do your thesis in that department is better. Saying that you love the work of a certain professor and want to work with him/her, and then stating specific ideas you have for how he/she can modify a certain project and explore a new dimension of their topic would be best.
A co-curriculars example: Saying that you want to attend XYZ University because they have a great debate team which you want to join is not specific. Saying that you are eager to join the debate team because of 3 things that make XYZ University’s debate team different from other debate teams across the nation is better. Saying that you love xyz topic, but that the university doesn’t have a co-curricular organization/club/team for that, and that you want to start one of your own is even better.
I am not recommending lying or making stuff up about each school you interview with- I am recommending doing such thorough research that you ACTUALLY have genuine ideas on what you would participate in at XYZ University. I did this for undergrad and medical school interviews and I actually ended up doing the things I said I wanted to do in my interviews.
4. Know what things you absolutely want to cover
When preparing for your interviews, prepare a list of key points that you want your interviewer to know about you by the end of your interview. A lot of your co curricular activities and your academic interests will likely come up naturally during the interview, so I recommend limiting this list to a few of the most interesting things about you that you want to bring up if they don’t come up naturally. Next, think about HOW you will bring these few things up if you are nearing the end of the interview and you haven’t gotten an opportunity to talk about them yet. It’s not that uncommon to realize that your interview is ending soon and to feel like there are things you didn’t get to talk about yet, which is why I recommend having a game plan for how you will bring up some of the things that you don’t want to leave undiscussed. A good way to bring these things up is when your interviewer asks whether you have any questions about their university. That usually comes at the end of the interview, so it’s a good time to bring up anything that is still uncovered. An example of how this might be done:
I designed and sewed a lot of my own clothes in high school, and I wanted to make sure to bring this up during my interviews, especially because that was pretty much the only ‘creative’ or ‘artsy’ co-curricular activity I was involved in. If I didn’t get a chance to bring this up, and the interviewer asked if I had any other questions about the school (indicating that I was reaching the end of the interview), I would say something along the lines of “I’m pretty interested in art and I love designing my own clothes, so I was wondering if you felt that there were a lot of opportunities for students to get involved in art at XYZ University if they aren’t actually majoring in/studying art formally.”
5. Bring in art/accomplishments
I have seen students bring in art they made, and I’ve always found that to be proactive and interesting. I like this idea, so if you have art that is wearable or portable, I think it is cool to bring it to the interview. I designed and sewed my own clothes in high school and I would always wear a blouse that I made myself to my interviews, and it was always well received.
6. Have genuine questions
Your interviewer will leave time for questions, so make sure you have some good questions prepared. These should be genuine questions that came up when you were researching the school, and should be things you actually want to know. It’s fine to ask generic questions like ‘What was your favorite/least favorite thing about XYZ University?” but if you ONLY ask generic questions like these and no specific questions, you are giving up a chance to show that you know your stuff about the school. Also, it shows when students haven’t done their research about the school. For instance, if you say that you are interested in double majoring, but the university doesn’t allow double majoring, it may indicate that you didn’t research the university enough.
Good questions show that the student has done their research about the academic department and co-curriculars they are interested in. For example, if the university is known for having students participate in research (optional or required), you might ask about when students typically start searching for research mentors in your department of interest. Just research the school plenty, and specific questions are bound to arise. All I’m saying is that specific is key.
Confidence speaks volumes. I personally attended a magnet high school in Chicago, and hadn’t had too much exposure to private boarding high schools. Of course, I know people from university who attended private high schools, but I never spent much time AT private high schools. When I interviewed students from private schools this year, I was most impressed with how poised these students were, and how comfortable they were while interacting with adults. I’m not sure there is a way to fake this, but if you can talk with as many adults as possible, and perhaps do mock interviews with them in advance, that will probably help. I think confidence is such an impressive characteristic in an applicant, and it can really impress an interviewer (I said confidence, not arrogance).
8. Practice out loud, especially if you aren’t eloquent
Students I interviewed later on in the application cycle seemed SO more eloquent than those I interviewed earlier on in the cycle, or for early decision. I am 99% sure this is because the more eloquent students had already done 5-10 interviews by the time they were meeting with me. Practicing out loud helps you get comfortable articulating your thoughts concisely, because you will notice if you start rambling. You can practice out loud alone; it doesn’t have to be with someone. That said, I recommend doing a few in-person mock interviews as well.
I didn’t practice much when preparing for my undergrad interviews, but I practiced a TON for my med school interviews (the interview is a much more important part of the med school application process than the university application process). I think I did a fine job when interviewing for undergrad, but a WAY BETTER job when applying for med school because of that.
*Disclaimer: These tips are for high school students interviewing for university. I think a lot of these tips work for pre-med students applying to medical school as well, even though med school interviews are pretty different from undergrad interviews. However, I haven’t actually interviewed pre-med students for medical school, so take that with a grain of salt.