In coffee shops, public libraries, and other meeting places across the world, high school seniors are sitting and chatting with graduates of their prospective colleges. The alumni interview is part of many schools' application processes, either as a requirement or an option. Many of these colleges have alumni across the world that meet individually with local applicants.
The interviews are designed so the student finds out more about the college through the experiences of the alumnus or alumna, and so the alumnus or alumna learns more about the student and how he or she may fit in at the school. At the end of interview, alumni typically report their impressions of the students to the schools, which vary in the degree to which they weigh the alumni interview.
[Explore these college admissions Q&As.]
Students can make the most of their alumni interviews by following these tips:
1. Become an expert on the school: Alumni interviewers want to know that you cared enough about the interview and their alma mater to research the school.
"We want to know that [the students have] done their homework and that they know the school. It's always a plus if they can demonstrate that they've dug deep into the [school] website," says Mickey Metzman, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus and interviewer.
Metzman also says that as he listens to the applicant, he wants to learn something new about Penn, such as a new major or concentration. If students can give him that sort of information, he says, it proves they've done their research.
2. Leave the parents at home: Schools vary on their policies of whether to allow parents to attend the alumni interview, but either way, Georgetown University alumnus Ray Esposito says, "It's not for the parents; it's for you and the interviewer."
Georgetown senior Matthew Bakios, who interviewed with an alumna as part of his application process, agrees with Esposito.
"That's what's so great about the college process," he says. "It's really the first time where it's all about you."
Bakios also points out that "you definitely want to communicate that you're mature and that your parents aren't holding your hand."
Parents are not allowed to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology interviews, and Jonathan Cohen, an alumni interviewer for the school, says the policy exists "so students can be frank."
"Being able to discuss things that might embarrass [the students], or things they don't want their parents to know, or their hearts' desires—those are things that help them make a good choice. It's not that it's secret. We want them to be honest without undue pressure, so they can ask whatever they need to get the right information," Cohen says.
[Learn why parents should avoid hovering over their college-bound kids.]
3. Look sharp: Cohen, the MIT alumnus, suggests that students don't necessarily need to interview in a full suit. It's fine for students to look "neat but casual," as if they were giving a presentation at school, he says.
"If you're dressed sloppily or shabbily, that makes a negative impression. That [gives] the impression that for some reason you don't care," he says.
4. Remember the basics: Esposito is the chair of Georgetown's Alumni Admissions Program and has conducted alumni interviews with more than 150 prospective students since he graduated in 1978. He quickly rattles off a few obvious but important tips: Arrive on time; thank the interviewer when you leave; and be professional.
5. Be yourself: While preparing for an interview is important, memorizing word-for-word answers will not show the interviewer who you really are. As many alumni emphasize, the interview is a conversation, so it should not be scripted.
"The most important thing is someone who is genuine. If you have a prepared answer, I can hear that. I can hear that you're feeding me lines," says Cohen of the MIT candidates he's interviewed.
[Get more application tips from the College Admissions Insider.]
Metzman, the Penn alumnus, echoes this point.
"Don't try to be what you think we're looking for. Be who you are, and we'll work from there," he says.
6. Don't be shy: This is your shot at showing the school who you are beyond the application, so answer questions openly and with details.
"If [the students are] only answering 'yes' or 'no,' it doesn't really give us a feel for who they are, their … intellectual curiosity, what they're excited about—we don't get to know that," says Anu Reddy, a Duke University alumna and interviewer.
Georgetown alumnus Esposito adds, "The more you talk to the interviewer about yourself, the easier it is for the interviewer to write a meaningful report."
Esposito also suggests that students share relevant anecdotes. One of Cohen's MIT candidates, for example, explained that he first became interested in friction—or rather, the lack thereof—when he took a curb too quickly on his bike and fell. Personal experiences and anecdotes tell a more in-depth story of the candidate and make them more memorable, Cohen says.
7. Don't restate your application info: Use the interview to supplement your application—not to repeat it.
"The university knows what your SAT scores are, what your GPA is, [and] what your grades are in class. The purpose of the interview is to tell us more about yourself. What makes you tick? Why do you want to come here? What interests you? What are your passions?" says Esposito.
The interview is also an opportunity to elaborate on parts of your application that may need explanation. For example, Metzman remembers how one of his Penn candidates listed very few extracurricular activities in her application. In the interview, the student made a point to explain that she was very busy working three jobs to support her family.
[Learn why college students should consider a part-time job.]
8. Ask questions: MIT's Cohen points out that the alumni interview is a "two-way street." The alumni learn about the students, and the students learn about the school through the alumni.
Reddy says of her Duke candidates, "They get to find out why we chose Duke. And so that's one area where I can talk about Duke's benefits as an alum, having been there. I was in their seat at one point, so what did I go through?"
9. Keep in touch: Four years after his Georgetown alumni interview, Bakios still occasionally E-mails and visits with the graduate who met with him in high school.
He says that if a student gets along with the graduate, "One of the best parts of the [interview] process is that it sort of gives you someone to advocate for you a little bit."
Bakios plans to connect with prospective students after he graduates this spring by becoming an interviewer himself.
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