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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dear Mr. Bradshaw: I have applied to several colleges that require personal interviews. The interviews start in January, and I am a little nervous.

Are the interviews really that important, and if so, how can I do well? Of the whole application process, these interviews scare me the most. Signed, Scared Senior

Prepare well for college interviews



Dear Scared Senior: If you are applying to an accelerated joint undergraduate and medical school program, interviews are very important. If you do poorly, don't expect to get in.

Most colleges that have accelerated BA/MD programs require the interviews to be held on campus. Be prepared to face a star chamber of professors acting as a committee of judges whose questions are often designed to see how well you perform under pressure.

Many will ask questions you can't possibly be expected to answer. That's their goal -- to see how well you react when you don't know the answer.

I have clients applying to such programs at Boston University, Brown University, Northwestern University, Saint Louis University and the University of Rochester. And every one is nervous, so don't feel you are alone in your apprehension.

On the other hand, only the most highly competitive colleges require the student to be interviewed by alumni.

Before becoming a consultant, I interviewed applicants to Harvard College for 15 years. Harvard, like most of the highly competitive colleges, uses an extensive network of alumni to conduct the interviews.

Harvard points out that the interview is perhaps its most important recruiting tool. The admissions office admits only one of every nine applicants in recent years, and the interviewer is usually the only personal contact students have with the college.

Most other colleges follow Harvard and consider the alumni interviewer to be their official representative. Think of it as your chance to speak directly to the admission committee.

Here is my advice on how to do well in the interview:

First and most importantly, be prepared to answer the most fundamental question: Why do you want to go to our college?

You'd be surprised at the number of students who completely blow this question.

If applying to Harvard, "Because I like Boston, and Cambridge is a cool place," is not going to impress the interviewer -- who, by the way, has given up his or her time to do this job.

"Because your school has the smartest professors in the world" is another inane answer. All the time the interviewer is thinking, "Tell me something I don't already know."

Keep in mind that interviews often take place with a group of students being interviewed at the same time -- the worst-case scenario. You'll sound like a bunch of parrots with these answers.

Picture all the competitive personalities vying for attention at the same time. It's frightfully ugly, I can tell you from experience.

It may sound surprising, but in all my years of interviewing students, only a handful came up with good answers to that question. So make that the pivotal question around which you build your image. More than anything else, a well-researched answer on why you want to go there will impress the interviewer.

Next, make sure you connect with them emotionally.

How does one do that? Be the first to greet them with solid eye contact, a big smile and a firm handshake.

Act as if you really enjoy it. If the interview is held in a public place like a Starbucks, make sure to get there first so you can greet them by asking if they would like a cup of coffee or something to drink. The interviewer will be a little nervous, and nothing breaks the ice like the offer of a cup of coffee.

If the interview is in a public place, get there early and find the most secluded table where you won't be distracted.

If given the choice, by all means you should pick the place to meet. A high school conference room is perfect. Ask your counselor for permission. Why there? Because the interview is conducted on your own turf -- you hold the high ground, which turns the tables on them and helps give you the edge. That's where you'll probably be the most comfortable.

Next, be prepared to dictate the terms of the interview.

Sound impossible? Not if it is conducted on your turf and you've done your homework.

The interviewer actually will enjoy having the pressure taken off himself or herself. I know this may sound silly, but most alumni enjoyed their high school experience, and this is an excellent opportunity for them to reconnect.

And they will appreciate it. One of my clients even gave me a tour of the new soccer field, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. She ended up graduating from Harvard and its law school.

If the interview is held at the interviewer's place of business, be prepared to wear business attire. For boys, a suit or sport coat and tie is appropriate.

If held at high school or other public place, wear a collared shirt and sweater, or a collared shirt and sport coat. Polished dress shoes or loafers are mandatory -- never sneakers.

Girls usually have a better sense for appropriate attire and know how to dress for the occasion. Girls and boys both fall short, however, on the handshake. Be sure to use a firm grip even if you were taught limp was better.

In rare instances, the interview may be carried out by webcam. The same rules apply. No handshake, of course, but you need to be upbeat, smile and give a little wave of the hand to let them know you are relaxed and happy to be there.

There is plenty of time left to practice these guidelines. If you can master nothing else, remember: The first question interviewers ask is why you want to go to their college.

The students who can handle that question are usually the ones who get in.

While there is more to the interview process than the above, keep one thing in mind: Write a biography of at least 1,250 words.

You need to find out who you really are and what makes you excited about life. Look for things that you can use to build up the big persona.

You need to craft an interview image, which is something that, if done successfully, is larger than life. All great interviews leave that larger-than-life impression.

Up until now it has been about how well you learned to listen in the classroom; now it's all about how well you learned to talk and to project yourself publicly.

Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to prepare to gain admission to selective colleges, universities and law schools.

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