College Interviews


You're about ready to hog-tie your mother and throw her in the trunk
of the car. Unfortunately, considering the frumpy getup she insisted
you wear, you'd probably work up a fierce sweat and then you'd
really be "unpresentable" (to use her word) for your college
interview. And, alas, she's the one who knows how to find the
admissions office on this squirrel haven of a campus, not you. So
instead you just sit there in the passenger seat, making a last-ditch
effort to read those issues of The Economist that you've been
stashing with the intentions of brushing up on the world's geopolitical
climate, which the crusty-tweedy-beardy admissions type you draw
will probably be cruel enough to ask you about. That is, if he can stop
laughing at your woeful SAT scores.

It's a lot to worry about, the college interview. Probably for the first
time in your life, you have to sell yourself to a total stranger. You
have to make him or her realize that marbles aren't as well-rounded
as you are. And, unfortunately, you have to do it with a certain degree
of sincerity. That's why it's good to bear in mind that there are other
ways for colleges to figure out who you are--transcript and
recommendations and test scores, for example. So the half hour you
spend sitting there with the admissions rep is not going to be the most
important half hour in your life--even if it turns out to be the most
excruciating to date.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: No matter how much you prepare and
worry, the interview will never be exactly what you expect. After
getting the nitty-gritty of the Israel-Palestine issue set to memory,
you're more likely to be thrown off by the unanticipated--like where
the interview takes place.

My first college interview, for Georgetown University, was with a
doctor who'd gone to medical school there, so we met at his office.
My mother and I waited in the anteroom, flipping through little
pamphlets about eating for life and the warning signs for head
injuries, until he called me into his examining room/office. Of
course, I walked over to the examination table with its white crackly
paper before I saw that he was over at his desk, pointing to the
extra chair. I knew at that very moment I had no chance of getting
in. When I was telling him about why I dropped calculus and why I
wanted to major in French, I was so preoccupied with the vision of
myself lying on the table wearing a robe made out of paper
toweling, that I couldn't keep my mind on the questions. When the
interview was over, I half expected him to give me a prescription or
a lollipop.

Instead, he just shook my hand and wished me good luck. Apparently
he didn't wish very hard, because five months later, I was rejected.
Of course, I was sure that the predominant reason I didn't get in was
because the doc didn't like me. But to be fair, even if you seem to hit
it off with your interviewer and you think he or she really likes you,
that still doesn't mean you'll automatically get in.

IRREPRESSIBLE YOU: Amy insists she's an exception to that tenet.
She strongly believes she had no business applying to Yale. Her
grades were good, but her inner-city school wasn't all that
competitive, and she was sure she got high test scores only because
the curve favored her. And her SAT scores were lackluster. When
the time came for her interview in New Haven, Connecticut, she
thought it would be just a formality before the rejection. "I told
the guy how I'm horrible at standardized tests and that I just
couldn't afford a prep class...and then I told him the history of
my hair."

A week before her interview, Amy had gone to the hairdresser in
search of an appropriately conservative cut. But her coiffeuse sent
Amy away with a spiky crop with claw marks shaved along the sides.
It was strange enough that she felt she had to at least acknowledge
it at the interview. "If I had been on crutches, I would have told him
what had happened to my foot," Amy explains. That's how she got to
discussing all the stages her hair had been through since she was 12:
when she dyed it blue, when she cut it all off, when it was spiked,
when she had let it grow down her back, and how her mother reacted
to each look. The following April, Amy was accepted at Yale.

This tactic doesn't work for everyone, so put the poodle shears
away. For one thing, Amy was probably selling the rest of her
application short. But she did have two things going for her in the
interview that admissions offices love--being herself and being
relaxed. Both of which are, of course, much easier said than done:
For most of us, being told to "be yourself" is as useful as being
told by a field hockey coach to "look alive." Basically, though, what
it comes down to is that you don't have to give them a dog-and-pony
show (no Homeric poem about your exploits as a mathlete). And
don't be compelled to be the Queen of Quirk, either. If you
don't usually carry a Charlie's Angels lunch box, don't bring it to
the interview.

Of course, not all interviewers are content to let you free-associate
about your hair or your troll collection. Elizabeth found herself being
asked, after a series of chitty-chatty-how-was-the-drive questions, to
define the word "relative"--the adjective, not the noun. Denni
interviewed with a grizzled math professor alum who hounded her
about the following hypothetical situation: If she were committed to a
cause, would she be the person to spearhead a protest march, help
organize a protest march, or just join in a protest march? "I wanted
to know what kind of protest it was," she says, "and he kept saying,
'It's abstract, it's anything you believe in.' And I kept saying that it
would depend, my conviction varies with different causes.

"Besides, what if I had said, 'Yes, that's me with the bullhorn and
the M-80 storming the steps of the administration building.' Sure, I'd
be displaying all kinds of leadership skills, but none that the school
would want to contend with. We both ended up so frustrated by the
end of the talk that I think he was growling."

SAY WHAT? At the very least, Denni was talking. Some people just
can't: It's impossible for them to come up with witty,
self-aggrandizing responses to searching questions. If that sounds
like you, you're not necessarily sunk. Maine is a state renowned for
its understated residents, so admissions officers at Bates College,
in Lewiston, are used to pulling answers like eyeteeth from some
applicants. Like the kid who was a great tennis player, but no matter
what William Hiss, Bates's dean of admissions, asked him, he
absolutely wouldn't brag: "I told him that I'd heard he played
tennis, and he just said, 'Yup.' then I asked him how he did in the
state finals match, and he said, 'Uh, I won.' I asked if that meant
he was the best singles tennis player in the state, and he said, 'Yuh.'
That's all I was going to get out of him." He got into Bates,
regardless, and ended up playing professional tennis after graduating.

Perhaps the buttoned-up Down-Easter was afraid of saying the wrong
thing--always an underlying fear in these pressure situations.
Especially considering you've spent hours poring over lists of SAT
vocab words without pronunciation notations. "I think the one word
that best describes me is quixotic...." Not exactly a word you want to
admit to being, let alone mispronounce as "kwiks-o-tike." Or, how
much do you dread using a word that kind of sounds like the word you
mean, but is wrong nevertheless?  One interviewee (who,
understandably, wishes to remain anonymous) came out of the
interview rather pleased with herself for getting off a few
silver-dollar words. "When my mother asked me what we'd talked
about, I explained that the interviewer had pointed out that I had
tried a lot of different things, and how I'd told her that I had
scatological interests. My mother just put her hands to her cheeks,
like, What have you done? I thought it was a slick way of saying
varied, or scattered, like chaos mathematics." Not quite: It means
the study of excrement.

No matter how horrific you imagine your interviews will be, there is
one mitigating factor to remember: Colleges need new students, and
that's what you are. That's why you should make sure they're worth
the $14,000 (on average) they're asking for. Feel free to turn the
situation around--to see if the college is good enough for you.
Prepare some questions that you couldn't find the answers to in their
brochures. Just a few thought-provoking queries that will really
define the college for you, like, "What one word best describes this
college?" or "If this institution were a flower, what kind of insects
would it attract?"

--Rory Evans

(This article originally appeared in the November 1994 issue of Seventeen.)

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