Alumni Interviews

A dreadfully practical post this morning. :) Every year I do a few interviews of high school kids applying to Princeton, and this year a relative who knows this and whose high school kid is applying to Princeton asked me if I had any advice. I mailed some to them, but I thought I’d also share it, lightly edited, with the world.

Schools differ in various ways, but I expect this is probably at least somewhat relevant to all various places one might be applying and/or interviewing.

Princeton tells us basically nothing other than the person’s name and that they’ve applied. So the interviewee has a nice opportunity to shape the discussion. :)

You certainly don’t have to bring anything; most candidates don’t. On the other hand I’ve had kids bring a resume, or even a piece of original research, and I found that pretty impressive (always assuming it’s well-done of course, and they can talk interestingly about it).

Princeton says, and it’s true, that the interview is primarily a channel through which you the student can give any information about yourself that didn’t come through in the rest of the application process, and also ask someone who’s actually been there what it’s like (although it’s generally someone who was there a long time ago!).

But secondarily it’s also another piece of data about the student that I’m sure plays into the evaluation process, at least in resolving ties.

Random advice:

Don’t ask dry factual questions that are right there on the school web site (what majors exist, class sizes, etc). The alum probably won’t know the current answer, and it just looks like you haven’t done your homework.

Do ask questions that the alum can talk to from their own experience, and that aren’t on the website. Just “what was it like?” and “what do you think is the school’s greatest strength / weakness?” are good, or anything else along those lines. If you’re interested in anything specific that the alum might know about (and isn’t on the website), definitely be prepared to ask about that.

Have some questions in mind to ask if the discussion trails off. I’m always much more impressed with a student who can keep the discussion going for the whole time than I am if I have to think “okay, we’re sitting here silent again, what can I ask next?”.

The interviewer is likely to ask something along the lines of “is there anything about yourself that you’d like to make sure the school knows about, that might not be evident from your application?”. Even if there isn’t, it’s good to have some interesting answer to this ready. :) Be prepared to talk about your interests, your strengths, your accomplishments, even if you think that they probably are evident from your application. Just saying “um, no I don’t think so” isn’t nearly as impressive.

Basically the challenge is to somehow differentiate yourself from the average applicant. This is especially true of the application process in general, but if you can do it at the interview that’s also good. It’s hard to do that in a single short interview, of course, but it’s a good thing to have in mind. Every applicant has good grades and is interested in science and/or English and/or math in a general way. If you can say specifically that you really love partial differential equations and tell a funny story about how you taught them to your cat, or talk about some particular activity that got you really excited and you can ramble on about it for five or ten minutes sounding all enthusiastic and intelligent, or you recently did a deep dive into the history of the kings of Norway and can talk about that, or you feel that your kung fu training has given you a unique insight into the education system, definitely use that.

Which isn’t to say that you should stress about it. :) There’s really no way to mess up an interview; it can be a good way to get information, and can probably help you a bit in terms of admission if it goes well, but I don’t think you can hurt your chances by doing the wrong thing. So relax and be comfortable and confident and all.

So there it is! May not apply to your particular situation, no warrantee is expressed or implied, not intended as medical advice, void where prohibited, licensed, or taxed. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Not to be taken internally.

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