By Patrick Cole
Of course you’re nervous. You’ve got an interview at a great university and you really don’t want to mess it up. The first thing you should know is that the university’s questions aren’t meant to trick you. You see, the university isn’t just trying to find out if you’re a good fit for them, they’re also trying to show you that they’re a good fit for you. And they don’t do that by being mean.
For that reason, don’t assume they’re out to get you. Don’t think that the idea is to make your life miserable and to trap you into making some sort of negative admission. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a conversation where you’re trying to get a feel for each other. Just like a first date, I guess. You’re both hopeful. You’re both there to see if it might be something more.
Just don’t bring flowers.
Tell me something about yourself
Man, what a question to start off with! Where do you start? How long are you supposed to talk? How can you summarize yourself in a few sentences?
And yet, the question – and it’s cousin ‘tell me something unique about yourself’ aren’t half as nasty as you might take it to be. They’re not asking for a life summary. They’re not asking for a biography in brief. They’re asking for ‘something’ not ‘everything’. So tell them something. Pick out something that you feel is important in your life.
Did you go on an Elvis tour last year and really feel that you connected with his legend? Are you a star ping pong player and like to practice for hours? Do you dream of joining Elon Musk on his mission to Mars?
Try to find something that’s special about yourself and that will make you more memorable. Then talk about it with gusto and you’ve answered this question correctly.
Why are you interested in our college?
There is a wrong answer to this question and it’s where you tell them that it’s all about because the university is prestigious and you want to make a lot of money. That’s a bit like telling somebody on a first date you want to date them because doing so will make other people think you’re cool.
It might be true, but that’s something you leave between the lines.
Instead, talk about spiritual and intellectual growth. Talk about some aspect of the college that really impressed you. It could be a specific program. It could be a specific feature that the college has. Are you really impressed with a specific faculty and its achievements? Well that’s a good thing to talk about, then.
This is your opportunity to show how much you know about the university. So use it to that end.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
This is a question that leaves many people floundering. How can you talk about a weakness without appearing weak? It isn’t as difficult as you may think. You see, the point here is not actually to talk about a weakness at all.
Instead, you first tell them a few of your strengths, while not blowing your own horn too much. Then you tell them about a weakness that you’ve got. Maybe you can get too single-minded. Maybe you’ve got a stubborn streak.
That done, you turn it around and say how you’ve turned that weakness into a strength. The single-mindedness has gotten you through hard periods by letting you get things done when others couldn’t. The stubbornness is the reason you got a GPA of 4.0.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
Sure, you’re young. You don’t feel you’ve achieved that much. I get it. I used to struggle with this question as well. Then I realized the structure of the sentence. It’s not asking if the world would be proud of your achievement. It asks what you’re proud of.
And there has to be something that you’re proud of, at least inside.
Now note the ‘inside’. We’re not looking for you to think about what other people would say is your proudest achievement, we’re talking about what you think is your proudest achievement. This is your chance to show character and maturity. Sure, you can talk about winning that essay prize, or how you wrote that awesome cover letter that got you employed.
Those aren’t your only options, though. You could also talk about how you took care of your mom and your brother while she was sick, while still maintaining your grades. Or you could talk about how you started a club in high school and it grew to become quite the phenomenon.
Who in your life has most influenced you?
This is your moment to demonstrate that you know that nobody is an island and that you can’t go through life alone. We’ve all had important people in our lives, be it our teachers, our parents, a friend, or a family member. This is where you give them the credit that they’re due.
But that’s not all you should do.
You should also use this moment to talk about what you learned from them and how important those lessons are for. Now, don’t let that mean that you should talk about yourself. Talk about the lesson instead. The fact that you’ve learned the lesson will reflect well on you.
What will you contribute to our campus community?
Sure, the relationship is a bit unequal. The university is an establishment with thousands of people working there and decades (if not centuries) of history. Still, that doesn’t mean it all has to be a one way street. It isn’t just about what they can do for you. It’s also about what you can do for them.
No, ‘pay tuition’ is not the right answer to this question.
Instead, dream a little. Talk about all the clubs that you’re considering joining. Discuss how you’d like to make a difference. After all, they’re not going to ask you to sign a contract. They’re just having a conversation.
What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?
Like the question above, they’re not asking you to be realistic or even pessimistic. The right answer is not, “stuck in middle management up to my eyeballs in debt because I couldn’t stop myself from buying that sports car that I couldn’t afford.”
Instead, say where you’d like to be. What’s the dream? What do you see as your perfect life? Even better, what do you think the university would see as your perfect life? Again, nobody is asking you to sign a contract, so be playful, be optimistic and use this opportunity to show your commitment to making the world a better place.
Recommend a good book to me
This question is trying to demonstrate if you’ve got some cultural awareness. Have you actually read books outside of your curriculum? Can you put yourself in the shoes of a university administrator and decide on something that would interest them?
And finally and most importantly: Can you actually explain why you think this book is a good choice for the interviewer to read? This is where you show your capacity to reason, construct an argument and defend a position – all vital skills when you go into a university.
So that covers the first eight questions of this series. Be sure to check in with the next installment where we’ll cover the rest of the important questions that you could expect and what they’re really asking. In the meantime, think about the underlying concepts explored here.
Their goal is to get a glimpse at your character and your dreams. They know you haven’t lived sixty years, travelled to the moon and won a Noble Prize. That’s not the point. So don’t be afraid to talk about what moves and motivates you. That’s what the interview is really about.
: About the author: Patrick Cole is a passionate writer and contributor to several websites. Loves to write about education and self-realization. You can connect with him via Twitter