The College Interview: 10 Essential Questions with Example Answers

Preparing for the college interview can be among the most stressful tasks for a student pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree.

While there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for acing the interview, there are several questions a student can prepare for when entering a college interview. These questions are almost always about your background, career goals, and why you are specifically interested in their school.

Every interview will be different: some interviews are held with alumni of a school, while others are held with faculty or staff. Some are less formal, while others are more structured. Some are for undergraduate study, while some are specifically targeted for graduate school.

Today, we will cover 10 essential questions frequently showing up in any kind of interview for college. We also discuss a strategy for how to answer these questions to the best of your ability. 

Let’s dive into 10 questions that you should be prepared to answer when doing your college interview.


Question 1: Why Are You Interested in Our School? (Why Us)

University of Virginia
photo via Wikimedia Commons

This one is a classic: the “why us” question! 

This is not only a common college interview question, it is also one of the most common prompts for a college essay as well. Our tips for answering this question are especially helpful for both the interview as well as answering the essay.

There are two practical approaches for answering the “why us” question in an interview (or an essay).

The first is to discuss your personal connection with a school. When answering “why are you interested in our school,” saying something that shows a previously demonstrated interest on your behalf can work wonders.

Let’s say you are applying to Michigan, a very competitive school, and they ask you the “why us” question. The best personal connections you can display here are past instances where you have interacted with the University of Michigan. This can include but is not limited to: meetings with Michigan faculty, attending a summer program at Michigan, attending a conference hosted by Michigan, taking a tour of Michigan, etc.

Once you have found a good personal connection to go with, then talk about how that specific personal connection helped you choose the University of Michigan (or for whichever school you are actually interviewing).

For our example today, we will pretend you have had a previous meeting with a specific faculty member. For this example, we’ll call the faculty member Dr. Cunningham, a professor of Engineering. Note that I do not actually know if there is a Dr. Cunningham at the Michigan School of Engineering, this is just for example purposes. 

When asked in your interview “why are you interested in Michigan?” You can say something like the following.

Example Answer: What made me interested in pursuing the University of Michigan was my meeting with Dr. Cunningham from the School of Engineering. When I spoke with Dr. Cunningham, I learned a lot about Michigan’s engineering program, where their graduates are going, and about the open-minded, research-centered culture pervasive in the engineering program. Because of my interaction with Dr. Cunningham, I felt that if I attended Michigan for four years to pursue engineering, I would graduate a qualified engineer ready to work on new and unusual innovations. 

I can practically guarantee an answer like this will be better than 99% of all interviewees for a school. 

Most students will say something generic, like “Michigan has a really good reputation” or “I really like Ann Arbor and I am from the state of Michigan.” Answers like these get the automatic snooze response because they offer no interesting value to the interviewer when answering the question.

Remember, the faculty member is just one example of a personal connection. You can also work with summer programs, college tours, and more. 

Let’s say you don’t have a personal connection with the school you are interviewing for? No problem – make one! You would be surprised how willing faculty are available to meet students 1-on-1 over Zoom. Simply write them a courteous email and you may be surprised at how quickly you can get your foot in the door.


Question 2: Tell Us About Yourself

The College Interview - 10 Questions with Example Answers
photo via Shutterstock

This is perhaps the second-most important question in a college interview, the very important “tell us about yourself” topic. 

Here, students make a common mistake of not knowing what exactly to tell about themselves. 

This is our recommendation for answering the tell us about yourself question: stick mostly to facts that make you an interesting candidate for the program you are applying to.

When the interviewer asks “tell me about yourself,” you should talk mostly about your accomplishments. These can be awards, summer programs or fellowships, the research you have undertaken relevant to the major you are applying for, etc.

This can work wonders when talking to an admissions committee, as most students either downplay their accomplishments or worse, forget entirely when they are on the spot doing an interview out of nervousness!

By the way, the answer to this should be like an elevator speech, only 30-45 seconds in length and getting to the essential parts of what makes you an interesting candidate for their school or program. Don’t spend time on erroneous details; rather, only talk about your accomplishments, and why they are relevant for the program you are interviewing.

Here is an example answer to the question for someone who is pursuing a music degree. However, you can turn an answer like this into something more specialized if you are applying for a medical degree, MBA, JD, etc.

Example answer: My passion for music started at an early age; when I was 5, I started taking piano lessons with my local church accompanist. In high school, I have not only continued to pursue piano lessons with a local college professor, I have also attended a number of summer programs in music, including the NYU summer music program, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Summer Program, and a local program. I have additionally taught elementary school students private lessons and was a leader in my high school choir. Using my background as well as a degree from college, my ultimate career goal is to become a professional classical pianist.

Notice how this answer is relatively brief, sticks to the critical accomplishments that make the candidate qualified for the music program, and doesn’t have any fluff. That’s how you want to answer the “tell us about yourself” question in an interview.


Question 3: What Can You Contribute to Our School?

University of West Florida
photo by Thomas Baxter via Wikimedia Commons

This is, for many students, the #1 hardest-to-answer question in a college interview. This is because understanding what you are capable of contributing requires you to think selflessly.

Most students apply to school thinking about how their own lives will change during college. This question is the opposite: it asks how you can impact the lives of others attending the school. 

I can tell you an answer that will not work well here: something non-committal, like “a good perspective.” Perspective is a “meh” answer, and while it can be a contribution, a stronger answer is something very tangible that you can say you can give.

What you contribute should be a specific action you will take to help other students achieve their goals based on your past experiences. 

Example answer: When I was in high school, I found that many of my peers were struggling with math, particularly algebra and calculus. I understood how important achieving excellent math grades were for admission into a good college, and my struggling friends knew this as well. So, I created a math club at my school aimed at two things: one, helping students raise their math scores, and two, making math more enjoyable. What I would like to do for your school is something very similar: create a club to help students get better grades in math. I think my club will not only make enjoying math more enjoyable for students, but it will also help those students get accepted into more competitive graduate programs strongly considering math grades.

Remember this: even if you have not started a club, you can likely think of an example where you were a leader and helped others with your leadership and related skills. If you haven’t done that, this is an opportunity to conjure a practical idea to help other students and elocute that in a school interview.


Question 4: What Do You Want to Do in Your Career?

Answering the "career question" in a college interview
young professionals working: photo via Wikimedia Commons

This question is, secretly, asking for two things: what are your “realistic” career goals, and what are your “dream” goals. 

Answering one without the other can be a severe blow to your chances of having a great interview and possibly a significant admissions offer with a scholarship. Stick to only a “realistic” career goal, and you may not come across as ambitious. Stick only to a “dream” goal, and you may not come across as having a rooted foundation for what you want to accomplish.

Let’s say you are applying for law school, and your goal is to ultimately own a large-scale corporate practice with multiple locations making tens of millions of dollars a year. This is a great goal, but if you were to say that and nothing else, you would be labeled as a “pie in the sky” kind of person.

So, how can we turn this dream goal into something that sounds like reality? Let’s create a realistic pathway to getting there.

Example answer: After receiving my JD, my goal is to become employed as an associate in a law firm specializing in corporate law. My goal at the firm would be to help companies start, grow, and protect themselves and their assets for the future. Through this experience working at the law firm, I would gain important contacts as well as a breadth of experiential knowledge helping corporations in different industries grow their revenues and succeed. 

After I have attained this knowledge, my goal is to open up my own corporate practice to help startups and seasoned entrepreneurs grow and protect their businesses. While I would be a solo practitioner at first, I would eventually hire associates to work with me, then open multiple locations throughout the US. Ultimately, my goal is to be the head of my own global law firm and help entrepreneurs bring their products and services to market.

What a great answer this is! And by the way, you could go in many different directions with this. You could go on a more charitable route, talking about helping underprivileged people gain access to high-quality lawyers. You could go on a more specialized path, such as environmental law and how you would like to help companies change the world through innovative green products.

You don’t have to, nor should you, give an answer of “be a partner working in tax law” and then add nothing more to that. 

Remember, people love ambition, and the interview is a great time to marry ambition with an actionable plan for getting there.

And remember, my example is just for law school, but the same principles apply to any person in any field who needs to answer this question. 


Question 5: What Do You Think You Will Major In?

This is a common question for traditional high school students when they are looking into college and have not found a niche or passion yet. This, by the way, is extremely common and is the case for 95% of high school students.

Here, you want to draw upon your most substantial experiences to answer this question. Whether it is getting a good grade in a related high school class, or a passion you have pursued vigorously in and out of school, answering to your strengths here is important.

Like the “tell me about yourself” question, sticking to accomplishments to back up this particular question is a great way to answer this. Even if you are not very accomplished in any particular area yet, you can highlight your interests and extracurricular activities as evidence for choosing a specific major.

Let’s say you are into theatre and the performing arts. You may choose “acting” as a potential college major. 

Example Answer:  While I may not yet totally be sure about what I would like to major in, what I do know is that I am extremely passionate about the performing arts. In high school, I starred in the high school musical every year, even performing the lead role in my junior year. Outside of school, I attended the Stagedoor performing arts summer program and have even taken acting classes at a nearby studio. I know this: performing arts will be a large part of my college experience, and if I find it to be my calling, I will go all-in on it. Otherwise, I may end up majoring in something related, like English Literature or Creative Writing.

In this example answer, the student is giving a tentative but credible response to the question. You don’t have to come across as tentative if you know what you want to do. But, if you aren’t certain like most students, you can take this approach.

Notice the abundance of accomplishment and detail in this answer. Even if your experience is as simple as getting a good grade in a class related to your passions, you can draw upon experiences you received in that specific class to make your interview all the more compelling.


Question 6: What is Something You Enjoy Doing Outside of School?

This is an interesting question because there are actually many different directions you can take with it.

The ideal answer is something that relates to the program you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for a major in science, saying something about outside-of-school-related activities to science would be very interesting and compelling.

The also-goodanswer is talking about something else you do that makes you appear as an interesting person to the admissions committee, even if it is not related to the major you may be applying for.

Things that make people interesting include participating in unusual activities, studying unique concepts, engaging in a community of some kind, etc.

For our example answer, we will pretend you have a passion for architecture, and we will also pretend you may want to do something in design or engineering in your college future.

Example Answer: I have always enjoyed architecture. For me, I can spend hours looking at photographs of unique structures or simply looking at interesting buildings. One of my favorite architects is Frank Lloyd Wright; his approach to “organic architecture” is simply incredible to me. How he mends the natural world with the industrialized human world has inspired me to pursue a career in something creative. By studying architecture, I have become interested in design and engineering myself and would like to have a professional creative career one day.

Even if you cannot relate your passions to your future career, discussing something unique and interesting you do can illustrate for the interviewer qualities about yourself that are unique.


Question 7: Can You Describe a Challenge You Have Had to Overcome? 

This is perhaps the rarest question on this list for a college interview, although it is a common question for college essays. Our guidance can help you with both.

The key here is twofold: first, you must be willing to be vulnerable and share a challenge you have faced. Second, you must talk about how enduring the challenge transformed you as a person, ending on a positive note.

Here is a good model to go with: overcoming the challenge of a difficult-to-obtain goal. 

Let’s say you previously had a goal to run an entire marathon. You can talk about the challenges you went through to complete the marathon and how succeeding in this challenge made you a better person.

Example Answer: In my sophomore year of high school, I decided to run a marathon. I was inspired by my uncle, an avid runner and health nut who was in amazing shape because he was always training for marathons and other athletic events. 

In the first month of training, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was. Early mornings, a schedule of running, and eating well was exceptionally difficult for me. I nearly quit, as I just didn’t think I had it in me.

But something changed in the second month, and that something was me. After working more and more on my training regimen, I realized that I could do this. Every day, I was running more and more, and it felt like I could finally achieve this.

After I finished the marathon, I learned that habits are the key to my success. For me, I could never have overcome this particular challenge without a strict regimen, intentional decision-making, and exerting control over myself. I hope to apply the same lessons I learned from the marathon to future challenges I may have.

Here, we open up about a challenge that was meaningful to us, show vulnerability when we say we were close to quitting, and then end on a positive note when we talk about the lessons we learned from the challenge. Overall, this is a great answer.


Question 8: What Is Your Top Choice School?

Illinois Institute of Technology
photo via Wikimedia Commons

The answer is the school that is interviewing you, right now.

If you are in an interview with Boston University, and they ask you what is your top choice school? Your answer is, definitively, Boston University. If you are interviewing with Indiana University and they ask you what your top choice school is, it is Indiana University.

Even if you are in an interview for your last-choice school, the answer is STILL the school for which you are interviewing at that very moment.

Think about it: no one wants to be told they are the “second choice” school, whether it is actually true or not. 

The best way to answer this question is not only by telling the school it is them, but telling them why they are the first choice, which can be very much like reiterating the first question we talked about today, “why are you interested in our school.” 

For our example answer, we will pretend you are interviewing for Boston University.

Example Answer: My top choice school is Boston University. Before visiting the school, I had a good feeling about it as I am interested in attending college in an urban campus. After touring the school last fall, I knew right away that BU was much more than what I had expected. The people, the environment, and the culture are exactly what I have been looking for in a college and the program I am particularly interested in. Because of all this, BU is absolutely my top choice college.

This answer is simple, sweet, to the point, and tells them why they are the top-dog on your list.


Question 9: What Is Your Favorite Book / Movie / Television Show / Etc.

This is one of the most interesting interview questions as it is seemingly unrelated to college. 


However, answering this one incorrectly can mean the difference between a good and a bad first impression for college admissions.

The best way to answer this particular question is not to say something creepy or weird. 

Here’s why: whatever you say your favorite book, movie, or television show is, you will be automatically associated with the characters in that particular book, movie, or tv show.

Say you like the movie Halloween? That’s too creepy for a college admissions interview or essay, even if you genuinely like the movie and even if you are genuinely a good person

Rather, the best way to answer this is with a book, movie, or television show with admirable people. Then, tell us who in the book or movie you particularly gravitate towards, and why they are so interesting for you. That way, you are automatically associated with an admirable character!

Let’s say you choose a classic like The Count of Monte Cristo, a book-turned-movie about a hero who, after being wrongfully prisoned, comes out a transformed man. Once free, he is wise, healthy, and a capable leader who reunites with his true love.

Example answer: I really love both the book and the movie The Count of Monte Cristo. I particularly resonate with Edmond Dantes’s character, the protagonist who is wrongfully imprisoned at the book’s beginning. Through his incarceration, he is mentored by an older man in philosophy. Once he leaves prison, he is a transformed person. For me, I look up to Edmond Dantes as he was able to will his way through an intensely negative situation and become the strongest self he could possibly be. While I don’t think I will experience Edmond Dantes’ hardship in my lifetime, I do think about his story when I am going through a difficult time in my own life.

This would be a great answer. You mention an admirable character persisting through difficult times, and how he is a personal inspiration for you.


Question 10: Do You Have Questions for Us?

The answer is always “yes, I do have a few questions for you,” followed by 2-3 questions.

The reason is simple: you always want to telegraph interest in a college. If you answered that you did not have any questions, you may come across as someone who is not very interested in the school.

The questions themselves should be about the curriculum and opportunities at the school. If you are going for a specific major at a school, you can ask questions specific to that program. If you are going for general liberal arts, you still should have questions to ask about the school about the curriculum.

Questions can be about the following:

  • What kind of study-abroad programs are available at your school?
  • How much 1-on-1 time do students have with faculty?
  • What is a “day in the life” of a student at your school?
  • What are the opportunities for a student interested in [state your interest here] available at your school?

Questions about the curriculum are always the best questions to ask.

***

College interviews can be tricky, but they can become significantly simpler in scope by studying our guide above. 

While you may be asked questions outside of the ones we provided above, remember that interviews are about preparation. By preparing only 5-6 different answers, you’d be surprised how many questions you are ready to answer on the day of your actual college interview.

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