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Get an edge in interviews at selective schools

Jan. 25, 2013 - 04:29PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 25, 2013 - 04:29PM  |  
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The good news: The Post-9/11 GI Bill has put many selective schools within financial reach for veterans. The bad news: Selective schools are flooded with applicants and acceptance rates are slipping downward.

At many highly selective schools, officials are bringing back the college interview — or putting more weight on the existing interview process — as one more way to help promising prospects stand out in the admissions race.

Even at schools that encourage or require them, interviews do not carry as much weight in the admissions process as your academic record, test scores and essays. Interviews tied for 10th on the Independent Educational Consultants Association's survey of "Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students."

But a stand-out session might give you the edge you need. Some tips for preparing for a successful college interview:

Understand the process

"It's always good to know what kind of interview scenarios you are going into and what that college is using it for," says Wendy Livingston, senior assistant dean of admission at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

That varies widely by school.

At William & Mary, for example, interviews are conducted on campus by students and are largely evaluative.

Interviews "are a 30-minute evaluation of how they might add to the William & Mary community," Livingston said. "We ask [prospective students] to at least hit on extracurricular involvement and academic history, and general get-to-know-you personality-type of questions."

At Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., admissions officers or senior students working as admissions interns conduct interviews on campus, on the road or by phone. The interviews are more informational than evaluative, said Bruce J. Jones, associate director of admissions.

It's a chance to talk about what the college community is like, whether you would be a good fit for Whitman, he said

At other schools, interviews may be conducted by alumni.

Most schools where the interview is an optional part of the admissions process offer interviews on a first-come, first-served basis. Information about college interviews generally can by found by visiting a school's website or calling its admissions office.

Relax: It's not a job interview

Unlike an employer, colleges are not trying to fill a single job position; they are trying to build a class, Livingston said.

"You don't want one set of criteria, because you don't want all the students to come in looking the same. You are looking to see how the student is going to be one part of many," Livingston said.

Interviews tend to be short — 25-30 minutes — and conversational. And interviewers are inclined to be understanding of inexperience.

"This is a lot of students' first interview ever," Livingston said. "We have some forgiveness if your handshake is a little weak, or you don't know how to make eye contact."

That said, observe general rules of etiquette, or your interview will turn memorable in the worst possible way.

"I can remember one interview I had with a young man who was slouched way down in his chair, and he yawned throughout our conversation," Jones said. "At one point, I guess his cell phone vibrated, because he pulled it out and looked at it."

Another time, at the end of an interview, a female applicant jumped up and embraced Jones. "That's not good form — don't hug your interviewer," he said.

Finally, dress the part — whatever that part may be. At William & Mary and Whitman, casual attire is the norm. "Don't show up in a three-piece suit or a power suit with heels," Jones said. "We would have a question about fit in that circumstance."

Still, when in doubt, err on the side of caution by dressing up, says former Marine Sean-Michael Green, dean of graduate and adult enrollment at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and author of the book "Marching to College: Turning Military Experience into College Admissions."

"If you dress up, people think you take [the interview] seriously. It shows you have good judgment," he said.

Use your military experience "I think, generally, any experience that differentiates you from the typical applicant is a good thing to share," Livingston said. "At William & Mary, military service would differentiate you."

At Whitman, "We look for diversity in any way you can imagine," Jones said. "Military [vets], at my college, would have something of a leg up in the admission process, as they represent a type of diversity — not the usual high school experience."

Some general rules of thumb for talking about military service:

* Share the lessons you learned — who you were when you went in, who you are now that you are out.

* Avoid topics that are contentious. "To say you have served ... is good, but don't voice support or dissension for the war," Livingston said.

* Don't discuss anything you are not comfortable with, or your discomfort may come across in the interview.

* If you do choose to describe experiences that were difficult, make sure you portray those experiences in a positive light.

"You might say, ‘I went through this and this is how I grew from it,'" when discussing a bad experience, said Allyson Dennen, a former Army career and alumni counselor at Fort Hood, Texas, who now works as an independent education consultant. "Talk about how it has shaped you for today and for your future."

* Be honest. "The right answer is always the truthful answer," Green said. If you're asked about something negative in your past, "answer it, keep it brief, then try to veer back to something else."

* Avoid military acronyms and jargon.

"You can't assume that everyone knows what ‘MOS' means," Green said.

Dennen agrees. "If you are trying to describe your experiences to a civilian, the civilian needs to understand it," she said.

Ask questions, too

The interview is the college's chance to get to know you, but it's also your chance to get to know the college. Besides, asking questions sends the message that you genuinely are interested in the school, Jones said.

"Kids will often ask, ‘What is it you would change about the college?'" he said. "I was a high school counselor for years before I went to this side of the desk. I always told kids to have some questions to ask the admissions officer."

Jones advises going into the interview with at least basic information about the college.

"Go to the [school's] website, because it's so easy to know stuff now," he said.

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