Remembrance of College Interviews Past

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Goucher College recently announced that it will now accept two-minute video applications instead of traditional transcripts, SAT scores and letters of recommendation. Students can describe how their unique qualities will allow them to fit in and thrive at Goucher. Coupled with two sample projects from high school, the videos will be an excellent way for certain students to connect with the admissions committee. However, since I was a teenager who spent more time worrying about grades than learning how to talk to people I’d never met, I am so glad I applied to college before smart phone videos existed.

I can’t imagine what I would have said in a two-minute application video, or even if I could have come up with that much material. I applied to six colleges and had interviews with three different schools’ alumni. At the time, I thought they all went well. Eight years later, it’s hard not to cringe.

Here are two most memorable minutes from each of my college interviews.

Washington University in St. Louis

Interviewer: A recent graduate who was currently in graduate school at Harvard

Location: Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square

My mom and I took the T into Cambridge and got dinner at a small sandwich shop nearby before the evening interview. It was pouring rain over slushy snow residue, a weather phenomenon that consistently makes me question my decision to live in states with winter. My mom waited in the Harvard Bookstore while I met the interviewer.

He was a young, energetic guy who loved his time at Wash U. We talked about campus life, how often he went into downtown St. Louis, and my academic interests. He then asked a question that I recognized because I’d skipped it on the application in favor of the second essay option.

“So, if you had twenty-four hours free and money and travel were not obstacles, what would you do?”

I paused for a minute and then said, “Well, I’d probably be here. My friends and I really like to come into Harvard Square. So we’d take the train in, get lunch, walk around, probably go back to one of my friend’s houses later to hang out.” I realized that my answer seemed incomplete – at least, he was still watching as if I should talk more. “Uh, and also I’d probably try to find a cure for cancer, haha.” I was not nearly as funny at 18 as I thought I was. 

Maybe I was going for realism, despite the fantasy inherent in the question? Why didn’t I say I’d go to Paris for the day? Or meet Tina Fey? Or do anything remotely interesting?

The interviewer asked if I had any additional questions for him. I’d written some down, so I took out my folded-up piece of notebook paper.

“Um … I think you answered them all,” I said, which was a lie. I was too nervous to read my own handwriting. We shook hands, and he disappeared back to Harvard Yard while I trudged across the street to find my mom and go home.

Conclusions if this was a video: Lack of creativity, imagination, and question-asking skills

Result: Waitlisted. Whomp whomp.

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Northwestern University

Location: Buckingham, Brown & Nichol’s private school on a Saturday (Mindy Kaling’s high school!)

Again, my mom drove me to the interview, where I waited with my ex-boyfriend and his friend Evan who had driven him. It was as awkward as it sounds, especially since we’d broken up less than 48 hours earlier.

The interviewer was in his early thirties and wore a brown suit. The classroom we met in was surprisingly large and bright, and I remember squinting often. He asked about why I wanted to go to Northwestern and what academic subjects I was interested in. I got tripped up on this question, “So, if you were the principal of your high school, what’s the one thing you would change about it?”

I hesitated, because I literally couldn’t think of anything. My friends didn’t like our principal because he didn’t respond to their petition about … something? I hadn’t really paid attention when they talked about it at lunch.

Happily, at that moment a car alarm went off directly below the classroom window and someone began shouting. We both stood up to investigate and I silently cheered at the extra time to think of a brilliant answer!

We both looked out the window, but due to the glare of the sunlight I couldn’t see anything. We sat back down, and he asked the question again. Damn it – I hadn’t taken advantage of the distraction.

“Um … I really can’t think of anything. The principal seems to be doing a good job.”

The interviewer nodded, asked if I had any more questions, and then thanked me. What was supposed to be a forty-five minute interview ended in a little over twenty-five.

Conclusions if this was a video: Lack of critical thinking skills, inability to say smart things

Result: Rejected. I like to think it was because I opted not to do the recommended third SAT II, but let’s be real, the interview couldn’t have helped.

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Carleton College

Location: Alumni’s house in a neighboring town

Yet again, my mom drove me to the interview even though I’d had my driver’s license for two years. Maybe she was concerned that my nerves would cause me to run red lights.

The woman I met with invited us in and introduced her husband, who also was a graduate. He chatted with my mom in the living room while we talked in the kitchen.

Part of what I liked about Carleton was its emphasis on a supportive academic atmosphere. The interviewer reassured me that her classmates had rarely compared grades, and the most prying question would be, “How did you feel about that exam?” It sounded too good to be true.

She and her husband had a toddler, and she asked me how I felt about my school system. She was aware of the competitive reputation of the public schools in the area and was concerned about her child’s education. I explained that the competition wasn’t too bad, and at a certain point you just had to learn that even if you tried your hardest, you might have to be happy with a B+.

I couldn’t quite read her expression, but I got the feeling that I hadn’t reassured her. At the time, I worried that I’d misspoken. What if she thinks I have a B+ average? I wondered. What if she doesn’t think I’m smart enough to get into Carleton?

I’d exposed the fact that by age eighteen, I had learned that someone would always, always be better than me at everything. Did that make me try less and give up faster? Did I lose my sense of hustle that people often credit for their successes? Even now, my friends and I still occasionally discuss the residual effects of our high school education on our definition of success and our ability to feel “good enough.”

Our conversation ended shortly after, possibly because I’d given her reason to think she should send her kid to a nurturing private school where everyone calls each other by their first names.

Conclusions if this was a video: Insufficient self-reflection skills, left interviewer feeling sad and concerned for future.

Result: Waitlisted. At the end of the interview, the couple asked if I would let them know whether I went to Carleton or not since they never hear from the admissions office about the students they interview. I said I would, but I couldn’t bring myself to send a note saying I didn’t get in.

In the end, I attended the University of Michigan and can’t imagine myself anywhere else. Beyond the academics, football Saturdays and beer pong, at Michigan I learned how to make small talk.

Laura Chanoux works in higher education in Chicago and can now carry on a conversation with a stranger and even answer interview questions with multiple sentences. 

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