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How To Ace A College Interview

Posted on Aug 20, 2017
Guest Contributor


Editor's Note: The following post was written by Ruwa Alhayek, who conducts interviews for Princeton University undergraduate admissions. We hope you find it useful! If you have an area of expertise and would like to share your insights with us, please email us at! Happy reading! 

Before I begin any interview with an applicant, I always break the ice by telling them that this interview isn’t a "make or break." It’s the truth - and one of the main things I picked up from the interview instructions I read almost three years ago when I started interviewing for my alma mater, Princeton University.

“In other words,” I always tell the applicant, “if you’re at a 50 with the admissions committee now, this won’t make you a 100, but if you’re at an 80 or a 90, this interview might make you a 100.

Interviews aren’t about doing well in so much as they are about revealing parts of you to the committee that aren’t already apparent in your application.

That being said, as an interviewer, I have not seen your application at all, so if I ask you to tell me about yourself, please do give me information about the classes you’ve taken, the school you attend, what you do over your summers, where you volunteer, and what extra-curricular activities you participate in.

By the end of the interview I can usually guess which applicants the admissions committee will accept - so I will model my advice based on those students.

The most important thing I look for as an interviewer is passion. The admissions committee has already decided whether or not to rule you out based on your grades, SAT scores, or your well-roundedness. I want to see that a student is passionate about the subjects or work she does. I want to see that, whether or not this is a shy student, that this student goes out of her way to pursue the things she is driven to. I want to see a student who doesn’t just let her summers go to waste, but who utilizes them to do things she is passionate about.

I know that people keep telling you to do things to boost up your resume, but not matter how fluffed up your resume is, if you’re not actually interested in anything you are doing or you don’t believe in it, you won’t excel. You might have 10 extracurriculars, but if they’re just floating there and they don’t change you, or if those extracurriculars don’t bring you closer to your goals, or you aren’t any good at any of them, or you’re just doing it to look good, the admissions committee will get a sense of that.

Universities want students who will make them look good after they graduate and who will give back to their university (not just financially). They think of students as investments: how will this student contribute to our campus? Is he unique among the pool of applicants? Is she going to continue the legacy of this university? Is he going to add to it? Is she going to be a person who enriches the culture of our campus? After this student graduates, is he going to make us look good?

Colleges want to see potential in their applicants because they want to be able to claim you after you discover the cure for cancer or write the book that changes the face of America.

The thing you want to keep in mind for interviews is something Neil Gaiman says about writing. He says that writers should write their own stories because no one else can write them for you. Talk to your interviewer with the knowledge that you are the only you that they will interview.

And, I hate to say this, but...

play that diversity card.

If you are not white or middle class or you have a passion for collecting every edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, tell me about that. Be ready to tell me about everything that makes you different.

And show me a drive and a willingness to learn and explore new territory (intellectually, creatively, athletically, etc). After all, the university is an institution of education and knowledge. I want to know you care about your education and your intellectual growth and that that education will have an effect on you - not that it is just about grades or that you’ll let your grades slip as soon as you get in.

I know nothing about you except what you choose to tell me, you are in complete control of the narrative and the impression you sell me, so be the version of yourself that you think most reflects who you are and what you want to get from your college experience and your life.

Towards the end of every interview, your interviewer will usually ask you, “is there anything else you want to tell me that we may not have covered?”

If we haven’t talked about how on the weekend you like to follow New York City’s Opera collective around the subway because you want to minor in opera, talk to me about that; trust me, I want to hear it.

Also, an interviewer will usually ask you if you have questions about the university, or why you applied there. Sometimes applicants will have already looked through course offerings, some applicants have already considered a university because they love the work of a professor in the neuroscience department, and sometimes it’s about financial aid and location. Whatever your reasons, as an interviewer I want to know that you want to go to this university specifically - I want to know that you cared to do some basic research or that you actually want my university and not just any university near your house or that has a good reputation. Those are valid reasons, but why us? And ask me questions—even if I don’t know the answer, I can give you the contact information of someone who does.

Finally, this might go without saying, but do wear a smile and iron your clean semi-formal clothes, and comb your hair/iron your hijab, and before you greet your interviewer, say the duaa of Prophet Musa (AS), rabbi ishrahli sadri wa yassir lee amri wahlul ‘uqdatan min lisani yafqahu qawli.

Ruwa Alhayek graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a degree in Near Eastern Studies and certificates in Arabic, Creative Writing, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She graduated in June with an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) from The New School and is now a freelance writer, editor, and translator. You can reach her at

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