College admissions interviews in English: checklist

Do you have a college admissions interview soon?

This checklist is written to help non-native English speakers interviewing in America or other English-speaking countries do well in admissions interviews so they get into their top choice school.

College admissions interview checklist for non-native English speakers

How to succeed at a college admissions interview in English

Before the Interview

1. Research the school

Use their website, social media accounts, Google, and hard copy admissions materials.

You should be able to find quite a lot of info this way but if you can't find enough, go to a library and ask for help from the reference librarian.

  • This will make you stand out from applicants who didn't do research and will help you answer the potential question: Why do you want to go to our school?

2. Research the competitors (other similar schools)

If you're interviewing at the University of Michigan, for example, you should know what similar schools are. You will probably be asked a question like, "Why do you want to go here, and not to the University of Wisconsin?" If you don't know anything about the competing schools, you'll have a hard time answering this question.

  • Of course, this should also be part of your application process - by the time you have an interview, you have probably (I hope) researched all comparable schools and so will know this.

3. Research the interviewer

You may know the name of the person interviewing you and you may not. It's more common to know their name if it's an alumni interview. If you know it, you should research them so you know what their interests are. This may be useful during small talk.

Use LinkedIn and Google

4. Practice answers to common interview questions

  • General questions
  • Behavioral questions
  • Interest-related questions

Write your answers down and then say them aloud in  front of a mirror or video camera. If you both write and speak the answers you will know better how the answers sound and you can fine-tune them.

Do a mock (practice) interview with someone.

6. Prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewer

7. Prepare for the small talk

  • Read the news
  • Think of a list of questions you might ask if conversation is slow

Remember, the interview tests your social skills. It is a place to show your personality. If you can't talk about small talk topics, the interviewer will not be impressed.

8. Evaluate your English

You've prepared for the questions and the small talk. How did you do? Were you able to say what you needed to say in English? If not, you may need to do a quick intensive review of your English before you go for the interview. Get out your old English textbooks and study or work with a teacher for a short-term practice session. Don't let English problems keep you from sounding professional.

9. Prepare your clothes

You'll see a lot of advice about what to wear, but the truth is, there's no right answer for college interviews. 

Because you're still a teenager, you're not expected to wear a suit.

My advice is to wear something you're comfortable in. If you're not comfortable, this will affect your interview.

But make sure it's clean!

10. Confirm interview logistics

  • Plan your route
  • Will you drive?
  • Is there parking?
  • Double check the interview time

11. Get a good night's sleep the night before

The Day of the Interview

12. Don't put on cologne/aftershave/perfume

Many people are sensitive to fragrances, especially in small offices.

13. Don't smoke

Many people don't like the smell of cigarette smoke, so avoid it.

14. Arrive about 10 minutes early, but no more

If you're late, phone the company.

15. Greet the receptionist or assistant politely

Remember, once you walk in the building you're making an impression.

16. Turn your phone off and keep it hidden in your purse or your pocket

Don't take it out and look at it, even while you're waiting.

17. Wait calmly

  • Don't fidget or look at your phone
  • Try to relax if you're nervous. Take some deep breaths.

In the Beginning of the Interview

18. Give a proper handshake

Use a firm grip. If you are not used to shaking hands when you greet someone, practice this beforehand.

19. Give a polite greeting, while you're shaking hands or just before or after

20. Make eye contact

21. Smile

22. Seem confident and professional

23. Sit down only after you're offered a seat

24. Be aware of your body language

Sit upright and don't move around.

25. Be prepared for small talk

The interview may start off with some small talk and it may not. Americans usually do a bit of small talk before turning to business, but it depends on the personality of the interviewer.

During the Interview

You'll be evaluated on what you say and how you say it. This means you have to think about the content of your speech but also how you look while you're speaking.

26. Avoid negativity

Don't say anything bad about your past jobs or colleagues.

27. Stick to safe topics

No politics, religion, personal problems, or family issues. Don't bring up family unless you're asked a direct question about it. Here in America, we don't talk about our families with strangers (this definitely includes interviewers). Be aware of this, especially because it may not be the same in your country.

Obviously, if your interviewer asks you about an unusual topic, you are free to answer if you feel comfortable doing so, but don't bring one up yourself.

28. Give short answers

30 to 45 seconds per answer is best. You should have practiced your interview questions so there shouldn't be any surprises.

29. Keep your answers focused

Are you the kind of person who can talk and talk about something and never get to the point? Don't do that here. Know what you want to say and say it. If they want more information, they'll ask for it.

30. Brag about yourself

The point of an interview is so that you can tell and show that you're the best person for the position. You show this by wearing the right clothes and having the right body language, etc., but you also have to tell.

I know for many people, especially women, it's difficult to talk about how good you are at something.

Also, in many cultures it's considered impolite to focus on yourself instead of the group.

American interviewers (and also ones from other English speaking countries) expect a candidate to be able to talk about their strengths and accomplishments in their interview. If you don't, they won't know how perfect you are for the opening.

31. Ask questions

You don't have to wait until the end of the interview to do this. In fact, you should be asking questions as you go. If you don't ask any questions, you'll be showing a lack of interest. Even if the interviewer has already told you everything you want to know, you need to ask other questions. You should have prepared a list of questions before the interview, about the department, your future colleagues, or the school.

32. Don't ask the wrong questions

Don't ask about financial aid. Also avoid asking about the typical hours the students study every week. You can discuss this if the interviewer brings it up, but if you ask about it yourself you'll make a bad impression.

33. Body language:

  • think about your posture - sit up straight
  • keep your gestures minimal
  • don't cross your arms
  • don't fidget (move around)
  • look interested
  • lean close, but not too close
  • face your shoulders toward them
  • maintain eye contact
  • smile at appropriate times

34. Pay attention to your language

  • Avoid saying um, uh, like, you know, or using other filler words.
  • Avoid slang.

At the End of the Interview

35. Ask any questions you haven't already asked.

You should have been asking them during the interview, but you should probably ask one or two now, so that you seem interested and so that it's clear you did research.

36. Say that you're very interested in the program and ask about the next steps in the process.

37. Say thank you to the interviewer and shake their hand if they offer theirs.

Some people will want to shake again when saying good bye but some won't, so follow their lead.

38. If you don't already know their name and contact info, ask for their business card now.

After the Interview

39. Send a thank you note within 24 hours to your interviewer. 

40. Relax and wait to get your acceptance letter.

I know that interviewing in English is difficult for non-native speakers, but if you prepare ahead of time you can succeed in the interview and get admitted. 

If you'd like some help with your interview prep, email me a jennifer@interviewgenie.com