Let’s recap. You’ve got the basics down. You know your resume cold. You’ve picked a few key anecdotes that stress the things that are truly impressive – whether your love of music, or your ability to win a spelling bee despite dyslexia. Now you want to know what exactly takes the interview from good to great, from B+ to A+.
In order to understand what it takes to make the interview great, you need to start by understanding who your interviewer is.
Your interviewer will always be a Harvard graduate, not an employee of the admissions office. Being an interviewer is not a paid position: it is like volunteer work that your interviewer does in between all the other things that probably keep him or her busy: a time-consuming, stressful job, family obligations, community activities, etc. So, why does an interviewer interview? There are several reasons. Some do it because they feel an obligation to help Harvard out. Some do it because they want to have a hand in picking the next generations of the best and brightest Harvardians.
But almost universally, everybody does it because it’s an enjoyable way to step back in time and remember what was, for most of us, a very special and joyful period in our lives. It’s a way for us to see that “the kids are alright” – that despite the influx of bad news about the younger generations, the “Harvard quality” young adults are still out there in spades.
At best, you want your interviewer to leave feeling re-inspired. To say to his wife, “I interviewed a really impressive young man today. He reminded me of what my friends and I were like at that age.” Maybe, because of you, your interviewer will take a risk at work the next day, or join that non profit his friends have been emailing about – because he’ll remember what was important to him when he was eighteen, and he’ll work harder to recapture that youthful optimism.
In order to create this magical effect, you need to focus on one of the most important things you can possibly do in an interview: connect with your interviewer on a personal level. It’s a very important skill to learn now, because you’ll use it time and time again in your life – interviewing for jobs, networking at mixers, interviewing for awards or scholarships… if you can find a way to really connect with your interviewer, you’re set. You can beat out candidates who are more impressive on paper.
So, without further ado, here’s how to nail your interview:
1. Don’t talk all the time. This may seem counterintuitive – how do you tell your interview everything he needs to know to write a great recommendation if you don’t talk? But the key is to let the interview be a conversation, not a monologue.
2. Ask questions. Not just at the end, when your interview gives you an opportunity to ask questions about the college, but pepper a few good questions throughout your interview. Make these relevant, and about your interviewer. For instance, if you talk about being a member of Amnesty International, and your interviewer’s eyes light up, and he says, “Oh, I did that in college too!” – take that opportunity to talk about it. Ask him if he participated in any letter writing campaigns, and what his most memorable one was. Aim for about 80/20 – 80% you talking, 20% you giving your interviewer a chance to chime in.
3. Be genuinely interested. Your interviewer is a person too - and the more valuable and appreciated you make her feel, the more she'll like you. When she'd talking, pay attention. Then, ask a follow up question, or even make a comment to acknowledge that you were interested in what she was talking about it. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve answered a question only to have the student completely ignore my response. When your interviewer speaks, you need to react.
4. Get to know your interviewer. Naturally, the interview is about you. But knowing your interviewer can help you have a better interview. Students often sit down with me, and then get up again, without knowing what I majored in, or what I do for a living. They lose important opportunities here. If they can find overlaps in their background and my own, they could find way to connect with me and leave a more memorable impression.
5. Don’t leave anything out. Before you start, you should have in your mind the top three or four things you want to get across in the interview. These can be general themes, or particular experiences. Maybe your aunt died from lung cancer and that has motivated you to volunteer with the American Cancer Society. Maybe your high school banned Twilight, and that prompted you to learn about book banning and the restrictions placed upon ideas in the United States and abroad. Don’t get up from the table without getting those things out. What if they don’t come up in the interview? Tell your interviewer, “Before we finish, there is one additional experience I wanted to share with you. It’s something that I feel defines me, and I wanted to get a chance to talk about it.”