Many candidates think of the interview as a performance. If you do, you're missing out.
I once interviewed a candidate who was superb. Poised, articulate, thoughtful. But she missed the chance to connect with me. She mentioned she taught courses in a foreign language. I jumped in to say that I had studied it post college, and found it challenging. She smiled, nodded, then moved on to the next thing... about herself.
This wasn't a huge red flag for me, but it made it clear that she was not really interested in building a relationship with me - she was interested in impressing me so I would write her a great letter.
And you know what? I did. I wrote a very nice letter for her, and was enthusiastic about the qualities that would make her an excellent candidate.
So it was an A- interview. Which was fine.
But if she had treated the interview not as a performance, but an opportunity to build a relationship with someone who could potentially be a mentor, she would have gotten more out of it. It's possible she could have gotten a stronger rec letter, but beyond that, she could have kept in touch with me beyond the interview. Whether or not she got admitted, she could have asked me for career advice, suggestions about internships, scholarships, and summer opportunities. I could have introduced her to other people in her field of interest who could have been helpful. She had the opportunity to build a stronger, deeper relationship with me, and she dropped it.
Good mentors are hard to find. Not every Harvard interviewer will want to be a mentor. Not every interviewer will be a good fit for you. But one of the most powerful things you can do during your interview is find a way to connect with your interviewer as an individual.
Here are a few ways to do it:
1. Be genuinely interested in your interviewer. If, during the course of the conversation, they say something that you find fascinating, that you've always wanted to do, that impresses you, say so.
2. Do some research. Google your interviewer. Has your interviewer written a book? Worked at a non profit? Won a scholarship you want to apply for? Let them know you know something about them, and are excited to meet with them.
3. Try to ask a few questions about them - before they tell you to. Almost all interviewers will finish up by saying, "Are there any questions you have for me?" It's fine to save the bulk of your questions for this time. But if you slip in a few beforehand, it makes it clear that you truly want to know what they think - you aren't filling in a compulsory bullet.