How to be Successful in College and Scholarship Interviews

Now is the time when many juniors are walking into their first college interviews and seniors are winding up their admission process with scholarship interviews. With that in mind, we asked college advisor Alice Kleeman for her best advice for students. As usual, she goes the extra mile to shepherd students through what they can expect. Read on about preparing for an interview, how to make a solid first impression, and why an interview is not the time to be modest.


An interview is an opportunity! How many other times in your life are you invited to talk about yourself, to share the best of yourself with others? A college or scholarship interview is not to be dreaded or feared, but rather to be enjoyed. After all, who knows and understands the subject of YOU better than YOU? The following common-sense suggestions for successful interviews should help you relax and enjoy the process.

  • Be on time. PLAN and allow time for getting lost, having a flat tire, or dealing with any catastrophe that might choose to happen on your interview day.
  • Dress appropriately. Most college and scholarship interviews call for attire that is not formal or dressy, but it is a step beyond school attire. No jeans, t-shirts, or sneakers! Don't wear distracting clothing. No low-cut blouses, spaghetti straps, high-cut skirts, baseball caps, etc. Girls should wear a skirt and blouse or sweater, or nice slacks with a blouse or sweater. Guys should wear slacks and a nice sport shirt or dress shirt. In most cases, a coat and tie or a dress is not necessary.
  • Don't chew gum!!
  • Turn off your cell phone, or leave it at home!
  • Make a solid first impression. Offer a firm handshake (to each interviewer, if there is a committee), make good eye contact (and maintain it throughout the interview), and repeat the name of the interviewer if it helps you remember it. Smile!!
  • Be yourself. You don't need to be a raging dynamo to have a great interview. If you're a more reserved person, that's okay! You'll have a more comfortable and authentic interview if you do not try to be someone you are not. If you're a funny person, you may be funny in the interview. If you're not, this is not the time to try your comedic skills. The best interview is one where you are entirely yourself, whoever that may be.
  • Be prepared with background information. Know about the college or scholarship for which you are being interviewed. Don’t ask questions whose answers can be found on the college's or scholarship organization's FAQ page. With some preparation, your questions will be more intelligent, and your interviewers will appreciate that you have familiarized yourself with their organization. This is particularly true for scholarship interviews. Would you want to sponsor a student who doesn't even know what your organization is or does?
  • Highlight what the interviewer does NOT already know about you. Review your paper application before attending the interview. In many cases, your paper application already includes a list of your activities and experiences. You don't want to list them in an interview. Instead, focus on the quality of your participation. Have you participated in a way that differentiates you from others in the same activity? The following qualities can be brought out in an interview but will not necessarily show up on paper:


  • Motivation. WHY do you participate? How did you start and why do you continue? The student who pursues an activity because of a passion for it certainly makes a better impression than one who says, "My dad made me sign up," or "It's a requirement at our school."
  • Commitment. How long have you participated? What sort of time and energy do you put in? Do you do more than is asked? Will you continue the activity? If you have ever passed up a day at the beach with your friends to participate in a community project, tell about it in the interview!
  • Passion and spark! Do you just go through the motions of an activity, or do you throw yourself into it with more energy than anyone else? Do your eyes sparkle when you talk about it? Can your enthusiasm be contagious to the people who are interviewing you?
  • Initiative. Have you gone above and beyond the opportunities offered to you to create your own? If you claim to be an artist, for example, did you just take the art classes offered at your school? Or did you go out and take courses at a community college or local art school? Do you spend free time creating art, and do you share your love for art with others in some form of community service? Tell your interviewers about your initiative.
  • Sense of humor. Can you laugh at yourself? Will others enjoy being around you? Do you have anecdotes about your activities or accomplishments that show you to be someone who, while serious about your endeavors, can also see the lighter side?
  • Ability to work with people. Your own personal capabilities will seem less important to your interviewers if you cannot show that you know how to cooperate, collaborate, and get along with other people--all kinds of people.
  • Willingness to take responsibility. Be positive about assuming responsibility for yourself, your actions, and your results in every way. If your test scores were low, never say, "My English teacher just couldn't teach." If you didn't get a lot of playing time in basketball, never blame "the coach who just wouldn't give me a chance." On the flip side, don't hesitate to take credit where it is due: "I think my long hours of work on the sets helped make our drama production a real success."


  • Be articulate. Speak clearly--don't mumble. Avoid "like," "you know," "So I'm all... so she's all…" Take time to be thoughtful about your answers. Don't feel that you need a quick, snappy answer to every question. If nothing comes to your mind immediately, it is fine to say, "That's a really good question. I haven't thought much about that yet." Interviewers know they are dealing with teenagers who do not--and cannot--have the answers to every question.
  • Be generally well informed. Occasionally in interviews you will be asked about a current event, a book you have read recently, a controversial issue, etc. If you're up on the latest, you'll have no trouble with such questions. If you're totally unfamiliar with the topic in question, it is better to be honest than to try to bluff your way through an answer.
  • Sell yourself--strongly but not obnoxiously. An interview is not the time to be modest! Share your strengths with your interviewers; they will not think you immodest if you do it graciously. If you are really uncomfortable tooting your own horn, you can always say, "My friends think that I am (fill in the blank)" or "My teachers often tell me that I…" If you are asked about weaknesses, be frank. But often talking about weaknesses can also lead to descriptions of strengths: "I tend to put things off until the last minute, but that has really helped me learn to work well under pressure."
  • Conclude graciously. Thank the interviewers for their time, shake hands, and don't try to draw out the interview past the allotted time.
  • Follow up. Consider sending a hand-written thank-you note a day or so after the interview, mentioning one or two things you appreciated. It is a nice gesture and often will be added to your file.

Good luck in your interview!


Alice Kleeman has served as the college advisor for 18 years in the College and Career Center of Menlo- Atherton High School, a public high school of 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also teaches each summer on the faculty of the College Board’s Summer Admission Institute for new admission officers.


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