Admissions Interviews: Dos and Don’ts

Admissions Interviews: Dos and Don’ts

QS Staff Writer

Updated January 28, 2022 Updated January 28

While interviews are not part of every university admissions process, many institutions will ask to meet you face-to-face before admitting you. Now, interviews are pretty scary at the best of times, but when the stakes are as high as getting a place at a university or grad school, well, let’s just say that you might feel a few nerves before stepping into the interrogation chamber.

However, though we’re not saying you should lie back and sip a drink from a coconut shell, you shouldn’t fear interviews, but instead embrace them as a chance to prove that you would be a great addition to the university’s student body.

To help you achieve this, we turned the tables on Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University, Dr Kim Zwitserloot, a lecturer and interviewer at University College Utrecht (a liberal arts college tied to Utrecht University), and Johns Hopkins’ team of student ‘Admissions Representatives’ (ARs) to see how they think you can make the most of a university admissions interview

DO: Prove you’re enthusiastic about your topic

One word comes up again and again during our conversations with interviewers: enthusiasm.  “Enthusiasm is the one thing which can really make a candidate stand out,” says Zwitsersloot.

“When someone gets really excited about knowledge or an idea, and can come up with examples on the spot, they make a really good impression on me. I think they have to come here, so we can continue the conversation!”

The team at Johns Hopkins echo this. AR Meghan Kellett recalls a prospective archeology student who she describes as “inspiring”.

“She had read a book by one of the archeology professors at Johns Hopkins, and attended a lecture given by this professor. She then went on to contact him to personally meet with her in order to discuss the material. Her passion and pursuit of learning for the sake of learning was extremely transparent. It felt like I was already talking to a student of Johns Hopkins.”

DO: Be ready to show you can think

At Oxford, explains Nicholson, the famous interview process with its seemingly unusual questions (not unusual at all when considered in context, he explains) is designed to see if a student can really think, rather than regurgitate the appropriate piece of information.

“We’re very interested in thought processes, in candidates being able to explain why they think what they think.

“Humanities, social science and medical students should be able to show flexibility; we very rarely start in situations where we have all the information we need, so we start with some partial information, and then drip-feed more to see if they can take on additional information; if they can adapt their answer to something unexpected, or something which changes the direction of travel.”

Maths and engineering students, he adds, are given a hard problem and are required to show how they are solving it, step-by-step. Something which, he comments, does not always come naturally to the students of these disciplines…

DON’T: Just assume your previous achievements will do the talking

Excessive reliance on your credentials, thinks Jessie Koljonen at Johns Hopkins, will not help you to win over your interviewer. “[One candidate] brought in a binder with every single award he had ever gotten in his life, including being selected as line leader in kindergarten! He then proceeded to pull out a presentation about his research.

"The whole interview was basically him doing his speech and not letting me ask any questions. All those awards and research things will show up on an application – I was trying to get more of an insight on his personality and who he was but clearly that didn’t work!”

DO: Your homework

Perhaps it goes without saying, but you should make entirely sure you know what you’re applying for.

"So often you have an interview,” states Zwitsersloot, “where you get the feeling the candidate hasn’t looked at the website, and doesn’t understand the program (University College Utrecht offers a multi-subject liberal arts curriculum which is slightly different to the programs normally offered at European universities). 

"It really helps if you’ve done your homework, and have some questions to ask us too. That shows you’re really interested.”

You could go one worse than that, though, says Johns Hopkins AR Mia Spad: “One of the worst interviews I've had was with a prospective student who not only didn't know the correct name of the school, but also didn't know what majors are available.

"After half an hour in which I had to explain to her it was ‘Johns’ not ‘John Hopkins’, and that pre-medicine was not offered as an official major, I had had it.” 

And finally DON’T: Assume you’ve failed

Interviews can be tough, there’s no denying it, but you shouldn’t, says Nicholson, assume you’ve failed at any point. “I’ve sat in on interviews where it’s taken candidates 15 minutes to get settled, but then they really come alive for the last five or ten minutes. This is when the interview starts for us,” he explains.

“It’s not about how well you can cope with nerves. If it’s been the type of interview that normally gets a student a place, it will have often been really tough. They will have been pushed to the limit of what they are comfortable with, and had to say things that they can’t be absolutely sure were right. If it’s been really tough,” he concludes, “it’s probably gone really well.”

This article was originally published in March 2013 . It was last updated in January 2020