How Hard is it to Get Into College? Do You Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses?
College is very competitive these days. The top tier schools have become increasingly competitive with an ever-increasing applicant pool. According to The Atlantic magazine, one of the reasons for this is because it is easier than ever to apply, thanks to the online Common App which reduces repetitive paperwork. Students can apply to multiple colleges at the same time.
Another issue making college more difficult to enter is the appeal to foreign students of an American education. In foreign countries with growing economies such as China, India and Brazil, an American education is considered an important attribute. These students have been applying in record numbers making the application process more competitive. But this just represents a new challenge, and you can prove you’re up to it.
One of the reasons many students feel that it’s harder to get into the college of their choice is that they now know exactly where their friends are applying and what the results are. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter light up during college admission periods as students and their parents agonize over the application process, and post the results of their attempts to get in.
But while college admission has become more competitive in some ways, and certainly for the top tier schools, in many ways it’s no harder than it’s ever been. You must be prepared – you need good grades, extracurricular activities, and in many cases, you need to make sure that you ace that college interview. In order to do so, you need to know and be able to accurately describe exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are.
What is a College Interview Like?
The typical college interview can inspire butterflies in even the most secure students. But you should know that there are often specific questions most college interviewers ask – and these invariably relate to your personal strengths and weaknesses. Typical questions include:
- Tell me about yourself.
This is a “trick” question. They don’t want to hear a historical retrospective of your life. They’re looking for specific information that demonstrates why you should be accepted to their school. Do your homework. If you’re interested in Engineering, and the college you’re applying to is known for their liberal arts program, why are you interested in that college? Is one of your strengths your ability to play basketball? What if their college doesn’t have a basketball program? Why would you mention this?
- Tell me about a challenge you overcame?
Again, here is an opportunity to play to your strengths. Don’t tell the interviewer that you finally made a bunch of friends in your last year of college. Tell them how you struggled to get through a chemistry class and thanks to signing up for a tutoring course, you were able to get an A in the class. They’re not looking for your popularity status here.
- What do you do for fun in your free time?
Watch out – this is also a trick question. You don’t want to say, “I’m a party animal.” You may think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times students, nervous and filled with adrenaline, will say too much about their background. What if you said, “I love to play Internet games”? Would this be considered a strength or a weakness? What if the follow-up question is, “How long do you play each week?” Unless you’re planning to be a game designer, the answer better not be “forty hours a week or so.”
How to Prepare for your Interview
One of the things you need to remember is that college admissions counselors meet thousands of students – you want to make an impression, but not for the wrong reasons. In almost every interview, the interviewee will ask about your strengths and weaknesses. The College Review website suggests that you practice your interview in advance. Talk to your high school guidance counselor, go through your strengths and weaknesses with friends, even have your parents ask you questions. Always be polite and always strive to present a professional appearance.
A good way to prepare for the interview is to make a list of strengths and weaknesses in advance. Be honest but be careful. You don’t want to exaggerate your strengths. If you claim you’re the greatest student that ever applied to their college, you can expect the admissions officer to dismiss you out of hand. If you exaggerate your abilities, the interviewee will not only know that you’re doing so, but may decide that such egotistical behavior is not something they’re looking for.
Remember that the interviewer will check your record before you show up. College Answers suggests that you be careful not to stretch the truth. For instance, if you say, “I never got any grade below an A – school has always been ridiculously easy for me,” the interviewer is likely to conclude their school isn’t a good fit. Why would they want to admit a braggart? You can say instead, “I’ve worked really hard through the years to get good grades. I study and try to absorb the information presented to me in every classroom, and I’m fortunate to be able to say that I have good grades as a result.”
In a recent article USA Today suggests some strong, common-sense methods of preparing for your interview:
- Do some research – not only about the college you want to go to but about the profession you want to enter. That way, you’ll be prepared for specific questions about both areas.
- Find out exactly who you’ll be interviewing with and what type of materials they will have access to.
- When an interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself,” be ready to break the ice. Practice, practice, practice. And don’t forget to rehearse those commonly asked questions.
- Think about why you want to pursue a college degree. This can be difficult to answer. You don’t want to say, “I want to make more money.” The USA Today article recommends that you think carefully about your motivations. “Find inspiration by considering your life experiences, hobbies or role models.”
Broad Questions/Specific Answers
Some questions are more difficult than others. In an article about 13 college interview questions, CBS News lists the following:
- What do you expect to be doing ten years from now?
- How do you define “success?”
- What about you is unique?
These questions represent great opportunities to discuss your strengths and weaknesses, but they also represent opportunities to make you look egotistical or shallow. For instance, if you say, “Ten years from now, I expect to be wealthy, live in a mansion, and be ready to retire, “ you’re going to look like an idiot who can’t face reality. Don’t be that person the interviewer remembers because you’re cocky and unrealistic.
You might say, “Ten years from now I hope to be rising in my field of interest, to be supervising other people and to be helping people understand my particular passion.” You can be very specific in these instances, but you must answer in a considered way that shows that you’ve thought about this, not in an off-the-cuff manner that makes you sound egotistical.
When the interviewer asks how you define success, don’t say something like, “I think success is being happily married with four children.” Sure, that’s a particular type of success. But do you need to go to college for that? Not necessarily.
It’s better to play to the strengths you will learn from your education. “Success means being in a job I love, being able to create/build/grow in an environment where my efforts are appreciated.” Again, consider your strengths and weaknesses before you get into the interview. Be ready for these broad questions, and be specific with your answers.
The question, “What about you is unique,” can also be problematic. While you might want to say, “I can hold my breath underwater for four minutes,” unless you’re trying out for the swim team, that might not be a good answer. Think about this question in terms of the specific field you want to go into. If you’re planning to be a history teacher, you might say, “I think I have a solid ability to remember and explain complicated historical facts.” If you want to be an engineer, you could say, “I love to find out how things work.”
Use the college interview as a way to cement your relationship with a stranger. You want to be memorable for your strengths, not for ego. You want to be remembered for your plans, not for your weaknesses. You want to be remembered for your fit with the particular college – not for your strange, off-the-wall answers. Practice describing your strengths and weaknesses and always present yourself in a professional manner. The college interview may feel like it lasts forever, but it is just a short amount of time and could result in a life-changing result.