For many colleges (especially ones hundreds of miles away), the admissions process includes an "alumni interview." In an area like Knoxville, an applicant will meet with one or a panel of local alumni, as many high school seniors are doing in the coming months.
This process makes alumni feel involved and connected with their alma maters (and more inclined to pony up for the Alumni Fund). More importantly, it gives admissions officers -- sorting through, say, 17,000 applications for the 695 spots remaining after Early Acceptances -- "a face to an application and a story to the face." The rates of acceptance are the same for candidates who had alumni interviews as they are for ones who didn't; nevertheless, the Admissions Office says it helps.
In any case, alumni interviewers get a charge out of meeting the young, vibrant applicants
and hearing the exciting things they're doing and the great plans they have, which is a pretty good segue into the following tips on how to ace the alumni interview: Come prepared to tell about the exciting things you're doing and the great plans you have. Give the interviewers a reason to write to the admissions office, "Of the dozen applicants we've interviewed, this is one of the outstanding candidates. He or she will contribute a), b), and c) to _________."
As in any interview, it's not so much "getting the right answer" but the way you answer that gives interviewers an idea of what makes you as a person special. Are you excited about your courses or marching band? Have your experiences meant something to you and developed you as a person? Do you have an agenda for your college years? "We want to know who the applicant is," said Dartmouth admissions officer Karen Sagall when she came through Knoxville some years ago.
Bring your resume -- including board scores, GPA, APs, and extracurriculars -- so the interviewers can have it in front of them. This way they don't have to ask your scores and grades, and they can see extracurriculars and other items that interest them and ask you about them. This will also help you if your mind happens to go blank, which happens to everyone from time to time.
Be ready to take the basic questions and tell your story:
Why do you want to go to ____? "Because it's a good school" is not the most persuasive answer. Give a reason that shows you know something about the school and how it fits into your plans. Hint: the alumni love their alma mater or they wouldn't be doing these interviews, so this is a good opportunity to talk about some things you know the school excels at (or claims to).
What do you want to do at ____? Show that you have an agenda, both in your academics and extra-curriculars, want to rise to a challenging environment, and contribute to the college community. ("Leadership" is a big word these days in college admissions, the way "well-rounded" was in the 70s.)
Tell us about your activities. Rather than just list them (they're on the resume anyway) show some passion as you say what they mean to you and what they actually did in them. (Try to avoid complaining about how badly you were treated or saying how you hated every minute of it. My group heard this twice last year. "Character" is another big word in college admissions these days. Apparently, Ken Lay, Tyco, WorldCom and Congressman Foley have got everyone thinking!)
Tell me about a book you read recently that meant something to you. Many of us draw a blank when we're asked this question in an interview. Think about this beforehand and try not to list the ones from the 9th grade reading list. There's no wrong answer: you can discuss The Autobiography of Paris Hilton, just try to express some intelligent thoughts about it. Again, we're learning about who you are. Tip: it's OK to say Harry Potter, especially if you went to the bookstore at midnight for the release.
What were your favorite courses? Again, show some enthusiasm. We want to hear what you learned and how it has jazzed you up, because the whole idea is that you'll have the same experience with the incredible professors at ________.
What did you write your essay about? This should be a hanging curve you can knock out of the park. Presumably, applicants have put a great deal of effort into making their essays surprising and delightful expressions of their complete originality as human beings. We want to hear how you took a concept and treated it in an original way to make and original point. To quote a University of Chicago admissions officer, "It's about how you handle ideas." If one's parent actually wrote the essay, this question is more difficult.
Do you have any questions? This is where the interview draws to a close, and probably the only question you really want answered is, "Can I possibly get in?" But as you're looking over the college materials, it doesn't hurt to think of a practical question or two that show you've done your homework. "What's the 'Jan Plan'?" "How do most people fulfil the language requirement?" "What is the 'sophomore summer term'?"