Learning Curve: How to succeed at admissions interviews

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:37am

It is interview season for students completing their final year of secondary school and seeking admission for the academic term starting in the autumn.

With personal statements finally completed after more drafts than they can recall, chasing academic referees, completing application forms and surviving the final scramble to upload documents, there's now nothing to do but wait nervously for interview calls. That and prepare for the final examination to meet their predicted grade requirements.

I find that students are more apprehensive about qualifying for an interview than the actual interview process. Students seem to have an innate confidence that they can make an impression if they can make it to an interview.

Today's students are well aware of the importance of interviews. Schools now have in-house guidance counsellors and career centres that help with résumé review and practise interviews. Some parents also enlist education consultants who record mock-interviews and give feedback after dissecting every word and nuance. There are books which are now career and subject-specific, and TED talks on the art of the interview and body language. So, it's not surprising that students today seem less apprehensive about the actual interview process compared to my own children and their peers - who interviewed for college admission in 2000.

In fact, I find that it is this overconfidence that can be a limiting factor for success. It especially manifests itself in the often-employed group interview section.

Students go in feeling a sense of competition with the rest of the group. While trying too hard to outshine and establish an edge over them, students often fail to impress.

Rachael Desgouttes, a popular teacher and coach who has considerable experience in this arena, offers students some important insights. She reminds them that the word interview has its origins in the French "entre voir" - to see between us.

"An interview is a two-way dialogue and [remembering that] takes away some of the stress," says Desgouttes.

"In a group interview it is about having your say and ensuring you don't come across as a wallflower but also not dominating [the discussion] so that you come across as bossy.

"A group interview is a difficult one to predict because you don't know the dynamics of the other people in the group. A very good technique is to keep a mental balance of who is speaking and how much. Should there be somebody who is not speaking, it is a sign to invite them for their opinions. You can lean across and ask: 'What do you think? I would like to hear your opinion.' Conversely, if somebody is dominating the discussion, the worst thing you can do is jump in and talk over them.

"You must preface your interjection with, 'Excuse me, what you are saying is really interesting and I would like to add something,' or 'I would like to ask the gentleman next to you what he thinks.'

"You can use these opportunities to become a bit of a manager of the group." And it is a courteous way to demonstrate qualities that interviewers are seeking in candidates.

Her second point is about the handshake. "People make up their mind about you within in the first seven seconds."

Avoid being in the dominant position when you shake hands. The dominant person in the handshake comes over the top and takes the upper position. Keep your hand vertical and think of the expression - having the upper hand. The interviewer is allowed to establish his position of power and control, but the candidate must not, says Desgouttes.

"The last impression is crucial. Often students are quite exhausted, and while they do prepare some questions, there is a real danger that those questions will be answered during the interview process. So often they leave saying, 'Uhh no, no questions.'

"If that is the case, the thing to say is, 'My question was this, and it has been answered. Can I just clarify what you said?' Then the student should repeat back the response, so they don't have that moment of saying, 'no, no questions.' This also impresses, as he or she comes across as an engaged and informed listener, another quality interviewers generally look for."

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School