by Stuart Rosenwald
Associate Head of School and Director of Secondary School Counseling at Fay School
I remember driving to my oldest child’s first secondary school interview. He was very verbal and used to talking with adults, so I assumed that he would interview very well. But when I gave him a practice question in the car, asking what his favorite class was, he gave a one-word answer, “English.”
Few things in the admissions process cause as much angst among parents and students as the interview. From my 25 years of preparing Fay students for this process—and going through it with my own three children—I understand both the anxiety and the opportunity that it presents.
I have seen interviews weigh heavily in the decision process either for or against a candidate. The underprepared student can find him or herself in an interview that is one-sided, stilted, and uncomfortable, while the over-prepared student runs the risk of seeming scripted and inauthentic. However, there’s no reason to view the interview with dread. With the right kind of preparation, the interview can be a real asset to your child’s application. Here are some tips for sending your child into interviews ready to make a great impression.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
I suggest that students do at least one practice interview with an adult who is not their parent. The goal is to give rich and informative answers to each question and to keep the conversation going. Interviewers aren’t trying to stump your child. They want to draw them out and learn what makes them interesting and unique. At Fay, our eighth and ninth grade students do at least one practice interview with a member of the secondary school counseling team, and sometimes more. In the fall, our ninth graders watch our counselors role-play the interview to learn the do’s and don’t’s of interviewing well, and they also have the opportunity to meet in small groups with admission representatives from over 45 different secondary schools. By the time the get to their own admission interviews, they are confident in the process and understand what they need to do.
2. Presentation is Key
For the 20-35 minutes that the interview lasts, the spotlight is on your child, and he or she needs to dress and behave accordingly. In general, it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed. I suggest to our Fay students that they wear their usual school dress code, including blazers, to secondary school interviews. Students need to consciously avoid distracting habits like cracking knuckles, jiggling pocket change, and foot tapping. Instead, students need to focus on making an appropriate amount of eye contact and projecting a positive and energetic outlook. Finally, when you go to visit a school, parents and students should leave the technology in the car. Scrolling through a cell phone in the waiting room suggests a lack of interest and engagement.
3. Give Your Child an Agenda
Before the interview, brainstorm 3-5 discussion topics that your child will try to address during the interview. These should be points that highlight your child’s strengths and interests, and it’s a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on something that might be overlooked or left out of the written application. If your child is a heavily-recruited soccer star, there’s no need to bring that up. At this point, the school already knows. The interview is a chance to showcase other strengths and round out his or her profile as an applicant. While discussion topics should be tailored to your child’s interests, make sure that he or she is not discussing sports and activities that the school does not offer.
4. Things Not to Say
Like at the Thanksgiving table, there are topics to avoid during a secondary school interview. Students should not criticize their current school. Suggesting that the food could be better is fine, but complaining about the quality of the teachers makes the student look like a negative person. It may seem like common sense, but indicating to a school that they are a “back-up” school or that the child is only there because the parents have required the visit is also a very bad idea.
5. Ask Questions
At the end, interviewers will always ask if the applicant has any questions. Having some questions prepared will make your child seem interested and interesting. Not having questions gives the opposite impression. This is a great opportunity to circle back to a prepared discussion topic that didn’t come up in the interview. For example, one of our students at Fay writes and illustrates children’s books and presents them to our Primary School students. What a fantastic thing to talk about in an interview! If the topic hadn’t come up, she could mention it, in the form of a question, by noting that she started this club at her current school and ask whether students have the opportunity to do something similar at the prospective school.
6. Don’t Forget to Prepare for the Parent Interview
Parents are often so focused on their child’s interview performance that they neglect to prepare for their own. Admission officers will usually meet with parents for 10-25 minutes, where they try to get a sense of the child from your perspective. What is the applicant like as a son or daughter? What is he or she like as a sibling? What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? Parents should approach these questions with honesty, optimism, and authenticity. For example, if your child has had issues with organization, you can mention it, but put a positive spin on it by talking about how much progress has been made.
The interview is your child’s chance to show the school what an asset he or she would be to their community. With a little preparation, there’s nothing to fear.