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Admissions “Interviews” in the Digital World

By Robert LeVine

For years, many of America’s top colleges conducted interviews of applicants as part of the admissions process. Having served in this capacity for Harvard for over 29 years, I cannot tell you how many times I sat down with bright young people at a Starbucks for an hour-long chat that turned into an Interview Report, which proved to be highly influential in determining who got in and who did not.

Then Covid-19 hit and put a stop to most everything.

Yet now that the world is transforming into another “new normal.” Things change, but things also remain the same: the admissions interview is BACK.

Well, not necessarily an “interview” in the classic sense ….

Some schools have returned to performing interviews, usually by alumni, only now many of those interviews are being conducted over zoom or some other form of digital video chat. However, new formats – which were becoming more popular even before the pandemic – are being utilized by many schools. One or two-minute prerecorded videos often take the place of live interviews. Even in an Instagram world, these are hard for anyone to master.

First, with a prerecorded video, there is nobody with whom to interact. That may seem like a benefit to some, but for most people, the inability to have meaningful conversations can change the human dynamic for the worse. It is very hard to demonstrate that you will be a beneficial part of a campus community in a format with zero give-and-take.

Second, these videos are short. Whereas an interview provides time and opportunity to communicate memorable stuff, a prerecorded video just … doesn’t.

So, how do you create a video that helps you become part of a school’s next class?

Let’s start with discussing what not to do. Don’t try to be perfect. Psychologically, although humans are impressed by perfection, we tend to like imperfection. In art, we usually prefer asymmetry over symmetry; off-center is more interesting. When you mirror an attractive face through Photoshop, the model or movie star somehow doesn’t look as attractive. My funniest stories are about what went wrong, not about what I did right.

Translating this into the world of admissions, please do not create an overworked, overproduced movie. Admissions officers are looking for genuine people, not immaculate editing. This is not a portfolio for a competitive film major. This is a quick meet-and-greet.

Perhaps the most important advice is: relax. Just be you. Don’t worry so much about making mistakes (bloopers, by the way, can be endearing). In fact, the chance that you’ll get a great video in just one take is practically zero. Assume that you’re going to make many attempts before achieving even a palatable result. Remove the pressure from yourself.

But what to say, or do? Please, do not recite your resume, achievements or qualifications. They already know about those things from your application. The video is meant to add information – about your human side – not “prove” yourself.

Definitely give your name, where you’re from, and … then what?

Here lies the brilliance of a short take. You can say and do pretty much anything you want (within the boundaries of decency, of course). If you look at YouTube, you will see dozens and dozens of short admissions videos, but remember: they are usually posted by students (as something the kids enjoyed), not by admissions offices (as something that proved effective). Use the internet, but only for giving yourself comfort that anything goes.

Discuss what you are looking forward to doing in college. Chat about how your friends make you laugh. Describe a quirk or idiosyncrasy. Tell them about a question which vexes you. If you’re unsure about what to say, try a bunch of different ideas, then ask your friends or parents what they like. Remember: it’s all about what the audience wants.

Ultimately, admissions officers just want to get to know you, not some perfect presentation. As one admissions dean told me:

“Trying to be someone you’re not because you think that’s what I want? It’s not good. I’m going to be intrigued by an interesting person who probably is not perfect. In fact, I’d be very skeptical of the perfect 17 or 18-year old. I’ve never met that person.”

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit

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