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How to Answer "Gotcha" Questions in Your Interview

August 22, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, Admissions

How do I answer "gotcha" questions during a college alumni interview?

The typical answer is that most interviewers won't try to give you "gotcha" questions. Their primary job is to get to know you better, and to add color to your admissions file, not to make you look foolish.

The real answer? If you don't adequately prepare for your interviews, then every question will feel like a "gotcha" question no matter how simple they seem.

So how do you avoid that?

In this article, I'll first explain how to properly handle 3 simple questions that often become "gotchas" for unprepared high school interviewees.

Second, I'll show you how to handle "gotcha" questions in general, and explain the simple process for turning difficult, tricky questions into softballs you can knock out of the park.

The 3 Most Common "Gotcha" Questions

1. “Tell me about yourself”

Because this question is so simple and obvious, the expectations for your answer are sky high.

If you can’t deliver a coherent, 2-minute story about yourself, your motivations, and how you intend to use the next four years of college to explore those interests, then you haven’t prepared enough.

The trick?

Look at (or create) a resume of your most notable achievements/experiences in high school. Once you get that on paper, go through the list and practice telling one coherent, unified story of your experiences.

Time yourself. Practice reciting your story out loud with a friend or parent.

By the time of your interview, you should basically have this story memorized.

That's how you'll know if you've prepared adequately enough.

2. “Do you have any questions for me?

Trick question.

There is only one answer, and it’s always Yes.

You should prepare some specific questions about the college in advance.

If you run out of specific questions, fill in the blanks below by mix-and-matching words from Group A and B:

What was your A B ?

  • A: Favorite, least favorite, most memorable, most unexpected, most surprising, most popular, least popular, most enjoyable, least enjoyable, most unusual, most common, least common
  • B: Class, extracurricular, club, volunteer activity, academic experience

3. What would you change about your high school/extracurricular/class you’ve taken?

Don’t fall for the negativity trap.

The trick here is to stay positive .

There are 2 parts to this question:

  1. Identify a problem you’ve encountered

  2. Say how you would solve it

It’s all too easy for your answer to Part #1 to be overly negative and critical of the status quo.

Don’t use this question to bash your teachers or fellow students. That reflects poorly on you.

It takes practice to toe the right line, but the key theme that should come across in your answer is your positivity (even when faced with a negative situation), problem-solving skills, and initiative.

The General Strategy for Tricky Interview Questions

What if you get a truly "gotcha" question that you couldn't have possibly prepared for?

One wrong answer can ruin an interviewer’s impression of you.

The trick to answering tricky questions is to go with the flow. Easier said than done, yes, but a skill that can be learned.

Out-of-the-box questions require out-of-the-box responses . If you take yourself too seriously, you won’t be able to give a good answer to these sorts of questions.

Let’s take the above scene from Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happiness as an example.

Will Smith’s character is interviewing for a job at a white collar finance firm.

He’s severely under-dressed.

The interviewer pointedly asks him:

“What would you say if a guy walked in for an interview without a shirt on, and I hired him?”

Why is this question a “gotcha”?

It’s posed fairly rhetorically — the premise is that hiring someone dressed like Will Smith would not be smart , and thus he should not be hired. The question is delivered to make it seem like the answer is obviously “no.”

Any answer that takes this question at face value would implicitly be acknowledging and accepting this, damaging Will Smith’s chances of landing the job.

The best way to defuse a “gotcha” question is to identify the premise that makes it a “gotcha,” and then deflect from that premise.

So, instead, Will Smith flips the question on its head.

What if the premise were false? What if hiring someone without a shirt was actually the smart move?

And that’s why the answer:

“He must’ve had on some really nice pants.”

Comes off so well.

Use this strategy in your college interview if asked a “gotcha” question.

For example, in the question:

“What did you dislike most about your school?”

The underlying assumption is that there is something wrong with your school. Maybe a teacher you hated, or a class you thought was terrible.

That’s a fairly negative premise, and one that will reflect poorly on you if you use this opportunity to bash your teachers or fellow students.

Flip the premise on its head.

Don’t list things that are wrong about your school.

Instead, list ways that you’ve improved your school.

Or, list things at College X that you are excited about since your school did them differently.

The content of your answer will be similar, but by re-framing your answer in a more positive light, you can avoid the trickier nature of these critically-oriented questions.

7 Simple College Interview Tips and Tricks

Here are 7 simple tips for having a great college interview.

August 06, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, Admissions

How do I ace a college admissions interview?

First off, breathe.

Because below, I’m going to hit you with seven of the best interview tips for really nailing your college interview.

1. DON’T Suit Up

(Unless they tell you to.)

A big mistake is overdressing the part.

Just because you’re doing an interview with Princeton doesn’t mean you should show up like you’re giving a presentation to a Fortune 500 CEO.

But what’s wrong with dressing in my best duds? Doesn’t looking better mean doing better?

Not always.

Overdressing can make both you and the interviewer uncomfortable. You want to match the level of attire of your interviewer, not overdo it.

That also doesn’t mean show up in a graphic T and pastel shorts.

But if the interviewer says it’s casual, trust that it will be casual (especially if you’re meeting in a public place).

A nice button-down or a simple dress will do just fine.

Here's another tip: Take 3 seconds to Google your interviewer and figure out when they graduated. The age of the interviewer tends to make a difference in terms of the formality you should expect.

Younger alumni interviewers typically prefer a more casual vibe when interviewing prospective students. Older alumni, however, may appreciate a more conservative, traditional button-down look.

2. DO Keep Your Guard Up

Even though you don't want to be too formal in how you dress/approach the interview, you also don't want to be overly casual.

No matter how "laid back" or "chill" your interviewer seems, you must remember that the interview is evaluative and you are always being judged.

I don't say that to make you nervous.

But don't let your guard down.

Don't try to appear "more vulnerable" or show your "human side" by talking crassly or discussing something that reflects poorly on you.

The interviewer is not your therapist.

The interviewer is not your college counselor.

The interviewer is not your friend, to be quite frank.

Yes, the interviewer should like you as a person. But their job is to write up an honest report of you to the admissions committee.

Don't give them something bad to write about.

3. Just Take the Dang Bottle of Water

This is one of the biggest (and most hilarious) problems that students worry about.

What happens if they offer to buy me a water or cup of coffee?

I don’t want to spend their money!

What if they think I’m using them?

Oh no, they're going to think my entire interview is a sham to get free water from schools that have billions in endowments!

Chill out. Play it cool.

If they offer you something to drink, graciously accept.

For one, this makes you seem more receptive right away. The interviewer is there for you, let them treat you in a friendly way!

Don’t make yourself seem closed off because you’re too humble to accept a drink from someone else.

And for another, you might actually need a drink! Nothing worse than chopping up the flow of a good answer with a dry mouth. Get your free liquid on!

Heck – if you see that they don’t have something to drink, offer them a water. The buck-fifty you spend might start you off on a positive note.

4. Go Ahead and Have A Big Mouth

This is SO important. KEEP TALKING!

You are meeting with a person who has never met you and essentially needs to know about every aspect of your life.

This is different from a regular interview – where they might inquire about your ability for a specific position.

The person you are going to meet (usually a school alum) is trying to figure out if you – as in a whole person – would be a good fit for the campus.

Don’t cut yourself short by giving minimal answers! It may seem awkward to share so much, but it is actually very helpful for the interviewer.

Tell stories, talk about interests, and make sure you have a bunch to say when they hit you with the opening line “So Tell Me About Yourself.”

5. Ask Some Interesting Questions

This last one is obvious. Do some homework about the campus and be prepared to return the favor and ask questions at the end.

Don’t just ask something you could have found out by Googling.

Here's a great list of 80 interview questions to start.

6. Small Talk Makes a Big Difference

The cliche that people hate small talk is misleading.

Sure, small talk can feel trite.

But it's a heck of a lot better than the alternative -- awkward silence.

Have a bit of small talk prepared for filling in the natural awkward silences that will occur during your interview, especially at the start and end of your interview.

These moments are like the "on" and "off" ramps to the metaphorical highway of you cruising through your interview at 80mph. Even if you do great on the actual "interview" (highway) portion of your interview, it doesn't mean much if you total your car getting on or off that highway.

When you've just entered your interviewer's office, or you're just getting seated with your interviewer, or you're waiting in line for coffee, or you're walking back to your car...

None of these situations are part of your actual "interview." You won't be getting grilled on your love of biology while you're waiting in line at Starbucks.

However, you're still being evaluated during these moments, and if they feel awkward that will reflect poorly on you.

The solution? Small talk.

OK, great.

But how do you "get good" at small talk?

Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The night before your interview, take 20 minutes to do a quick Google search for:

  1. The weather
  2. Local sports scores
  3. Front page of the New York Times
  4. Front page of the college's student newspaper

Are there any TV shows you've recently seen, or books/articles/magazines you've read and enjoyed?

Just be mentally ready to unleash your small talk when needed, and you'll be able to avoid awkward silences and lulls in conversation.

7. Show up Early

Don't be late.

It's that simple.

But if you are late, be honest and stay positive, like one of our Essay Mentors did when his 150-pound English Mastiff got in the way of his Harvard interview.

And that’s it! Those are my seven biggest points to nailing an interview.

Put in the time and remember, the interview process is not about luck.

Luck is just when preparation meets opportunity.

Top 60 College Interview Questions + Tips for Acing Your Interview

Example college interview questions, tips for preparing, and good questions to ask your interviewer

June 25, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Interview, How To, Preparation

This article provides a list of the 60 top most common college interview questions, as well as a list of the top 20 questions to ask in your college interview.

Without knowing how to put these tools to use, however, you'll flounder. Thus, the following section of this article details 4 actionable recommendations to help you better practice and prepare for your college interview.

Finally, I'll summarize what we've learned and underscore why interviewing is so important for college admissions.

1. Top 60 Common College Interview Questions

Below, I've compiled a list of the some of the most common college interview questions asked by admissions officers and alumni interviewers.

I've grouped them into several broader categories for ease of studying:

A. School Specific

  1. Why do you want to go to School X ?
  2. How will School X help you achieve your academic/career goals?
  3. Have you ever been to School X's campus?
  4. What stands out the most to you about School X ?
  5. What distinguishes School X from the other school's you are applying to?
  6. Do you know anyone who has gone to School X ?
  7. What is the most important thing for you in deciding on a school?
  8. What are you hoping to get out of your experience in college?

B. Academics

  1. What do you want to major in?
  2. What is your favorite class?
  3. What is your least favorite class?
  4. How do you compare against other students in your school academically?
  5. What academic skill do you think you need to improve the most?
  6. What is the most challenging class you've taken?
  7. What subject is the hardest for you?
  8. What type of student are you in the classroom?
  9. Is there a reason for the lower grade you received in Class Y this semester?

C. Extracurriculars

  1. You seem very busy. How do you like to spend your free time?
  2. What interests you about item Y that you’ve noted on your resume? Tell me about it.
  3. What activities do you do that you want to continue in college?
  4. What is your favorite extracurricular?
  5. What is your least favorite extracurricular?
  6. What new experiences do you want to have in college?
  7. How have you spent your summers?
  8. If you got a day off from school, how would you spend it?
  9. Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
  10. What extracurricular have you devoted the most time to, and why?

D. General

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Walk me through your resume.
  3. Tell me 3 things not on your college application.
  4. What's a talent of yours that people would be surprised to learn about?
  5. What is your favorite piece of literature?
  6. What is the most recent book you've read?
  7. What is your proudest moment?
  8. What type of roommate will you be?
  9. How would your friends describe you?
  10. Where do you feel most at home?
  11. Who is someone you admire?
  12. What are the characteristics of a great leader?
  13. If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would you choose?
  14. What does "success" mean to you?
  15. What careers interest you?
  16. Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years (after graduating)?
  17. If you won the lottery, how would you spend the money?
  18. If you caught a fellow student cheating, what would you do?

E. Stories

  1. Tell me about a time you led a team.
  2. Tell me about a time you worked as part of a team and overcame internal conflict.
  3. Tell me about a time you faced a moral dilemma, and how you resolved it.
  4. Tell me about a time you changed someone's mind.
  5. Tell me about a time you overcame adversity.
  6. Tell me about a time you messed up.
  7. Tell me about the most difficult challenge you've overcome.
  8. Tell me about a decision you regret.

F. Tricky Questions

  1. Why should we admit you?
  2. Why should you be admitted over other students? What distinguishes your application?
  3. If you could change one thing about your high school, what would it be?
  4. What is your greatest weakness?
  5. What other schools are you applying to?
  6. What do you think about current event Z ?
  7. What is the biggest hardship you've either managed to overcome or that still affects you?

2. Top 20 Questions to Ask Your College Interviewer

Your interviewer will usually leave time at the end for you to ask him/her questions about the school and their experience as a student there.

Make sure to have at least 5-6 questions ready!

There is nothing worse than staring blankly at your interviewer and not having a single question to ask. That demonstrates a complete lack of preparation and interest in the school.

As a general tip, if no questions come immediately to mind you can almost always simply flip the questions asked to you back on your interviewer.

For example, "What do you want to major in?" can be flipped on your interviewer as "What did you major in during college, and why?"

To ensure that you never commit the devastating mistake of not having questions at the ready to ask your interviewer, I've put together a list of 20 good questions that you can ask any college interviewer:

  1. Why did you choose School X ?
  2. Why did you major in Y ?
  3. What was your favorite class in college, and why?
  4. What was your favorite extracurricular in college, and why?
  5. What surprised you most about School X ?
  6. What advice would you have for incoming freshmen?
  7. What is your favorite part about School X's campus?
  8. What do you wish you had known when going to School X ?
  9. If you could change one thing about School X , what would it be?
  10. I'm interested in Program W; can you tell me more about it?
  11. I'm interested in joining Student Club W, can you tell me more about it/what its reputation is on campus?
  12. I read online about School Tradition X, what is it like in person?
  13. Is there any club or organization that you didn't join during college but wish you had?
  14. How would you describe campus community/atmosphere?
  15. Are there any extracurricular opportunities you'd recommend for someone like myself that come to mind?
  16. What is the "hidden gem" of School X ?
  17. What is a typical weekday/weekend like on campus?
  18. I read about Issue Y facing the college on the online student newspaper. Do you know anything about it?
  19. What are the sporting events like, and did you regularly go to them?
  20. How would you describe your fellow students?

3. How to Prepare for Your Interview

The most nerve-wracking aspect of most college applications is the alumni interview.

In roughly an hour, you need to convince a total stranger that you're not just a great person but also extremely well-qualified for the institution from which they graduated.

Unlike every other aspect of your application, there are no do-overs, no rough drafts, no family or friends or teachers there to sit by your side and support you through the process.

Thus, it's essential that you go into the interview feeling well-prepared and confident. Think of it like a one-man-show where you're the producer, director, stagehand, conductor, and lead actor all at once. It is the most raw, unfiltered, and honest aspect of your application because it is just you.

While this might sound terrifying, this is also what makes the interview so exciting.

Because it is so difficult, if you are able to distinguish yourself during your interview then you have likely earned a fast-track ticket to the college of your choice.

As the only face-to-face interaction you'll have with each college, the interview is your best chance to add that "human dimension" to your application, in addition to your essays.

Acing it goes a long way in differentiating yourself from the general pool of applicants.

Without further ado, here are some actionable recommendations to help you prepare for and ace your interview:


1. Practice walking through your resume by telling one coherent, unified story.

Each experience should naturally lead to the next, e.g.

“I spent a summer doing software engineering at Startup X.

Though I learned a lot about programming and how to take initiative in an unstructured environment, I knew that I wanted to try something a bit more established and expand my horizons to something less STEM-focused my next summer.

Thus, I decided to accept an internship at Company Y in their business division the following summer, where I was able to further develop my interpersonal skills and navigate a more bureaucratic environment.”

If an interviewer ever asks you the classic "Tell me about yourself" interview question, you'll now be able to turn what can be an awkwardly broad question into a golden opportunity to hit on all of your strengths.

Definitely check out this more detailed 13-minute video by an ex-BCG, ex-Google product manager on how to properly walk through your resume by telling a story.

Practice telling stories

2. Prepare 5–6 general stories about yourself that hit on universal themes

These stories should cover a time you worked in a team, a challenge you faced/overcame, and a valuable lesson learned.

They should each be 60-90 seconds.

This will allow you to answer any sort of generic interview question like:

“What is your greatest weakness?”

“Talk about a time you lead a team and faced a challenge”

“What’s your favorite subject in school, and why?”

The key takeaway is that all of these stories should hit on universal themes, e.g.

  • Encountering a challenging problem and solving it.
  • Working in a team.
  • Resolving a moral dilemma.
  • Making a difficult choice.

While you don’t need to memorize these stories word-for-word, you should have rehearsed a general outline of them.

Ideally, you need to be able to quickly rattle off a story with a beginning, middle, and end while remaining flexible enough to adapt your stories to the specific question you’re asked.

Make sure the story you choose answers the actual question being asked, e.g. if you're asked about a time you led a team, make sure your story involves you leading a team even if that wasn't the question you had anticipated answering with that story.

If this sounds just like a job interview, well, that's because it is -- the college essentially wants to hire you to take classes for 4 years and represent itself in the real-world after graduating.

There's a ton of job interview advice available for free online, but most college applicants don't make the connection that this advice is applicable to them as well.

Make sure to take advantage of these resources as well and prepare for your college interview like it's a job -- for example, here is a great YouTube video on 6 types of stories that you should be able to tell during an interview, along with examples.

Look up your interviewer on LinkedIn

3. Research you interviewer beforehand.

Type their name into Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. See if you have any mutual friends or went to the same high school.

Read news articles relevant to their job so that you can cite/relate to current events that your interviewer might mention.

Look up what your interviewer did while in college, e.g. extracurriculars, major, minor, classes taken, any articles in the student newspaper mentioning them, etc.

Brainstorm 2–3 ways to link their interests to yours, and think of how you might tie them together naturally during conversation.

Reach out to alumni

4. Research the school beforehand.

Ask alumni/friends what on-campus resources might appeal to you, and read the college's student newspaper.

This gives you something specific to say when you’re inevitably asked, “Why College X?” and can help make your future educational/career goals more concrete in the mind of your interviewer.

Even if a question is not specific to the school for which you're interviewing, your answer should be specific to that school.

Non-specific questions can be a bit of a trap in that sense, by lulling you into a false sense of general-ness.

If you're interviewing for Stanford, don't look at a question like “What’s your favorite extracurricular?” as a chance to regurgitate the 2-minute spiel about political advocacy that you told your Princeton interviewer.

Instead, use it as an opportunity to emphasize why Stanford, and only Stanford, is truly the best place for you to pursue your passions.

4. Do Interviews Even Matter?

When I was in high school applying to college, a major rumor floating around was “College interviews don’t really matter.”

This is a lie.

The interview process is extremely important to your application and potential acceptance!

There is a misconception that, because all applicants are getting an interview, then receiving an interview isn’t significant – or it’s merely an opportunity to ask questions.

The truth behind that statement is that receiving an interview does NOT mean that the school has already looked at your application. You are not necessarily offered an interview because the school already feels you are a strong applicant – anybody could get an interview.

But, conducting a great interview (notice I said great, not just good) can be a significant factor for the acceptance committee. Your interviewer will write a “recommendation” after your interview and, if it is outstanding, it can serve as a tipping point for your application.

I – along with many of my friends – have personally seen my own application to Harvard after the admissions committee reviewed it, and every admissions file includes multiple pages of comments left by our interviewers. And, in some cases, the admissions file specifically notes that the interview helped students who had a borderline application.