It’s hard to say exactly what will be asked and how formal or informal the conversation will be, but, in general,
you should expect to have a sincere interaction with someone who is interested in learning what makes you tick.
Harvard, like most schools that coordinate interviews through their alumni networks, sends out a simple form for its interviewers to fill out and send back to the admissions office. The document asks about a student’s academic, personal, and extracurricular strengths in a few ways: ranking in terms of international, national, state, and local competitiveness; a scale that measures things like creativity, open-mindedness, and intellectual curiosity; and an open response section in which the interviewer can describe the conversation and note his or her impressions.
However, this form is just a report: it’s a distilled version of the engaging and dynamic interaction that takes place during the interview. Just because there is a form with rankings and responses does not mean the interview will be a series of questions on your academic history or your achievements—far from it! In fact, the interviewers are supposed to glean a student’s talents and competitiveness through casual conversation. Interviewers aren’t given any information about a student’s application on purpose—the admissions office wants an unbiased opinion on the student’s character, personality, and ability to relate to others. They want to know what kind of classmate and roommate the student will be. So, in order to find out, Harvard interviewers are instructed to set a relaxed tone for the interview and begin with an open-ended request, like “Tell me about yourself.”
And remember, the interviewer doesn’t know anything about you, so you really do have to tell them everything. That said, stay away from your stats (grades and scores) and focus more on your passions, learning experiences, and personal motivations. From there, the conversation could go anywhere you want it to. If you get excited about something, your interviewer will most likely ask a follow-up question about it. (Pro tip: These questions usually begin with “why” or “how,” so make sure you reflect on these aspects of your experiences, interests, and activities.)
My own Harvard interview...
...was way back in 1997, in the café section of a Barnes & Noble. My interviewer, an alum from a town about an hour away, coincidentally had concentrated in the field I was planning to study, so we had an easy conversation about what drew me to Middle Eastern Poetry. When we were interrupted by a salesperson who had tracked down a poetry collection I had asked about before the interview started (I had arrived early—as you should, too!), I caught a grin on my interviewer’s face. She seemed happy to know that I really was interested in the topic, and I think she was impressed that that I handled the interruption with poise (always be polite!). To this day, I wonder if that little bit of serendipity made it into my application file.
Almost two decades later, I myself started conducting Harvard admissions interviews. I met the students assigned to me in a local coffee shop, and I always started with, “Tell me about yourself,” or, “What’s your favorite subject in school?” I tried to get the students to open up and tell me stories about how they first discovered their interests, what they like to do with their friends, and what excites them most about college (and Harvard, in particular). I always appreciated when students asked sincere questions about my college experience.
Harvard interviewers are as diverse as the interviewees, so it’s impossible to fully predict what your interview will be like.
Regardless, you need to be prepared to speak about what matters to you and why, so be sure to review our post on how to prepare for your interviews!