"The colleges I'm applying to say that interviewing is optional.
How important is the interview in admissions decisions? Should I do it?"
The short answers:
1.) An interview can certainly tip the scales in competitive admissions.
2.) YES, you should interview -- if you're willing to put some work into preparing.
Let me back up.
The most compelling reason, to my mind, to take advantage of interview opportunities in undergraduate admissions is that you will be required to interview for nearly every other education- or career-related opportunity for the rest of your life.
In other words, get used to it, get comfortable with it, and, most importantly, learn to interview well.
I believe that colleges would generally require interviews if it were (a) fair to students (which it's not, given families' varying backgrounds, resources, and geographic locations), and (b) easily manageable for admissions offices, which it's also not, given the amount of time and effort that already goes into evaluating each application.
Why would they require interviews?
Because there is no substitute for getting an in-person feel for an applicant.
Demeanor, eye contact, tone of voice, sense of humor, thought process, spontaneity, even how interviewees choose to present themselves in terms of dress, handshake, and preparedness with questions -- these things just can't be conveyed fully on paper.
So what should I be doing right now?
Two things: research your colleges' individual policies on interviewing so you don't miss your window, and then practice your responses with someone you trust.
The easiest way to find your colleges' interview policies is to google "[COLLEGE NAME] undergraduate admissions interview."
There are generally 5 types of interview policies:
Interview on campus in the months leading up to application season. Those who can't travel to campus usually have the option to interview in their local area through the college's alumni association. If you're applying early, the cutoff for these interviews is often November 1st. DON'T wait until you submit your application before requesting an interview! Check out Barnard's on-campus policy as an example.
Interview once you've applied or during your application. Check out Northwestern's policy as examples.
Interviews by the college's request only. These also take place after your application has been submitted, except the college selects whom it will interview and initiates the process. Check out Tulane's policy as an example.
No interviews offered / informal interviews only. Amherst's take is a good example.
Video introductions in lieu of an interview. Check out the University of Chicago’s “Optional Video Profile” as an example.
All it takes is some forethought and a little practice. Here's how.
Prepare the key points that you want to share by brainstorming your answers to the questions below.
Then give the list of questions to a friend. Have that person ask questions at random and then follow them up with their own clarifying questions.
Use specific examples to support your answers, and remember that when you're headed to speak with an actual college representative, carefully review your research to demonstrate that you've done your homework on that particular school. (In other words, make sure you have a detailed answer for "Why us?")
Where do you think your academic strengths lie?
What did you do this past summer?
What do you hope to do after graduation?
What is your biggest weakness?
What would you do if you had a free day?
If you could change one thing about your high school, what would it be?
What do you do for fun?
What books have had a significant impact on you? What have you read recently?
What individual (dead or alive, historical or fictional) has had the most influence on you and why?
How do you define success? What needs to happen for you to feel successful?
How do you respond to failure or rejection?
What do you hope to get out of your college experience?