Turn Your Nerves Into Motivation and Ace Your College Admissions Interviews

July 18, 2016

Nervous about your college admissions interview? Try telling yourself you're excited instead.

Some colleges offer on-campus interviews and others will give you the opportunity to interview with alumni in your hometown. Make sure to check the admissions webpage of all the colleges to which you plan to apply for their interview policies. The importance of the interview varies among colleges, but making a great impression on your interviewer can help you stand out in the applicant pool and can sometimes tip the scale in your favor. 

That's a lot of pressure. But no need to get anxious; get excited! A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology documented by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic shows that a technique called "anxious reappraisal" can help you quell your performance anxiety and do better on anxiety-inducing tasks--including interviews. 

When you are nervous or anxious for a test, a public speaking commitment, a performance, or even a date, people often tell you to "just calm down," or "take a deep breath." According to Allison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied performance anxiety, instead of "Keep Calm and Carry On," the motto should actually be something like, "'Get Amped and Don't Screw Up.'" Or, don't tell yourself to calm down; tell yourself to get excited.

The reasoning behind this is that anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. They're different sides of the same coin with many of the same causes and symptoms. Excitement is just a positive manifestation of this state of arousal; anxiety is the negative. So when you flip that switch from anxiety to excitement, you are getting yourself out of a threat mindset, in which you're thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, and into an opportunity mindset, in which you imagine all the good things that will happen if you do well. 

Anxiety and calm, on the other hand, are different currencies altogether. Khazan writes, "For most people, it takes less effort for the brain to jump from charged-up, negative feelings to charged-up, positive ones, Brooks said, than it would to get from charged-up and negative to positive and chill. In other words, it's easier to convince yourself to be excited than calm when you’re anxious." In fact, this anxious reappraisal technique proved so effective for the subjects in the study that they actually performed 17% better on anxiety-inducing tasks (and 22% better on a math test!). 

So, how can you apply this lesson to your interviews? Of course, the most important thing you can do for your interview is prepare. Read tips on how to prepare in Dr. Joie Jager-Hyman's book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application, as well as in The Huffington Post. If you've done everything you can to prepare and you still have a pit in your stomach, try these exercises:

  • Repeat the phrase, "I am excited," three times to yourself before the interview
  • Make a list of all the ways the interview could go well and how this would benefit you
  • Remember that the interview is almost always a positive experience and that the interviewer is on your side. She is trying to sell you on the school as much as you are trying to impress her and get a leg up on your application

If you go into the interview prepared, confident and excited, you will no doubt make a great impression, successfully demonstrate your interest in the college, and add one more positive piece of paper to your file. Good luck!