College interview for shy and awkward math kid— truly optional?

We are getting some conflicting advice from college counselors and would love to tap the wisdom here. My son is a high-achieving math kid, applying to Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT as well as UC system, Oxford, and some match and safeties.

He is also a very shy and fairly awkward kid until he gets to know you. On the common app for Princeton, they ask if you want to be considered for an alumni interview, and they clearly state it’s optional. He asked his college counselor and she said yes, it’s completely optional (but that if he’s going to do it, he needs to practice and prepare.)

He was relieved to hear he didn’t have to do it. But now a different counselor is saying that it’s not truly optional— just like Harvard’s second essay isn’t truly optional— it’s very much expected, and not doing it would look bad.

What do you think?

In addition to everything else, I’m worried that alumni interviewers will be unintentionally biased against someone on the spectrum. My son is on the spectrum, though he doesn’t fit many of the stereotypes, and he isn’t planning on sharing that in his applications. But in an interview, especially online, he will almost certainly appear so (difficulty with eye contact, flatter intonation, etc.)

I’m not worried about the Oxford interview because that will be focused on math, and he will be talking with math professors- I expect my son to actually enjoy that one.:slightly_smiling_face:


I cannot speak for Princeton, but he should assume for HYM that the interview, if offered, is not optional.

The good news is that the interview is really informal and does not greatly impact the application. So unless he insults the interviewer, it won’t harm him.

The other point is that not all applicants are offered an interview. Which is basically a random draw and supply/demand. Yale, last year, only offered interviews if they needed more info. No idea what they are doing this year.

But bottom line, if offered an interview, he should accept.

UC is a moot point, since there are no interviews.

These colleges are increasingly competitive. While some colleges probably do mean they are truly optional, I honestly think it’s a mistake not to take an interview if offered.

If he is admitted, there is an expectation that he will engage, not only with other students but also professors. There are so many kids who are shy, awkward, etc…, on the spectrum or not. If he’s ever planning to apply for research, or jobs, or get recommendations, or whatever, he’s going to need to talk to people. Now is a good time to get used to the idea.

Sure, he can practice, but interviews are supposed to be informational. They aren’t trying to embarrass kids or make them feel uncomfortable. They know kids are nervous, aren’t very experienced, and so forth. He really should interview if he can.

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My daughters are a high achievers and athletes in HS but are a bit introverted. They were worried about these interviews with top schools but actually ended up enjoying them. They were very informal and were basically about getting to know the students. What books they were reading was a common question as well as what they enjoyed in their free time.

I’ve taught my kids to replace optional or recommended with required when they see it. Can’t say it’s always worked but I’ve tried.

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Being able to move outside one’s comfort zone is essential for future success. Being able to interview is a life skill. The ‘soft’ skill are not being taught in most homes and/or schools. Students and young adults need to be able to interview, shake hands properly, look someone in the eye when speaking, master small-talk, stand/sit tall, and learn basic manners.

[quote=“jpga13, post:4, topic:3577351”]
What books they were reading was a common question as well as what they enjoyed in their free time.

Thank you for these examples… if he does need to practice for an interview, these will come in handy!

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Thank you! Yes, I think turning down an interview once you’ve applied is a bad idea-- but this was something inside the Common App, to say you don’t even want to be offered an alumni interview-- which is turning down the idea of an interview but not a concrete offer, I guess. The first college counselor felt that this was different and would not be penalized. The second counselor disagreed.

While I agree with this sentiment in general, Interview with Ivy school representative is not a best place to practice it. Interviews as a part of university acceptance still absolutely foreign concept to me (so are the essays).

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One of the interviewers got on the Zoom and introduced himself. He noticed my daughters Ukulele’s and guitars in the background. He then asked if she could play something for him. She was a bit shocked but said sure. Then he laughed and said he was just kidding and that there was no teen portion of the interview.

Got it. He should interview.

I wouldn’t stress the need to prepare and practice. My kids didn’t. Small sample of three but their interviews were conversational and informal. There is probably a balance where thinking ahead about the interview is helpful but too much of that creates anxiety.

I would encourage him to ask questions and think of it as a chance for him to interview them :slight_smile:


Yes, true.

I do think it’s beneficial for a student to perhaps do a first interview with a college that isn’t top of the list. A little practice to boost confidence isn’t a bad thing.


I am firmly in the camp that suggests a little practice. Our S16 had several interviews and there were a few things (I think) helped him the most.

  1. We advised him to assume he would be a little nervous. That’s OK. Channel that nervousness into focus.

  2. We helped him craft a simple answer to the “tell me about yourself” question (which BTW was almost universally the first question).

  3. We made sure he had a few school-specific questions for each interview.


I’m with @Rivet2000: framing the interview, and doing some practice runs can make a big difference. Some points to include:

*everybody gets anxious in interviews, so be ready for it

  • remember to breath! remember that it’s ok to take a deep breath and think about your answer for a minute before answering
  • have answers to predictable questions ready (eg, why this school, things you like most/least about your school experiences so far, tell me about your ECs, how did you get interested in Math, do you have any questions for me)
  • remember it’s a two-way street- you are interviewing the interviewer as well! what can they tell you as an insider?

I suggest finding an adult that your son already knows & feels comfortable with to do a mock interview, and then an adult that he sort of knows to do another. This is simple logic: pretty much everybody does pretty much anything better with a little practice!


We used the same approach as @Rivet2000 and @collegemom3717.

Since interviews were all remote last year, my D put post-its on the monitor with her questions and possible topics of conversation. That way she didn’t have to look down at a notebook; she could casually glance at her notes without making it obvious to keep the conversation more natural.


These are all really helpful answers— thank you. I think my son would really benefit from some brainstorming and some low-stakes practice— and I love the post-it idea. I’m leaning toward having him opt in for the possible Princeton interview, and then we’ll see if he gets one or not. Interviewing is definitely an important life skill— if he can improve in that area, that’s a bonus.


I have a similar kid, BeekMom, and completely understand your concerns. Our counselor advised S22 not to interview, and I understand why. All through a year of zoom, he pointed the camera at the top of his head. Hairline up. He was clearly stating his position on the matter.

However, if the motivation is there, I think coaching (scripting even) can be highly effective. Can you prep a list of questions and do a few mock interviews? This worked well for my son’s Eagle board of review. Could you zoom with a grandparent/friend/someone who might be a little uncomfortable to him just to give him the experience of being uncomfortable?

Much of this is maturational. Yes, he will eventually learn his elevator pitch etc, but for now, scaffolding basic open-ended questions will get him through.

Highly selective colleges aren’t strangers to neurodiversity :slight_smile: Wishing you both all the best!

But it can be luck of the draw with an alumni interviewer. If the interviewer was a math or CS major, then they are probably familiar with neurodiversity, at least in terms of the student in question. But perhaps less likely otherwise.

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Do the interviews. Have like 3 questions to ask. Have him practice talking to strangers now. Have him order food over the phone but he needs to go in and get it… Etc. So many kids like your son. They just need to socialize now. Get him talking by asking questions to his answers. Most interviews are very relaxed and it’s pretty basic stuff.

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