College Interviews Part 1

A written collection of college interview experiences. The first two, MIT and University of Chicago, I recall from (a much better than I thought) memory. Yale and Harvard happened today. (For my actual admission results, see College Acceptance Status.)

Part 2 contains interviews with Carnegie Mellon, University of Texas at Austin (twice, for scholarships), and Princeton.



Interviewer: James Wei (’83)

Setting: Saturday, 10/24/09, 9 am – 11 am, Starbucks (Research and Anderson Mill)

First interview. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but we ended up talking for 2 hours. Retrospectively, I think it began mediocre, but evolved, becoming much better.

One peculiarity was that, at the beginning, James mentioned to me that he was a bit sick. And that one of his kids had the swine flu. Thanks for telling me? It was actually a nice opportunity for me, for I joked, “So, if I get the swine flu tomorrow, I’ll know exactly who to blame,” laughingly. From his reaction, I could tell that it was a nice start so far.

His first question concerned my academic interests. I said math, as that was my intended major. His response: “What about math? Everyone says math.” This took me back a bit. I should have expected it. In the realm of MIT, who would not be interested in math? I gave a semi-superficial response about my mathematical passion (even though I am genuinely interested), but this did not serve me well. It ended up having a negative impact a couple questions later. He asked about my other interests. Physics, computer science, philosophy. He wrote these down in a notebook. Then I committed a mistake. Attempting to substantiate my mathematical passion, I remarked that I enjoyed subjects such as history and literature “not as much,” but you know, with a somewhat negative undertone. James picked up on it immediately. “Why not?”

After my response, which I don’t quite remember, he recounted a WWII story, in which a German scientist knew about the potential of the nuclear bomb, but with his academic prestige, wrote an article that dismissed it, saying it was an ineffective weapon, hence causing the Nazi program to put nuclear development on the back burner. That man changed history.

Again, I do not recall my specific response, but I had realized my previous mistake, so I therefore tried to demonstrate that I did have genuine interest in history. This seemed to go well. That is, until he was talking about a certain WWII military campaign in North Africa led by an American general, whom he forgot. He asked me if I knew the general, and I basically paused a bit, and from my erroneous line of thought, as I was thinking about a related battle, the Battle of El Alamein, I blurted out, “Montgomery?” “No, he was British.” Wow! Did I really just say Montgomery?!

I don’t know exactly how, but the conversation steered towards technology. Ah, a much more familiar subject for me. Actually, I don’t remember the exact order of discussion (I’m writing this about two months after the interview). But anyhow, we were discussing computer science, and more specifically, artificial intelligence. I brought up topics such as neural networks and the exponential rate of technological growth, both of which we discussed for a little while.

After this initial discussion, he gave me a really broad question: “What do you want to talk about?” I offered my résumé, but he declined. He didn’t want to see anything academic. Thus I pulled out a three-page portfolio on none other than WarCraft III works. We talked for a long, long time about this.

He was smiling, of course, during the whole interview, but this seemed especially to catch his attention. He basically said something along the lines of, “Wow, this not something that would be expected of a high-school student.” He continued with something like, “I think this shows a very independent work. I can see a parent telling a child, ‘Go study for a test,’ but not a parent saying, ‘Go work on a video game.’”

We talked mostly about one map, BattleShips Pro. The software development cycle was especially important. I talked about how we (the map-making team) gather feedback on online forums, selectively take suggestions, and update the map according to community demands. It was a blast.

I had several main examples within the game to talk about. Now, the funny thing was, I had just printed out this portfolio the night before, as an afterthought, thinking it was just icing on the cake. But, it soon became the main subject in the interview. Because of this last-minute addition, I did not have anything specifically planned out to say regarding the map or development experience. Thus, I was speaking on the spot for a long time.

I began with the most powerful example: a ship called the Crusader. I explained to him that, in past versions, this ship was considered imbalanced because of its Capsize ability, which allowed the ship to self-destruct and damage another ship. It wasn’t so much the fact that it was extremely damaging, which it definitely was, but more the fact that once it uses this ability, the enemy cannot kill the ship, even if the Crusader is on the verge of death. James seemed to understand such video game concepts, and got the main point very easily. He said, “So, it denies the opponent’s ability to score.” Yes!

The interview went on very well starting with this discussion. At one point, he openly told me something like, “You are very much the MIT engineer,” with a bit of elaboration. After this and other topics, we asked each other some final questions, and the interview concluded. However, I think the shaky beginning cost me some points.

University of Chicago


Interviewer: Alice Mark (’09)
Setting: Wednesday, 10/28/09, 7 pm – 8:15 pm, JP’s Java (Downtown)

This interview was more consistent than the MIT interview. Now that I had already done an interview, I felt much more relaxed, confident. The meeting site was in JP’s Java in downtown Austin. This was good and bad. Chronologically, the bad news came first.

I took a wrong turn. I went down Spicewood Springs, and when I got to 360, I was supposed to turn left, going onto the continued Spicewood Springs. But, I turned right. And there was a bit of a traffic jam. And I didn’t see a good opportunity to make a U-turn. Luckily, spacial reasoning came to the rescue. I quickly glanced at the map, while driving. I found a path via the 2222 exit that would get me to Mopac, where the other path would have led to. It was a long and winding road, but it worked.

When I got to the place, at around 6:52, I drove into the parking lot—and it was full! And it was really small too, so it was difficult for me to turn my car around. I saw someone on a bicycle arrive. I rolled down my window, asking her if she knew where would be a nearby parking spot. She pointed some out, then asked, “Are you Sean?” It was kind of awkward, because I was in the middle of a star turning maneuver, and my car was pretty much perpendicular, but I guess it worked. I parked close by and arrived at JP’s Java (again) before 7.

Now, think about this date for a little bit. End of October. A few weeks after I had visited the UT library, a little while after I had turned in my IB World Area Studies IA, and several weeks before I was to turn in my IB Extended Essay (EE). It was thus perfect for her first question, after introductions, to concern my visiting of downtown Austin and the UT area, from the parking incident.

Of course, I began with something about how I had just utilized the UT library a few weeks ago for research for two major essays for IB. She let me talk about them. I thought the history IA was good to show an academic well-roundedness, for when I got to the EE, I first explained that my primary academic interest was mathematics. She was a mathematics major at University of Chicago, and is currently a graduate student at UT. I had already known that though, because her email I had from setting up the interview ended with “”

We talked about math a lot. Not necessarily specific problems, but in general, and much about Chicago’s math program, including specific classes. She even gave me a reference to a computer science and math professor at Chicago, telling me to feel free to contact him regarding questions for my EE. I knew this was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I didn’t actually end up contacting the professor, as I thought my EE would too elementary for him, and more the fact that it wasn’t near done yet.

I felt this interview was overall more open than the MIT one. Most likely because this one was not my first one. It was, however, my interviewer’s first.

She told me about a particular math course (on set theory?) that involved building all proofs from the basics, and it was for the most part involved collaborative work. That class seemed really interesting.

She then asked about my views in general about college. Of course, I responded positively, saying academic and personal freedoms were expanded. Regarding academic freedoms, i.e. course selecting, we got into the topic of IB and then Chicago’s Common Core. I had read about it previously, so I went ahead and agreed with it.

In this interview, I certainly became more interested in Chicago than I was before, especially in math. I do not recall any particular mistakes in this one, other than some awkwardness before the interview.



Interviewer: Fleming Terrell (’01)
Setting: Saturday, 12/19/09, 10:30 am – 11:10 am, 360 Primo (Arboretum)

This one is still fresh in my mind, considering that I am writing this report the same day as the interview. It was also successful, at least in my opinion. However, I don’t have super grades or SAT scores, so Yale is a long shot anyway. Still, I hope this interview helps.

We discussed academic interests for much of the time. This interview was significantly shorter than the two I had previously, but even so, I felt I conveyed a better sense of academic curiosity in this one than Chicago, and especially MIT.

I actually used my blog post last night (“Reflections on 2009“) quite extensively to describe my interest in the liberal arts. We introduced ourselves, and began with a discussion of academic interests. I said that I am a math and science person, but have recently begun to have interest in such things as literature, history, and philosophy. I talked about Waiting for Godot for literature, and the big-picture view for history.

This conversation flowed naturally into the topic of liberal arts. She discussed how she originally was interested in being a math major, but then received a B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. And then earned a law degree. It makes a lot of sense actually. Law needs analytic, logical minds. Not that logic and analysis are lacking in other areas, but science is particularly helpful. Plus, having a broader scope of courses opens up more perspectives on the world.

I went through the Yale viewbook yesterday, and it was helpful. When she mentioned a specific class on a broad view of science, but she did not know if it still exists, I was able to infer that the class was “Perspectives on Science,” a course that I saw in the viewbook.

On questions I had, the viewbook was also helpful. I wanted to inquire into the double-major system, so I pulled up the statistic from the viewbook that 30% of Yale undergraduates double major, and then asked how difficult this is, if it is recommended for say math and a natural science. The answer: It’s possible, but depends certainly on the subjects, i.e. if there is an overlap, between say physics and math. There are also certain majors, such as political science, that require less credits, and are thus more naturally suited for double majoring.

She then asked me about my extracurriculars. I mentioned chess, that I started in fifth grade, and she remarked that she also learned chess in fifth grade. She asked how I planned to make time for academics plus extracurriculars. I basically responded that I would just do one thing at a time, and even managed to weave in two more extracurriculars into the response, by giving an example of time balance even in high school. Specifically, I mentioned that both math UIL meetings and ping-pong club both occur on Thursday afternoons. However, since I actually represent our school in the former, I decided to focus on that one. With chess and math/science, she said I gave a sense of being competitive-minded but also analytical.

Somehow—I do not recall how the conversation reached this topic, and it was a very logical one—she managed to say that she was dating someone from Harvard. I said something about the Yale-Harvard rivalry, then quipped, “Does that make you feel rebellious?” Apparently not, for this rivalry ends after college, and plus, they went to the same graduate school. Still, I thought my comment was not badly timed. 🙂

I asked about the student-faculty interaction, citing the statistic from the viewbook that 100% of faculty in the arts and sciences teach undergraduate courses. As expected, the faculty would be happy to answer questions and chat with students. Then I mentioned Mandelbrot, an emeritus professor at Yale whom I would like to talk to or meet. The guy who pretty much invented fractals.

It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about Yale. It was my best interview yet.

As of my writing of this sentence, it is 3:14 pm. Hey, guess what happens in 46 minutes?



Interviewer: Dan Freed (’81)
Setting: Saturday, 12/19/09, 4 pm – 5 pm, His house

My interviewer is a mathematician. He received degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley, Ph.D. He has professional experience at MIT, University of Chicago, Princeton, UT Austin.

I am not sure what to make of the interview. All I can say is that, it was different from the other three. First, it was in his house, which was really nice. Second, he was a math professor! Like I actually mentioned the infinite series expansion for the zeta function, and he said, oh, so the sum of one over n to the s? Third, he asked very questions very concisely, and I felt that I was talking for 95% of the time. However, when I asked a few of my questions, it turned the other way around. I suppose I actually am going to be a mathematician.

First thing, we sit down. I began by talking about our phone call about a week and a half ago. In it, I had said I wouldn’t be available last weekend, or the past week because of finals. However, I did not mention that the reason I would be gone on the weekend was that I would be at a chess tournament, not because I was busily studying for exams. So, this was an introduction into chess.

I talked about how our school did at Nationals just a week(-end) before. Then he asked me to talk about my history of playing chess. This was a nice question; chess was my most important extracurricular anyway, so I managed to speak very openly. I was also able to elaborate on national tournaments in general, and then on some related teaching. So far, so good.

Next, we went to academic interests, therefore math. He asked about what I read, so I mentioned Prime Obsession, about the Riemann Hypothesis. Just to make sure I knew what I was talking about, he asked me to describe the Riemann Hypothesis. Simple. The non-trivial zeros of the zeta function have real-part one half. It’s been verified for the first 1.5 trillion zeros, but there’s no formal proof yet. Score!

Of course, to expand on that, I mentioned my Extended Essay. After chatting for a little while about what I did, I ended up discussing the proofs of divergence for the harmonic series and for the harmonic series with only prime terms. I had a copy of the EE in my folder, so I actually showed that to him, and he took it and placed it on his side.

So what else have you read? I brought up Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. I explained how the book shows that seemingly impossible actions such as time travel and things moving faster than the speed of light are not completely contradictory to the laws of physics. How? I did not have an exact answer prepared, so I stalled by talking about the effects of relativity upon energy for a little while, then answered the question with wormholes.

What other books have you read? This guy really wants to see a well-read person! Continuing in the spirit of a broad spectrum of interests, I turned to literature, mentioning Waiting for Godot. I gave a satisfactory explanation, though not as good as for the math and physics books.

What else? I now went to history, mentioning The Most Dangerous Enemy, on the Battle of Britain in WWII. I said it was a comprehensive view of the battle, and that it gave several reasons accounting for British victory, including superior design of aircraft on the British side, decision-making errors in the German High Command, as well as an economic advantage by the British.

Still more. I went back to math books, mentioning The Art of the Infinite, and then e: The Story of a Number. Finally, my reading level seemed to be extensive enough.

We continued talking about math, and I got to mention math/science UIL competitions. After a bit of discussion, he asked about my other, non-math/science-related extracurricular activities. I brought up video games, specifically WarCraft III, eventually handing him the same portfolio I showed my MIT interviewer (though I did not mention MIT). This part of the discussion was interesting, to say the least.

Then it was my turn to ask questions. I first asked about how it is to be a mathematician, since I couldn’t really ask this question to any of my other interviewers. Then I talked about how Harvard’s math program compares in difficulty to other math programs at other colleges or other subjects at Harvard. He basically said that although not many people choose math, it is relatively easy at Harvard, as it requires less reading if one knows the material. Then I made a mistake, perhaps. Going off of that statement, I mentioned how last year in Calculus BC, I managed to go through the course without opening the textbook, except once. He responded fairly immediately, “So you didn’t find the textbook helpful?” Uh oh. I don’t want to appear that I’m disrespecting a book, especially because that is not true. So, I managed to put in the context that I already knew a lot of the material through prior knowledge, and that I payed close attention in class. (Well, that second part is not quite true; the first definitely is.)

Then he mentioned math courses specifically, and got to freshman course in particular that was very challenging. I asked, “Is that 55?” He paused for a moment, and responded, “Yes, Math 55.” Then he asked, “How did you learn about that?” Score again! I had looked through Harvard’s freshman math courses, and was already familiar with the descriptions of Math 21, 23, 25, and 55.

At the end, he asks if there is anything else I want to say. I handed him my résumé (the first time an interviewer looked at my résumé), and he kept it, noting the number of AP’s I took. Then he said he was supposed to report back test scores anyways. I was not quite sure by what that meant, but he took it.

Then I asked my supposedly final question: “So, could you explain to me instantons and four-manifolds? Just kidding!” It was the title of a book he had co-authored. (I had obtained his resume via the Internet.) He liked the question, and then elaborated a bit more on studying advanced math.

So concluded my final interview of 2009.

2 thoughts on “College Interviews Part 1

  1. “However, I don’t have super grades or SAT scores” –Sean Li

    I get what you are saying, but this statement still makes me want to drop out of high school.


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