The personal interview is an often misunderstood part of the college admissions process. A good interview, however, can make the difference between getting accepted or rejected by your top school. Typically, interviews take place during the student’s senior year. As with every other piece of the college planning process, it’s important to be prepared!

Does every school require interviews? No. Many of the more competitive private schools will require (or “strongly recommend”) that students participate in admissions interviews, either on campus or with local alumni if you live out of state. This means, if you skip the interview, you most likely will not be accepted. At some schools, the interview is optional—which means you should still elect to participate for the best chance of admission. Other schools do not offer interviews at all. Every school will be slightly different. It’s important to research the schools you’re interested in ahead of time so you understand their policies and requirements.

Read on for some steps you can take for a successful interviewing experience.

1. Do Your Research.

Visit the college’s website before your interview. Make sure to read about the program of study that you’re interested in. Think about what makes this school special. You should be prepared to tell your interviewer why this school is the right fit for you, beyond rankings or the college’s name recognition.

2. Schedule In Advance.

For some schools, you will need to submit an interview request before a certain deadline. Other schools will contact you by phone or email—after you have completed your application—to invite you to interview. Either way, it is a good idea to schedule your interview for the earliest date possible. The sooner you interview, the greater the chance that your interview will be given careful consideration in the decision-making process. Remember, after the interview, your interviewer needs time to write a formal summary and submit it to the school. If you put off the meeting, you run the risk of interviewing too late in the game to really influence the admissions decision.

What if you’re invited to interview on a day that’s not ideal for your schedule? Make it work! Declining an invitation to interview, canceling at the last minute, or even asking to reschedule can signal to the school that you’re not really interested. There’s a good chance your “yes” will turn into a “no.”

3. Dress Neatly.

While you need not show up in formal attire, it is a good idea to wear clothing that is neat and clean. Many schools recommend “business casual” attire for interviews.

4. Practice.

Sit down with a family member or friend, and practice! For many high school students, the college admissions interview is one of their first experiences with this type of conversation. Don’t memorize a script, but practice answering some of the basic questions you can expect to encounter. Be prepared to talk about why you’re interested in attending this particular college, why you’ve chosen your desired major and career path, and how you spend your time outside of school. Practicing ahead of time will help you to calm your nerves and come across more naturally in your interview.

5. Prepare Questions.

Don’t be taken by surprise when your interviewer says, “Do you have any questions for me?” The worst thing you can do is to have zero questions for the interviewer. In fact, it’s a great idea to prepare school-specific questions in advance. You should be ready with questions that are specific to the school you’re interviewing for, whether those questions relate to academics or campus life. This is another reason why it’s important to do your research beforehand. Asking the right questions shows that you’ve put some thought into this particular college.

6. Be Positive.

Try to phrase your responses as positively as possible. Interviewers are looking for enthusiasm and personality. Avoid taking a negative, bitter, or bored tone during the interview. Positivity includes body language! Sit up straight, make eye contact, and smile.

7. Relax.

Take a deep breath, and be yourself! The interviewer is not expecting you to use big vocabulary words or have the “perfect” answer to every question. It’s okay to take your time when answering questions. Interviewers are looking for thoughtful responses that reflect who you are outside of grades and test scores. The best interviews are conversational and authentic.

8. Say Thank You.

After your interview, it’s a great idea to send a handwritten thank you card to your interviewer. Thank the interviewer for taking the time to meet with you, and reference something that you talked about in your conversation to show that you were paying attention. These days, it’s becoming less common for students to send thank you cards after their interviews, so you will impress your interviewer by going the extra distance.