How Important Are Alumni Admissions Interviews?
Today, a Facebook friend shared an article in the Los Angeles Times written by a Yale alumnus, and former alumni admissions interviewer. He writes why he will no longer conduct alumni interviews. I occasionally see alumni admissions interviews being conducted in local bookstores and coffee shops. The interviewee is almost always dressed informally, as if s/he had come to the interview after school. There’s no “almost always” that can be said for the interviewer.
Alumni admissions interviews were probably more important in the past than they are now. The schools that conducted them then had less competition for the same number or slightly fewer seats in their freshman classes. College admissions officers also relied more on their relationships with a set of “sending schools,” parochial, private or public schools that had sent them students who later became successful graduates. Some of those graduates could be relied upon to return to their high schools to help their college alma mater recruit new students. This had to be a symbiotic relationship that helped the parochial and private high schools to attract the better middle school students.
I’m not so sure that the relationship means as much today when a larger cross-section of the senior class seeks to get into the most selective colleges. Those who present the best credentials, academic and extra-curricular will still fare well. But they will be a very small share of the applicant pool that comes from that high school.
Today the most-recognized private national research universities as well as national liberal arts colleges have more diverse student bodies, geographically as well as racially. It’s fair to say that demographics, politics, public policy and public pressures created the market forces that sent these colleges in this direction. As the charter school community produces a larger number of successful college graduates—these schools are too new to have their graduates be judged by their college achievements—it will provide a more important student population to consider.
But many colleges, selective or not, still conduct alumni admissions interviews. These are more likely to be informational: to ask the alumnus any questions about their undergraduate experiences. If the student is fortunate, s/he will meet someone who works in the field that s/he might want to enter. My younger brother, for example, applied to colleges with the thought of becoming an attorney. He took his Cornell interview with an attorney who had attended the same undergraduate school within Cornell (Industrial and Labor Relations) where he had applied. My brother’s grades were probably just short of average among applicants to Cornell, although he represented New Jersey in national speech tournaments each year that he was in high school. The interview mattered for him. He was accepted and went on to earn a Cornell degree.
But most applicants do not have the opportunity my brother did. If they have an alumni interview, they will likely have little to no say over who the interviewer will be. The longer that the alumnus has been away from their alma mater, the less likely that their recollections of their undergraduate experiences will be of value to a prospective student.
To lend perspective, I graduated from Rutgers in 1982, when the university was organized as a set of five federated liberal arts colleges plus schools for engineering and pharmacy. The graduates of my college within the university, Rutgers College, were all male in 1962. Women were not included until 1972. I doubt that a 1962 graduate of Rutgers would have been able to convey much to the future 1982 graduate nor that I would be able to convey much to a student who can expect to earn a degree in 2022. None of us would have attended the same school.
“Sons of Rutgers” are not the only ones in this position. Cornell and Penn are the only Ivy League schools that admitted women before 1969. That’s around the same time that Vassar, one of the original Seven Sisters women’s colleges began to welcome men. Colleges might have traditions that go back decades, even more than a century. But neither the academic life nor the campus culture are the same.
Should prospective students accept an alumni interview, if it is optional?
There’s no harm if they have the time and are confident and comfortable talking with an adult without appearing boastful or obnoxious. It’s also a terrific opportunity if you know in advance that you might have some common ground with interviewer as my brother did. If you can leave the interviewer with something positive to remember that did not appear in the application package, the alumni admissions interview could help. If the alumni admissions interview is required in the admissions process, this will certainly help.
But what if you’re not so lucky?
You know nothing about the interviewer until you meet her at the coffee shop or their place of business, or she has built a career that will be nothing like yours? For example, if sciences are not your strong point and your interviewer is a physician, could the interview mean nothing—or possibly be a kiss of death? Most likely, it will mean nothing unless you present something negative about yourself that the interviewer is bound to include in their notes to the admission office. Or even worse, you get paired with an alumnus who has little experience conducting any kind of interview, even at their workplace. That person might not convey the right information to help your application.
Personally, I wish that alumni admissions interviews were not part of the admissions process. If the college wants to interview applicants or use an interview as an optional tool to evaluate them, then the school should make sure than every applicant is interviewed by a trained interviewer. Ideally, those interviewers should work in admissions. Alumni who have been either reporters or human resource managers could aid the admissions staff in developing questions as well as admissions interview techniques. But its doubtful that any school, except one that graduates many reporters or human resource managers—Cornell might be one—could deploy enough alumni who are similarly trained.
Alumni admissions interviews, if a college wants to maintain them, belong at the later part of the admissions cycle, when accepted students need to be persuaded to deposit on or before May 1st. In those cases, it would be better if the interviewers were recent graduates who are more likely to have the same experiences that the prospective incoming students are also likely to have when they arrive on campus.
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