Should the alumni interview system undergo radical changes?

December 17, 2021 — by Selina Chen
Photo by Canva

On Oct. 8, Georgetown sent me an email with an all caps “ACTION REQUIRED” in the subject line telling me to reach out to my alumni interviewer within a week. I freaked out; I had not started my essays because I was applying by the regular decision deadline of Jan. 10. Nevertheless, I emailed my interviewer the next day.

After receiving no response for two weeks, I followed the initial email’s instructions and emailed my local alumni admissions program committee chair on Oct. 23. However, as I write this story in mid-December, I’ve received no reply from either.

My mild annoyance is the least of the problems with college interviews.

First off, I object to the timing. 

I don’t believe schools like Georgetown or Barnard should begin their interviews months before students submit their applications. For me, writing application essays, especially college-specific supplements, guides my research on the college and helps me figure out exactly why I want to attend a college.

Without this process, I know I will have trouble conveying my reasoning to my interviewer, and I doubt interviewers will get an accurate sense of how much applicants want to attend their school.

Aside from the timing, the format of interviews is also flawed. Colleges are leaving a substantial portion of the potentially life-changing decision between “reject” or “accept” to the whims of alumni volunteers.

To be clear, I’m not trying to discredit these interviewers. I appreciate their time and energy, and I think I’ll want to give back to my alma mater, whichever school it’ll be, by volunteering as an interviewer in the future.

However, I’ve also browsed countless college applications threads on Reddit and College Confidential just like many other stressed seniors, and the sheer variety among interviews for the same school shocked me. Some applicants had hour-long conversations with their interviewer in ambient coffee shops, while other applicants had 7-minute clipped phone calls. The results produced by these two distinctly different formats cannot possibly be the same.

I don’t believe interviews should be abolished altogether. After all, a college experience requires students to interact with peers and professors face-to-face: an ability best evaluated by spontaneous interviews. Substitutes such as self-introduction videos — a format adopted by schools like Brown and UChicago — cannot tell admissions officers about what type of person a student is in real-time campus life.

A remedy would be for colleges to provide a rubric and standardized format to interviewers. Although guidelines are given at regional levels through alumni associations such as Bay Area or New York clubs, they still differ geographically. A standardized rubric for each college is most effective in making sure all applicants receive similar treatments.

Still, the temperaments and beliefs of alumni interviewers may vary drastically. The quality of the reports they submit still largely depends on whether the two parties “click.”

I had accepted the top U.S. colleges’ system as the only possibility — until I learned about the top U.K. colleges’ system. For universities like Oxford or the London School of Economics, applicants go through two rounds of evaluation. If admissions officers decide that they have a realistic chance of being accepted, the applicant will be short-listed for an interview with tutors — the British equivalent for professors. The tutors’ assessments of the candidates then factors into the final decision on acceptance or rejection.

If the U.S. adopts a similar system of interviews from professors after an initial screening that short-lists a smaller pool of candidates, we lessen the bias and variability present in alumni interviews because educators are much more used to evaluating students impartially.

Logistics-wise, this system is entirely feasible. Top colleges often boast of their low faculty-to-student ratio — varying from Harvard’s 5:1 to Georgetown’s 11:1 and beyond. But let’s take a 8:1 ratio for convenience. Assuming the college is a four-year institution, this means that for the incoming freshman class there’s a 2:1 faculty-to-student ratio. In other words, of “x” students interviewed by a faculty member, two will receive an offer.

Let’s find x. 

If the admissions committee selects three students with a realistic chance of admission for every one spot — which is roughly the case for the Oxford major I’m applying to — the faculty member must interview six applicants.

If each applicant gets a 30-minute interview, this will only take up three hours of a faculty member’s time once per year. It’s no more commitment than going out to watch a lengthy movie.

I trust you can do the math yourself for similar numbers.

Even if a college finds its professors unwilling to donate three hours of their time each year, there are plenty of graduate research assistants who can take up a similar role.

Putting aside the practicality of this system, just the chance of getting to converse with a professor is an invaluable experience for a high school student, both intellectually and personally. In the U.K. interviews, professors would ask candidates questions specific to their major; while this doesn’t need to be the case for the U.S., I’m sure high school students would appreciate colleges that go the extra step.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have opened up further possibilities for change. This year, Imperial College London added an eccentric flourish: group tasks. From what it sounds like, small cohorts of short-listed students will be invited to collaborate with one another and solve a problem under the observation of faculty. This not only further saves time for the college, but also evaluates the peer-interaction component that might be lost in faculty interviews.

I would love to see a day when U.S. colleges give these remedies and alternatives a try. I’m not saying that the existing alumni interviews are totally dysfunctional — I eagerly look forward to my interviews — but I think all possibilities for improvement should be given a chance.

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