10.05.11

Do College Interviews Count?

Some colleges say they’re “optional”—and what about alumni sit-downs and information interviews? Steve Cohen and Mike Muska break down which really matter—and why some colleges are doing away with them altogether.

Danny Peters wore khakis, a button-down shirt, and “decent shoes, only because my father made me.” He was going to his interview at a New England liberal arts college. “Brattleberry” College—here disguised to protect the innocent—puts great stock in the college interview. Young Peters needed to make it count because neither his grades nor his SAT scores were anything to brag about. In fact, both were below Brattleberry’s median scores.

But young Peters rose to the challenge: he was charming, thoughtful, and articulate. He explained why he thought Brattleberry was a perfect fit and what he could contribute to the campus. By the end of the interview, the admissions officer, suitably impressed (or charmed), told Peters he would be accepted.

Such instant decisions are the exception, but they do happen. Bard College has an “Immediate Decision Plan” where the candidate participates in a seminar conducted by a Bard faculty member and then meets with an admissions counselor. The admissions decision is mailed the next day. Other colleges have been known to let a candidate know almost immediately when a he is clearly qualified and tells the college that the school is his first choice, he will attend if accepted, and doesn’t need financial aid. (Being a “full pay” student in the current economic environment doesn’t hurt.)

What is the norm is how important the interview is for many smaller college admissions decisions. At Pomona College in California, associate director of admissions Malisha Richardson says that although its literature states that interviews are “highly recommended,” there is an expectation that if you live in Southern California, you had better get to campus—or at least show strong evidence that you tried. Applicants from other parts of the country will be offered alumni interviews.

John Young, director of admissions at Hobart, goes one step further. “If you can’t get to us, we will get to you,” he says. “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll Skype an interview.” Welcome to the world of technology, where no student has a reason not to interview.

Back in the “old days”—when the parents of today’s college applicants were themselves applying—interviews were required at virtually all the top colleges. Today interviews with admissions officers at the Ivy League colleges and the larger universities are not part of the admissions decision mix. There are simply too many applicants.

All of the Ivies and other highly selective schools do, however, offer applicants the option of being interviewed by alumni interviewers in or near the student’s hometown. Do these alumni interviews “count”?

“They are one more part of the folder,” says John Birney, senior associate director of admissions at Johns Hopkins. “They are not a significant factor in the vast majority of cases. But for a kid who is on the bubble, where the decision could go either way, a fantastic interview with an alumnus could make the difference.” He adds, however: “The flip side is also true. A kid who comes across as arrogant or nasty or ill-informed about the college can trigger a negative interview report. It is rare that it happens, but it does. And when it does, it can be what tips the scale.”

Remember, all of the top schools have far more qualified applicants than they can handle. And if you are a “no show” to an alumni interview, or refuse one, you can be sure that that it is passed on to the admissions office.

Many smaller selective colleges—like Brattleberry—make interviews “optional.”

“Given our commitment to diversity at Amherst, putting an emphasis on interviews would go against our principles,” says dean of admissions Tom Parker.

Are these interviews really optional?

Not if you want to get accepted.

“A student who doesn’t take the time to visit the campus and schedule an interview is sending us a message that they are not very interested in us,” says Darryl Jones, senior associate director of admissions at Gettysburg. “Strongly recommended means we expect students to interview if they are serious about Gettysburg.”

Many selective colleges keep track of every communication an applicant has with the school: campus visits, e-mails, overnights, classes sat in on. They all add up to an expression of just how interested in that college the student is.

The nature of the interview has changed as well. In the old days it was not uncommon for the admissions officer to pose some esoteric—make that wacko—question. A senior Brown admissions officer used to terrorize high-school kids with “If you were any type of vegetable, what would it be?” Happily, questions like that are rare.

But what kids say during the interview does count. Admissions officers want to see if a student has really thought through why they want to attend that particular college, and whether they can distinguish between places and have taken the time to do real research about various colleges and tried to discern the factors that comprise a good fit.

Young adds: “Take the time to prepare for that interview, whether it be on campus, with an alum, or via Skype. We want to know what you know about Hobart and why it would be a good fit for you. We want to answer your questions too about study abroad, potential majors, or advanced degrees, so prepare good questions in advance for your interviewer.”

Admissions officers also are keenly attuned to fit. And as they listen to a kid try to “sell himself,” the AO is assessing whether that 18-year-old would contribute to the vitality of the campus. Because colleges are looking for the well-rounded class—and not the well-rounded kid—the AO is trying to determine which of several kids who have say, a journalism hook, or a dance hook, or a chemistry hook would make the best contribution to the overall class. Is this kid a grade-grubber or a true intellect? Is the journalist someone who will be as comfortable in a junior reporter role working her way up the ladder or only interested in the editorship?

The interview can help the AO understand the student, and it can make a real difference in the overall admissions decision.

Two other types of interviews are worth noting. The first is the on-campus “information interview.” These typically take place at the start—or at the end—of a family’s visit to a campus. They are sometimes combined with the initial orientation session that takes place in a college’s admissions office. These sessions never have any impact on the admissions decision. The purpose is to answer questions about that college. And it is pretty pathetic to see parents, often as frequently as kids, try to “get noticed” by admissions officers.

The second type of noninterview takes place when college admissions officers visit high schools and meet with small groups of students. These on-the-road sessions also are designed to introduce the college to prospective applicants and answer questions. But they have the added advantage of providing short one-on-one nice-to-meet-you opportunities. These aren’t true interviews, but they establish a first impression, and more important, give the student the opportunity to follow up, via email or during a later on-campus interview.

Not all selective colleges agree on the importance or value of the interview. Amherst College, one of the most prestigious and selective colleges in the country, ended interviews almost 20 years ago. Veteran dean of admissions Tom Parker shares three reasons why:

“First, location. The relative ease of getting to Amherst via I-91 meant the numbers got out of control. Were we more remote and needed to gauge interest, it might be more important.” (Note that Parker spent many years in admissions at Amherst’s chief rival, Williams College. Williams, on the other side of the Berkshire Hills, is more remote and difficult to get to. It still offers “informational” interviews.)

“The second reason,” says Parker, “is impact. We agree with a study by Warren Willingham at the College Board arguing that interviews predicted nothing about college success. So why do them?”

“The third reason is socioeconomic bias. Even though Amherst is easy to get to, it is still the more affluent families who can get here more easily. Given our commitment to diversity at Amherst, putting an emphasis on interviews would go against our principles.”

Parker is widely considered to be among the most thoughtful college admissions deans. And his thinking—along with Amherst’s prestige—is likely to influence other colleges in the future.

But for now, the bottom line remains that for the vast majority of small selective colleges, interviews still count—a lot. So the term “strongly recommended” means you’d better prepare for the interview, take it seriously, and get it done.