Sunday, October 27, 2013

How to ace the college alumni interview

It's that time of year again -- the time for college applications.  For many competitive colleges and universities, the admissions process includes an "alumni interview."

These schools get applicants from all corners of the country and the world, and some get as many as 10 applicants for every spot in next fall's freshman class.
In today's world of the common application, as different as the essays and resumes may be, many of the applications tend to look the same. The alumni interview can give admissions officers "a face to an application and a story to the face."
The rates of acceptance are the same for candidates who have alumni interviews as they are for ones who didn't; nevertheless, Admissions Offices say they are helpful.
Generally speaking, an applicant will meet with one, two or perhaps three local alumni. When it's one on one, it might be in a public place, like a Panera or a Starbucks.
The process makes alumni feel involved and connected with their alma maters (and more inclined to pony up for the Alumni Fund). Alumni interviewers also get a charge out of meeting the young, vibrant applicants and hearing the exciting things they're doing and the great plans they have, which is a pretty good segue into the first two tips on how to ace the alumni interview:
  • Come prepared to tell about the exciting things you're doing and the great plans you have.
  • Give the interviewers a reason to write to the admissions office, "Of the dozen applicants we've interviewed, this is one of the outstanding candidates. He or she will contribute a), b), and c) to _________."
As in any interview, it's not so much "getting the right answer" but the way you answer that gives interviewers an idea of what makes you as a person special. Are you excited about your courses or marching band? Have your experiences meant something to you and developed you as a person? Do you have an agenda for your college years? "We want to know who the applicant is," said Dartmouth admissions officer Karen Sagall when she came through Knoxville some years ago.
Bring your resume -- including board scores, GPA, APs, and extracurriculars -- so the interviewers can have it in front of them. This way they don't have to ask your scores and grades, and they can see your activities and other items that interest them and ask you about them.
This will also help you if your mind happens to go blank, which happens to everyone from time to time.  (Some schools differ on this point.  Columbia, for example, wants interviewers to be unsullied by all that information.  They want interviewers to focus only on the person.)
Be ready to take the basic questions and tell your story:
  • Why do you want to go to ____? "Because it's a good school" is not the most persuasive answer. Give a reason that shows you know something about the school and how it fits into your plans. Hint: the alumni love their alma mater or they wouldn't be doing these interviews, so this is a good opportunity to talk about some things you know the school excels at (or claims to).
  • What do you want to do at ____? Show that you have an agenda, both in your academics and extracurriculars, want to rise to a challenging environment, and contribute to the college community. ("Leadership" is a big word these days in college admissions, the way "well-rounded" was in the 70s.)
  • Tell us about your activities. Rather than just list them (they're on the resume anyway) show some passion as you say what they mean to you and what they actually did in them. Try to avoid complaining about how badly you were treated or saying how you hated every minute of it. My group heard this twice last year. "Character" is another big word in college admissions these days.
  • Tell me about a book you read recently that meant something to you. Many of us draw a blank when we're asked this question in an interview. Think about this beforehand and try not to list the ones from the 9th grade reading list. There's no wrong answer: you can discuss The Autobiography of Kim Kardashian, just try to express some intelligent thoughts about it. Again, we're learning about who you are. Tip: it's OK to talk about The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, especially if you went to the bookstore at midnight for the release.
  • What were your favorite courses? Again, show some enthusiasm. We want to hear what you learned and how it has jazzed you up, because the whole idea is that you'll have the same experience with the incredible professors at ________.
  • What did you write your essay about? This should be a hanging curve you can knock out of the park. Presumably, applicants have put a great deal of effort into making their essays surprising and delightful expressions of their complete originality as human beings. We want to hear how you took a concept and treated it in an original way to make and original point. To quote a University of Chicago admissions officer, "It's about how you handle ideas." If your  parent actually wrote the essay, this question is more difficult.
  • Do you have any questions? This is where the interview draws to a close, and probably the only question you really want answered is, "Can I possibly get in?" (See the discussion below.) But as you're looking over the college materials, it doesn't hurt to think of a practical question or two that show you've done your homework. "What's the 'Jan Plan'?" "How do most people fulfill the language requirement?" "What is the 'sophomore summer term'?"  Though it feels like sucking up, it's certainly OK to ask your interviewers what they valued most about their college experiences. This will actually tell you a lot about the school. 

Final note: "Can I possibly get in?"  The accurate answer is that alumni interviewers can neither get kids in nor keep them out. If anything, alumni interviewers share the pain when someone they interviewed and highly recommended is "denied." But this is simply the reality of the numbers.

As mentioned earlier, the ratios of applicants to acceptances at many competitive colleges are beyond absurd. When an admissions office is picking one or two applicants out of 10, they have to "deny" thousands of fantastic students.  Generally those students end up at great colleges and have college careers that they wouldn't trade for anything. 

Given this reality, many alumni interviewers take the approach that the interview itself can be an educational opportunity for the applicants.  The applicants might learn something about the college, even if they never even visit there. They might also get something out of the exchange of ideas or the particular way that alumni describe their approach to learning and to the college experience.  In life, you simply never get enough practice at the art of being interviewed (and interviewing).

It is also a truism that, from time to time, an applicant will be interviewed by a jerk -- something that happens in life, to be sure.  Two of my college classmates chose my alma mater because their interviews with alums from another school went something like Tom Cruise's alumni interview in Risky Business.  Of course, Tom Cruise's character in the movie got in, so you never know about these things.

Many years ago, a friend called me because his son had applied to Yale and gotten a call about an alumni interview.  "What the heck is that?" he asked.  My answers to his questions became this blog post.  The son had a great interview. He did not get into Yale, which disappointed his interviewer, but he found the right college and had a great career there.  Ultimately, that's what it's all about.