How To Ace an Alumni Interview
To schedule an alumni interview or not? It’s a question that high school seniors across the country grapple with every fall. Stanford, Claremont McKenna and USC all offer them, but are they worth doing?
We spoke with admissions offices at Northwestern near Chicago and Dickinson in Pennsylvania, as well as six interviewers with other top universities who told us why an alumni interview makes sense.
What is an alumni interview? It’s just as it sounds: an interview in your area with an alumnus of the college to which you’re applying. Some schools require applicants to have them. For others, it’s optional or only possible in limited geographic areas, and still others don’t offer them at all.
If it’s optional, should I go? When a school offers a student an alumni interview, but doesn’t require it, it can be puzzling. Students and their anxious parents are left to wonder: Is it safer to decline rather than risk the chance that it may go badly?
While admissions staffers often say it doesn’t count against a student to skip the interview, these same personnel are looking for evidence that an applicant really wants to be at their school.
“Acceptance of the interview signals interest,” says Stephanie Balmer, former dean of admissions at Dickinson College, who adds that most colleges distinguish between “hard,” or serious applicants and “soft,” or less serious applicants. The assumption is that if a school is one of the applicant’s top choices, he’ll make the effort to interview.
“There are other ways to show interest, such as visiting the campus or attending a local information session,” says Allen Lentino, senior associate director of admissions at Northwestern University. Still, even though Lentino downplays the need for an interview, he encourages students to have one if they can’t make it to campus.
Moreover, it’s clear that colleges require alumni interviewers to report their findings back to the schools. Stanford University’s website states that “alumni will convey their impressions of these candidates to the admissions committee.”
Should I prepare? Yes, absolutely. While schools say that alumni interviews can’t count against you, let’s face it, particularly at competitive schools, everything can count.
Take, for example, Northwestern: On one hand, Lentino says the university has found that alumni interviews rarely make a difference – even for borderline candidates – but he also notes it can raise a red flag, highlight an inconsistency on an application and help the staff gauge the applicant’s level of interest in the school.
In other words, an alumni interview may not significantly help or hurt, but why not be prepared, just in case?
Balmer sums up: “The alumni interview will not be a deciding factor, although a positive one can effectively help an applicant advance in the pool.”
How should I prepare? Lentino cautions against being too rehearsed, because colleges want an authentic voice. “The interview should be conversational, not confrontational – a two-way conversation,” he says.
Of course, how many nervous high school seniors are capable of this kind of casual conversation, especially with a representative of their dream school? If your teen isn’t, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Since interviewers are assessing a student’s ability to speak intelligently about himself, Balmer recommends parents help their teenagers avoid monosyllabic responses and encourage them to take the initiative to lead at least part of the discussion.
Access the college alumni network websites for information intended for interviewers, including instructions and sample questions. For example, Cornell Alumni Association’s Ambassador Network information can be found at http://caaan.admissions.cornell.edu/training.htm.
What kinds of questions should I anticipate? Most interviewers use best-practice guidelines and sample questions to conduct the interview. They have some information about the student, like the student’s intended major and up to two extracurricular activities. Balmer says interviewers are not provided with scores or grades, so as not to color their opinion.
Lentino stresses that the mission is not to evaluate grades – that is a job for the admissions committee. The alumnus’ task is to personalize the process, give information and receive any significant updates. In addition, the interview is an opportunity for students to share any hardship they have been experiencing or explain any shortcoming in their application.
Colleges want a personable and articulate applicant who can explain his interest in the school and describe how he spends his free time. According to Lentino, “colleges want a thread of consistency, and they want to try to determine if an activity is a deep passion or just a good interview topic.”
Bring a resume as a starting ground for the conversation. Artwork or photos are also good aids to demonstrate a student’s passion. “Don’t bring a trumpet, but instead tell me how music shaped your life and how it formed your world view,” one interviewer recommends.
Many interviewers also ask students what they expect to participate in and to contribute to the school. Students should be familiar with the campus’ programs and activities in their areas of interest.
Just do it! The alumni interview has some value, but exactly how much is impossible to determine. A student who is seriously interested in a school should request an alumni interview to maximize every effort to impress the admissions committee. The addition of a positive evaluation to a student’s file might help in the heavy competition for admission.
Risa C. Doherty is a freelance writer, attorney and mother of two college grads. Read more at www.risadoherty.com.