Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Do alumni interviews help students get into top colleges?

Many Georgia high school seniors aiming to attend select colleges will participate in alumni interviews in which a graduate of the prestigious university meets with them.

Do these interviews matter? I have friends who have interviewed on behalf of their alma maters and never had a single interviewee accepted. ( See a piece by a Yale alum who quit doing interviews.)

Al Meyers is the Atlanta chair for the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Interview Program. I asked him to share his perspective.

By Al Meyers

If you’re a high school senior, you may have recently submitted your Early Decision and/or Questbridge applications (for those who don’t know, Questbridge is a special program that connects the world's brightest low-income students to America's best universities and opportunities).

Perhaps you’re getting ready to mail an Early Action application or finalizing your Regular Decision applications. A few weeks after you send in your application, an alumnus of the school contacts you to invite you for an interview.

Do you take it? The Alumni Interview is typically “optional,” but strongly encouraged. Does the interview matter? I believe it does.

I’ve participated in a number of case studies with admissions officers and have seen firsthand how these decisions are made. There is a ton of quantitative and qualitative data being evaluated and compared on a national, state and local scale. Admissions officers will tell you that the alumni interview is arguably the only unbiased piece of information that goes into an applicant’s file.

Some admissions officers will read the alumni interview report before reviewing other information in the application. An alumnus may only spend 45 minutes to an hour, at most, with a student; however, an alumnus who takes this responsibility seriously will ask probing questions and be able to incorporate pieces of information that may not have been able to be adequately addressed within the confines of the application format.

The alumnus is forbidden to see any pieces of the application such as transcripts, SAT scores, or any other application components. Students should simply bring the best version of themselves especially their passion. It is incumbent upon the alumnus to extract the critical information by asking engaging questions and getting the student to relax and have a conversation, something many 17- and 18-year-olds find quite unsettling. It’s not about regurgitating what’s already contained in the application.

Rather, it’s a chance to highlight a student’s key strengths and why this school will offer the student the best opportunity to realize their career goals.

Most importantly, a good interviewer can quickly put the student at ease, but sometimes even the best interviewer will be unable to spur dialogue from a nervous, unprepared or even disinterested student.

For students to perform well in an interview, they should have researched the school, done some interview practicing beforehand, and most importantly, be themselves. It’s the students' chance to emphasize their secret sauce that may not have been effectively conveyed in the application, and interact with an alumnus of the school. The students should be enthusiastic, and so should the alumni, who are volunteering to be ambassadors for their alma mater.

I know firsthand many alumni get discouraged because a vast majority of the students they recommend do not get admitted. I know there were several promising students I've interviewed over the years who did not get admitted. It’s a competitive process and there are many talented students out there. But I feel strongly the alumni interview is significant.

If there’s anything I have learned in my 25 years of interviewing, it’s there is a great deal of information alumni do not see that goes into an application. The Common Application has depressed admission rates at top universities – that we know. In fact, most of the elite schools admit less than 10 percent of all applicants – some, such as Harvard and Stanford, are as low as 5 percent.

But for students who can express themselves to an alumnus and show not only their passion for the university in question, but also how they stand out compared to peers, the alumni interview might be the piece of information that sways an admissions officer from being “on the fence” to saying “admit.” For me, the alumni interview is an annual reminder of how fortunate I was to get admitted to my alma mater. It is so rewarding to interact with bright, talented young people who represent America’s future, and to tell them why your university is special.

There are no guarantees in life, but if a school is offering you an opportunity to participate in an alumni interview and give you another chance to demonstrate why you should be admitted, why wouldn’t you seize it? Carpe diem, right?


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.