Standing Out in Selective Admissions: The Interview

This blog post is continued from Mr. Bill Parker's, Standing Out in Selective Admissions: The Application & Essay.

Regarding interviews.   Now, a few applicants wind up getting admitted to the most selective institutions without being interviewed (yes, this holds for the U of C), and these same schools will be quick to say that interviews are not mandatory -- but they are still recommended.  This means, if it as all possible, have one.  You can be interviewed on campus, usually by an admissions officer, or, if your schedule or (more likely) your finances do not permit a quick trip to Palo Alto, colleges allow you to opt for an alumni interview, right here at home.  Why are interviews helpful?   Well, a good interview can be the scale-tipper that gets you admitted; aspects of your life and motivation and, especially, your personality often come to life in a face to face meeting that maybe got left out of your application.  The downside:  occasionally, an interview can tip the scales the other way.  Even though alumni like me are not officially voting members of the admission committee, we are de facto members, and we (occasionally) cast a blackball -- something I’ve done only infrequently and that saddens me profoundly when I do it. 

Most alumni interviewers perform the task for their alma mater as a labor of love.  They genuinely want to help it attract the best, most talented students possible, and their specific job is gain at firsthand a sense of the applicant as a person.  Along the way, they will gently probe the depth of the applicant’s knowledge and understanding of the school and judge whether he/she will contribute to the college community as a friend and classmate.  They also assess an applicant’s interpersonal competence (interpersonally incompetent applicants, also known as jerks, are not desired at most selective schools).  An interview report can add depth to the dry data and other bits of the application, most of which have been reduced to so much two-dimensional paperwork.  Interviewers are delighted to meet and get to know applicants (I sure am), and the best ones are keen judges of talent, character, and motivation.   Moreover, whether an applicant gets admitted or not, they truly want him/her to do well, and they genuinely root for them.  (Note that I said most: there are, alas, always a few exceptions.)   Another aspect of interviews is that (ideally) they are a two-way street:  you can ask questions, too.  (I tell applicants that if they have questions, I’ll be there until they are finished asking, not before.  Besides, I gauge the suitability of an applicant in part by the questions I’m asked. )

A few tips.

Go into the interview with a smile on your face, and be genuinely excited about, and interested in, the school.  The old adage, you have but one chance to make a first impression, holds more than ever.  No need to worry over being a little nervous, because nervousness is understandable, especially if the school is your first choice, and it’s even OK to share that with your interviewer.  Interviewers are human, and they appreciate being clued in on your feelings and motivations.  You also reveal a little of your personality and motivation, which is why the college desires the interview in the first place.

 Listen to, and take cues from, your interviewer.  One recent applicant met me with a stack of accomplishments, letters of recommendation, and other desiderata so thick that my first impression was that it should be weighed before it was read.  I thanked him for his thoughtfulness and informed him that it was the job of the admissions office readers back in Chicago -- not me -- to weigh (and wade through) all that stuff, and that I was more interested in getting to know him.  So, after I’d asked a couple of question, he interrupted me and proceeded to drag me through half the stack of paperwork -- which was not quite what I had planned.   He proudly led me through his impressive collection of AP Exam scores (5s down the line), classes he’d taken and a multitude of extracurricular accomplishments, all most impressive -- whether I wanted to hear about them or not.   In recounting his accomplishments, however, he evinced zero interest in learning, just in collecting As (and, seemingly, acceptances to selective colleges) like so many big game trophies, and his descriptions left me with the impression that learning and the development of his intellectual skills were at best secondary in importance to him.  Then, as the interview was winding down, he pointedly asked me if he would be admitted (as though I knew!), to which I demurred by saying I’m not the person who makes that call.  Which was partly true.  So, did this young man listen to, or take cues from, his interviewer?   Jugez plutot (you decide).   Or, for that matter, would you want to room with someone like him?  I sent in my interview report and later, before admissions committee deliberations began, I called the area reader and informed him that I did not want this applicant at the University of the Chicago and explained why (having worked in government, I am loath to commit sensitive things to writing).  Probably because he was a strong student, the Admissions Office wished to signal his high school that they want its strong students to keep applying and so they didn’t reject his application outright, but consigned it instead to the purgatory of the wait-list -- which amounts to the same thing.  (He ended up at a well known Ivy.)

Do your homework:  know the school you are interviewing for.  The most selective schools want students who are interested enough, and curious enough, and conscientious enough, to have learned a good deal about them.  Failure to have done this usually buys you a one-way ticket to a turn-down.  One otherwise wonderful applicant -- a thoroughly nice, bright, articulate, and intellectually engaged kid -- whom I recently met flunked this simple test when I asked, “What do you think of the Common Core (the U of C’s extensive set of general education classes)?”  and, God love him, he replied that he didn’t know what the Common Core was.  Ouch!  (Or maybe not; the applicant didn’t realize his faux pas.)   One interviewing technique I employ is to ask an applicant to ask me a question; I’m interested in the depth of knowledge the query presumes or carries with it.  And remember, this is for a University that prizes inquiring minds.  Queries that can be readily answered from a glance at the University’s outreach brochures (student-faculty ratio, numbers of applicants and enrollees, etc.) carry a demerit, a red flag, because this information is so readily available.   On the other hand, I love to be asked tough, searching questions.  Ditto, for specific questions about an aspect of school life or an academic department or program, because they reveals more than casual interest and show that a kid had dug down deeper in pursuit of an interest.   In an earlier installment, I suggested questions that are appropriate to ask, and so I will not repeat them here.

I’ve probably said enough, so I’ll close by wishing you good luck with your application, and wishing you acceptance at your top three choices.

--Bill Parker

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