Standing Out in Selective Admission: One Interviewer's Guide

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Late summer greetings from your friendly University of Chicago alumni interviewer and college fair rep.  I hope your summer has gone well.  As I write this, in most places across the land, school has started.  Here in Lee County, schools are open for business, and most colleges and universities are greeting incoming freshman and starting classes.  Except, maybe, at the U of C, which has long been a laggard in getting cranked up in the fall.  Having, since its founding, based its academic calendar on the quarter system (which it originated), fall classes at Chicago start late.  With high school having started, the number of campus visitors has slowed to a trickle, and most incoming freshmen will not show up until Move-In Day, September 18th.  Fall quarter classes won’t begin until September 26th.  In the intervening week, freshmen go through O-Week (orientation), during which they visit downtown icons like the Art Institute, attend a White Sox game, tentatively explore the University’s Hyde Park neighborhood and, perhaps, take in a little of downtown Chicago, learn about life in an urban setting, sit for mandatory and elective placement tests, receive academic counseling, register for fall classes, and attend the Aims of Education address. 

As the incoming first-years arrive on campus, they pass, administratively, from the Office of College Admissions to the Dean of the College.  And so, for the Admissions Office, with O-Week in full swing, attention shifts completely to the next cycle.  In early fall, almost everybody in the office travels; even the Dean of Admissions visits a few high schools outside Chicago.  In fact, a few reps are already on the road, fall college fairs will begin shortly (my first will be in Sarasota on Sept. 8th), enthusiastic early applicants are filling out their application, and the first wave of 30,000-odd applications will shortly wash over the office like a tidal wave.   

For seniors applying to college this fall, this seems a timely place to briefly review how things work, and offer friendly bits of advice.  Applications are composed of two parts, 1 and 2.  The first part contains dry facts -- name, home address, school(s) attended, date of birth, and a list of academic and non-academic accomplishments.  In other words, a data sheet.  Part 2 contains the real meat of the application:  high school transcripts (grades) and test scores; teacher, counselor and any other recommendations; essays; personal statements and any supplemental material that accurately portray you and your accomplishments.   It will also include the interview report of a campus or alumni interviewer.  The only bits of Part 2 that you directly submit and control are your essays and supplemental materials.  Your school, your teachers and counselors, and your interviewer must turn in the rest.  When, and only when, Part 2 is complete will a reader review your application. 

Words to the wise:  in filling out you application, be yourself.  For example, if you submit a humorous essay, and you are not known to your teachers and classmates for your wit, then the effort will probably fall flat.  More important, your application is not the place for modesty.  As baseball great Jerome “Dizzy” Dean put long ago it, “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.”  Selective colleges love students who exhibit great and wondrous talents and have already accomplished great and wondrous things.  They’re also keenly interested in “the whole person,” not merely in your classroom persona.   So everything interesting, great and wondrous, or otherwise that you’ve truly earned or accomplished, every honor, in or outside school, should be made part of your application.  Regarding supplemental material, if you have something that reflects significant accomplishment or talent -- in music, drama, dance, mathematics, science, writing -- send it along and ask to have it made part of your folder.  Video tapes, essays, even term papers or other written work you feel justly proud of, and (preferably) earned high praise, send them, too.  Caution:  Be completely, even brutally honest.  Some applicants, in their quest to gain that extra scintilla of competitive advantage, succumb to the temptation to puff up their accomplishments.   Don’t even think about it!  College admissions readers possess finely-tuned BS detectors, and all it takes is a simple phone call to a high school to back-check an application, making it almost too easy to verify a questionable claim.  If an admissions officer does spot a bogus claim -- an applicant claiming credit for something he or she didn’t do -- then the bogus claimant can kiss that school goodbye.  Syonara!  Just like that.  Finally, if circumstances have unfavorably affected your scholastic performance -- death, sickness, family problems, etc. -- it is fair to explain these to your admissions committee audience.  Despite what many might think, admissions offices know that adversity and misfortune do happen, and they bend over backwards to give your application as fair a reading as possible.   What few realize is that the majority of the admissions committee consists, not of old goats like me, but of young adults who graduated from the college within the last few years, and remember exactly what it is like to be in your shoes during this process.

Oh, I mentioned essays.  Dick Taliaferro used to say that the Ivies paid little attention to essays, assuming that applicants could easily have paid someone else to write them.  At Chicago, on the other hand, the admissions committee have always assumed that applicants write their own essays, and for that reason, they read them with intense interest and care.  Since Dick Taliaferro’s views on essays were propounded 30 years ago, it’s fair to assume that even if his assertion was accurate (which I question), things may well have changed, and whether or not you are applying to the U of C, your interests are best served if you proceed on the basis that your essays will receive Chicago-style scrutiny.  Can you afford to assume otherwise?  I will add that Chicago does not want to receive essays recycled from applications to Princeton or Yale.  Its essay prompts, with the foregoing in mind and fun and funky though they are, are deliberately crafted to reveal how well an applicant can organize and present thoughts on a topic that he or she hasn’t lain awake thinking about during the prior year.   I tell kids applying to Chicago, “Devote lapidary care to your essay.”  The same applies to applications to other selective schools.

Regarding Interviews.   Some applicants get admitted to highly selective colleges without being interviewed, and these same schools will be quick to say that interviews are not mandatory -- but that they are still recommended.  This means, if it as at 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, you may 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 in; 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 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 serve their alma mater as a labor of love.  They genuinely seek to help it attract the most able, talented students, and their specific job is to gain a firsthand sense of the applicant as a person – oh, and to sell their school.  Along the way, they will gently probe 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 – jerks -- are unwanted at selective schools).  A good interview report adds depth to the dry data and other bits of the application, most of which have been reduced to 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 later on, and they genuinely root for them.    Interviews (ideally) offer a two-way exchange of information:  you can ask questions, too.  I tell applicants that if they have questions, I’ll be there until they finish asking, not before.  Plus, 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.  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.  A 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 -- 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 the stack of paperwork -- which was not quite what I had planned.   He proudly told of his impressive collection of AP 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 this, however, he evinced zero interest in learning, just in collecting As (and, seemingly, acceptances to selective colleges) like so many big game trophies.  This left me with the impression that to him, learning and intellectual development were secondary in importance.  At the end of the interview, he pointedly asked me if he would be admitted (as though I knew!), to which I demurred by saying it is the admissions committee, not me, who makes that call.  Which was partly true.  So, did this young man listen to, or take cues from, his interviewer?  Hey, would you want to room with him?  I duly sent in my interview report, but later, before admissions deliberations began, I called the area reader and informed him that I did not want this applicant at the University of Chicago and explained why (having worked in government, I am loath to commit sensitive material to writing).  Because he was a strong student, the Admissions Committee wished to signal his high school that they want its strong students to keep on applying, and so they didn’t reject his application outright, but consigned it to the wait-list – a purgatory which amounts to the same thing.  (He ended up at a well known Ivy.)

Do your homework:  know the school you are interviewing for.  Selective schools want students who are interested, curious and conscientious enough to have learned a good deal about them.  Failure to do this 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 general education classes)?”  and, God love him, he replied that he didn’t know what the Common Core was.  Ouch!  (Or maybe not; the kid didn’t realize his faux pas.)   I like to ask an applicant to ask me a question; this is for a university that prizes inquiring minds, and I’m interested in the depth of knowledge the query presumes or carries with it.    Questions that can be readily answered from a glance at the University’s outreach brochures (e.g., student-faculty ratio, number of applicants and enrollees, etc.) carry a demerit, because this information is so readily available.   I love to get asked tough, searching questions.  Ditto, for questions about aspects of school life or an academic program, because they reveal more than casual interest and show that a kid has dug down beneath the outreach materials in pursuit of his interest.  You might bring a list of well thought out questions for the interviewer.

 Finally, if you are interviewing for your first choice college, let the interviewer know it.  Modesty and diffidence bring you nothing.  Last fall, an applicant told me, “This is my dream school.”  She got in.

 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.

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Bill Parker is a proud alumnus from the University of Chicago where he is the regional interviewer for the University. He is passionate about helping students through the selective college process Bill is a retired business man who enjoys living in SW Florida.