Alums doing homework; Local interviews help elite colleges identify standouts among applicants

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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It was more than a decade ago that Bob Taylor, Dallas lawyer and proud alumnus of Duke University, met the high school senior with a love of blue water.

Mr. Taylor interviewed the boy to see if he was worthy of admission to Duke. The boy said his favorite hobby was sailing.

“Well, there’s nothing outstanding about that,” Mr. Taylor remembers. “But then he said he had built his own sailboat, somehow gotten it into the Gulf of Mexico and gotten it into a race where he was the only one with a homemade boat. And he’d placed a respectable third.

“I recommend Duke take anyone who shows that much initiative,” he said.

And with that anecdote, another 18-year-old found an entrance into one of America’s elite institutions.

For the hundreds of North Texas students who are applying to the nation’s most selective private universities, it’s alumni interview season. They’re putting on their finest suits and dresses, heading to unfamiliar places – law offices, suburban homes, coffee shops – and sitting down across a table from a stranger who can dictate the next four years of their lives.

“At that moment, it’s not about grades and test scores,” said Wells McMurray, college counselor at The Greenhill School and an interviewer for his alma mater, Princeton University. “It’s about whether you would be a vital, valuable member of the university community. That’s what they’re looking for.”

Alumni interviews are not new. But as the number of qualified applicants skyrockets at the most elite schools, officials say the local screenings are becoming a critical way of distinguishing yourself from the crowd.

“They’re definitely more important than before,” said Sheli Barnett, a Dallas lawyer who coordinates local interviews for the University of Pennsylvania. “It can push you over the edge and into a school.”

‘Essence of the student’

While schools handle the process in various ways, the basic framework is the same. Students apply to universities, usually before Dec. 31 of their senior year. Once the deadline passes, admissions officials send lists of local applicants to their alumni clubs around the country.

An alumni coordinator finds local graduates who are willing to interview and assigns them applicants. The alums contact the students. They meet and talk from 20 minutes to two hours.

“It’s getting the essence of the student,” said Nash Flores, a private equity firm partner who interviews for Harvard University.

The interviewer then writes a report on the student and sends it back to the college. (He’s usually asked to rate the applicant on a numerical scale, often 1 to 10.) The college admissions office then uses the interview report when considering whether to admit or deny.

Admissions officials say the interview isn’t by itself more important than other factors such as grades, course selection or SAT scores. But elite universities are dealing with an applicant boom unseen since the GI Bill after World War II. At Yale, for instance, applications are up almost 50 percent in the last five years, and the acceptance rate has dropped accordingly.

The reasons are part demographics (the number of 18-year-olds is growing) and part technology (online applications make it easier to apply to more schools).

In that context, colleges often fall back on the “softer” elements of a student’s application to sort through the many qualified students they see.

“On paper, everyone looks good,” said Joseph Tam, a network engineer who interviews for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A 1600 SAT is no guarantee of admission. You want to see someone who is curious, who is energetic, who might change the world.”

“It’s a way to give yourself a personality,” said Brett Lacher, a Greenhill senior whose interviewing skills were apparently sufficient to earn him early admission to Penn. “The interviewer gets to see a side of you that doesn’t come out in the application process.”

Many schools once considered alumni interviews as much of a chance to sell students on the college as vice versa. It was often difficult for someone in Texas to visit Ivy League schools, for instance, and alums served as local marketers.

That role still exists, interviewers say, but students are expected to be more knowledgeable about the school before sending off an application. And they’re expected to make the most of the opportunity to highlight their best.

“I think what surprises me often is that students don’t realize the need to sell themselves,” said Vance Smith, who has interviewed 24 MIT applicants this year. “I want to hear the things that don’t make it into the teacher evaluations or the transcript.”

MIT’s admission statistics give a glimpse at how important the interview can be. Of all applicants who had an alumni interview last year, 23 percent were accepted. Only 10 percent of those who were not interviewed were accepted.

Stu Schmill, director of the MIT Educational Council, said part of that gap is caused by self-selection: Stronger candidates are more likely to have the confidence to seek an interview. He said students are not penalized for avoiding an interview. But he added that the interview usually helps admissions officials find a reason to support a student’s admission.

“When a human being asks a kid the question about what he loves to do, you can get a sense of how engaged he really is,” he said. “Students can write a flowery essay about some subject, but in person you can really see if they’re passionate about it.”

Mr. McMurray, the Greenhill counselor, remembers one student who was desperate to go to Yale. “I really loved the kid, but I couldn’t see any particular reason why Yale would pull the kid out of the stack of applications and take her,” he said.

But the alumni interview pushed her over the top. “She came across as so gung-ho for Yale that that’s the reason they took her,” he said. “Without the other ingredients in the application, the interview would have been for naught. But because the other ingredients were of the appropriate quality, she got in.”

Shaking nerves

Jason Klein, an 18-year-old Greenhill senior, said he was “a little nervous” going into his recent interviews with Yale and Duke alums. “But both people were very nice, very easy to talk to,” he said. They talked about his work as a Big Brother, his interest in medicine and his recent tennis injury.

“I was already very excited about both schools going in. But talking about the school re-energizes your feelings about it.”

But no matter how important the interview may be, alumni universally had one piece of advice for seniors: Relax.

Gary Cohen, president of the Duke Club of North Texas, said the students he interviews are more stressed, more rehearsed and less interesting than they were even five or 10 years ago. “Almost walking drones,” he calls them.

“I feel almost sorry for the kids,” Mr. Cohen said. “They’re completely paranoid about getting into a top school. There’s so much pressure from parents. I want to shake them and say, ‘You’re a kid! Don’t worry about it!'”