May 13, 2011

Stanford to Offer ‘Optional’ Interviews to all Freshman Applicants

Stanford University announced yesterday that the pilot Alumni Interview Program will become permanent in coming years.

While meeting with some school-based controversy, Stanford administrators believe the benefits for the University outweigh concerns about the validity or usefulness of alumni evaluations.

“Applicants will meet with Stanford affiliates in their own hometowns, alumni interviewers will have the opportunity to share their knowledge of and passion for Stanford, and their interview reports will provide our admission officers with another layer of context in our holistic admission process,” said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.

The decision to fully incorporate the program in the undergraduate admission process comes following a three-year pilot activity, which slowly expanded to include the availability of optional interviews in 12 areas: Atlanta, Denver, London, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland OR, Raleigh/Durham, Washington DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia.

Proposed new areas for the 2011-12 admission cycle include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Singapore, and the states of Oregon and Minnesota. The ultimate goal is to implement an international program with a focus on refining Stanford’s “infrastructure to support global expansion.”

In keeping with the terms of the pilot program, alumni interviews will be optional, with no penalty for applicants who choose not to meet with alumni or to whom an interview is not available. Applicants may not request an interview—contact must be initiated by Stanford alums.

According to Dean Shaw, the alumni interview serves two purposes—evaluation and outreach. “Our goal is an exchange of information between applicants, alumni and admission officers that will help lead to the best fit between university and student,” commented Shaw.

Starting with only 378 interviewers in 2008-09, the program has grown to include 1,061 interviewers who last year interviewed roughly 3,000 students. By three years from now, Stanford expects to be able to offer all applicants an alumni interview.

Without seeming too cynical, the Stanford announcement begs the question of why a university receiving more than 34,000 applicants would want to add another layer to its admissions process.

Perhaps the explanation may be found in minutes from a February 2009 Faculty Senate meeting during which Dean Shaw first introduced the pilot program. After initial resistance from faculty, Shaw outlined the 4 reasons he wanted to incorporate alumni interviews in the admissions process:

  1. Increase student interest in applying to Stanford (recruitment)

  2. Provide additional information to the admissions committee (improve selection)

  3. Increase alumni interest in the university

  4. Increase the yield—the “percentage of those students offered admission to decide to enroll in Stanford, rather than in another institution, like Harvard, Princeton, Yale or MIT”

Nothing in the original discussion suggested much in the way of benefits for students applying to Stanford. Instead concern centered on how much the University would get out of the program in the way of increased numbers and improved alumni relations (all of which coincidentally figure into USNWR rankings where Stanford recently slipped to #5 and tied with Penn).

At the end of the day, it was decided that number 4 was the “true goal” of the Alumni Interview Program, bringing us back to the “business” of college admissions and the competitiveness among schools lying just below the surface of every such decision.

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