Nov 19, 2011

A Reminder for Alumni Interviewers

When I first published the ‘rules of the road’ listed below, I received tremendous response from students, parents, and college counselors. Evidently the article touched a nerve. Stories came from all over the country documenting instances of abuse and simple thoughtlessness on the part of untrained alumni interviewers who were either unaware of or didn’t care about the stress they caused.

Nearly two years later, the problems persist. One local student had his interview postponed 4 times. Another interviewer showed up late, ran through perfunctory questions and left the student feeling like she had failed her first college admissions test.

One counselor recently wrote, “…the interviewer's questions were highly technical and she kept judging and belittling [the applicant] throughout the 1 hour…The interviewer began by telling her that this was her first ever interview for a public high school student and that she normally interviews students from a very high profile private high school.”

Much has been written about the alumni interview, but almost all of it focuses on the interviewee and not the interviewer. From the applicant perspective, the purpose of these events differs from college to college—they can be informational or evaluative. In other words, alumni interviews can be anything from undisguised recruitment sessions to actual assessments of student qualifications for admissions.

Alumni interviewers are generally untrained volunteers who vary in terms of real-world experience. Regrettably, colleges seldom provide much interview guidance, and they almost never trouble themselves with consideration of the overall quality of these encounters. But maybe they should.

During an interview conducted locally by an inexperienced Ivy League interviewer, a high school student was seriously evaluated based on two questions, “Given 8 basketballs one of which is lighter than the rest, how could you identify the lighter ball using 2 weighings on a counterweight scale?” And, “How much would you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?” Too bad the student brought his resume and not a calculator.

Another local student was contacted by email the night before his Ivy alumni interview and provided with a series of ten questions for which he was expected to prepare written responses. The questions ranged from views on world peace to a summary of books read in the past year. The university’s application for admission was nowhere near as difficult or demanding.

While not wishing to question the professionalism or dedication of alumni interviewers (I was one too), perhaps it’s time to remind alums of a few interview fundamentals:

  1. Make contact promptly. Once the interview assignment has been made by the college or the local person in charge, contact the student as soon as possible to alert the student of the assignment. Don’t unnecessarily increase a student’s anxiety by waiting weeks before making the first contact, even if the interview can't be immediately scheduled.

  2. Select a neutral site for the interview. Students and parents are uncomfortable about interviews conducted in private homes. At the same time, try to avoid fishbowls where the entire local community can see, eavesdrop, or otherwise kibitz on the interview.

  3. Be sensitive about time and distance. Don’t ask students to appear at your office during school hours and try to minimize the amount of driving required of a nervous applicant. If at all possible, give the applicant a choice of days and times.

  4. Give appropriate notice. Please don’t call the night before and expect the student to drop everything to see you.

  5. Be on time for the interview. It’s just as rude for the interviewer to be late as it is for the interviewee. If you know you’re running late, try to contact the student.

  6. Schedule enough time for a worthwhile conversation. An interview should last about 40 minutes. Students rightfully feel cheated if permitted to meet only briefly—budget time accordingly.

  7. Don’t make unusual demands. If the admissions office doesn’t provide you with a completed application or a resume, there’s usually a reason or policy in place. Understand that policy and don’t ask students to prepare supplementary materials for your personal edification or enjoyment.

  8. Make every effort to put the student at ease. These are high school students, not applicants for Fortune 500 jobs. Interviewers should be neither overbearing nor condescending. And, leave the Microsoft trick interview questions at home.

  9. Set personal biases aside. Avoid value judgments and never make an applicant feel that his/her accomplishments are “silly” or insignificant.

  10. Be prepared. Don’t wing it. Come to the interview with prepared questions. And, if you’ve never conducted an interview, practice in advance. We tell students to practice with counselors, teachers or parents. Interviewers should do the same.

  11. Don’t do all of the talking. The interview is supposed to be all about the student, not the interviewer. This is not the time for grand reminiscences. The applicant should ideally do about 80 percent of the talking, so resist the temptation to remember when.

  12. Turn your cellphone off. It’s simple courtesy. If you’re too busy to conduct an undisrupted interview, postpone or cancel.

  13. Try not to take notes during the interview. It’s distracting and takes away from the conversational quality of the exchange. If you need to write a note for purposes of remembering something specific, tell the student what you’re doing.

  14. Speak well of the competition. It reflects poorly on you and the institution you represent to do otherwise.

  15. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make it up. Face it—things have changed on campus since you were an undergrad. Don’t take the chance of providing misinformation. Direct the student’s inquiry to the admissions office.

  16. Leave time between interviews. This is when to write down impressions and make notes on the interview. Also, leaving 15 minutes between interviews lessens the chance you’ll run late or that interviewees will unexpectedly come face-to-face with one another.

  17. Never evaluate a student’s chances of admission. It’s not the job of the interviewer and much harm can come from idle speculation.

If an interviewer commits an egregious violation of professional standards, students should not hesitate to make a report to the college admissions office. Schools need to know if an interviewer is doing harm or otherwise upsetting applicants by making unreasonable or obnoxious demands.

Any college worth attending welcomes this kind of constructive feedback.

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