Jun 20, 2009

Stanford's Pilot Alumni Interview Program: Where Are We?

Stanford University recently announced an expansion of its pilot alumni interview program. During the 2008-09 application cycle, interviews were offered to candidates from Atlanta, Denver, London, New York City, Philadelphia, and Portland. In its second year of operation, the program will expand to offer interviews in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Raleigh/Durham, and the entire state of Massachusetts. Notice something missing? How about the entire Washington metropolitan area? I don't meant to sound petty, but it looks like the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission is leaving one big interview hole on the eastern seaboard. And, don't ask which Portland we're talking about (ME or OR). I figure if I can't find the answer in 10 minutes of searching on the Stanford admissions web pages, I don't really need to know.

After reading this, I suppose a number of you are thinking, "Well I'll just hop the AMTRAK and get myself to Philly or NYC
for an interview." Forget about it. Stanford clearly states:

Interviews will be offered only to applicants who attend high school in selected zip codes within these [above-listed] areas. You may not travel to a pilot area to have an interview. If you are eligible to be a part of the pilot interview program, an alumnus or alumna will contact you after you have submitted your application. You do not need to do anything – if an interview is available to you, you will hear from us.

Whatever you do, do not (my emphasis) call or email the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission to request an interview and/or to determine if you are even eligible for an interview by virtue of your zip code. Although if you're having the same problem I am and you live in Portland, you might hazard a call. And how many zip codes does New York City have?

In his statement concerning the expansion, Dean Richard Shaw (formerly of Yale University) described the pilot program as "successful." I guess that begs the question of, "Successful for whom?" Certainly not for anyone in the 22124 zip code. But don't worry. We are told that the program is under evaluation and we may learn more about the success and/or possible further expansion of the program in the spring of 2010. Maybe Miami or Dallas will get the nod by then.

To get an idea of how the pilot functioned over the past year, I scanned the minutes of a February Faculty Senate meeting
for some clues as to how Stanford uses the interviews. It appears that the program has been controversial from the start and that several high-ranking Stanford officials strongly opposed reinstating interviews of any kind. I learned that the six cities covered in the pilot represented about 5% of all applicants to Stanford and that practically all of the applicants in those areas opted for alumni interviews. Someone must consider them valuable, although administrators stress that they don't have a "huge impact" on admissions decisions. When all is said and done, the interviews are cynically characterized as recruitment tools and methods of engaging alumni.

None of this is particularly surprising except for the DC oversight. College interviews typically come in two forms: evaluative (intended to help the school assess the applicant) and informational (intended to market the school to the applicant). Stanford tells alumni applying to be interviewers that they will be expected to "share the Stanford experience with prospective students" and "convey their impressions of these candidates to the admissions committee." From this, I guess we are left to assume that candidates in our area either don't need to know more about Stanford or don't need a closer look in the admissions process.


  1. It seems unfair that some applicants would get interviews and others wouldn't. Do interviews help an applicant's changes of getting in or hurt them?

  2. Dear Anonymous:

    I have a great answer for you: it depends. Some schools pay more attention to their alums than others. Some schools use alumni interviews as recruitment tools or to keep their alums busy. Others are sincere about wanting to get behind the numbers and learn more about their applicants. Unfortunately, you’ll probably never know which is which.

    All that said, however, I have to warn you that a bad interview will almost certainly croak your application to most schools. So, you have to “suit up” for them all. As an alumni interviewer, I had my share of gum-chewing, inappropriately dressed applicants who showed no knowledge of the school for which they were interviewing and could not come up with a plausible reason why they wanted to engage in any form of post-secondary education. On the other hand, I had neatly dressed, enthusiastic high school students who did their homework, knew something about my university, and came prepared to have a good conversation about college. Guess which ones I wholeheartedly recommended? And, I suspect that my school paid attention. Either that or we very frequently agreed about candidates.

    Without getting into Stanford’s admissions committee meetings, I can’t say how fair the pilot alumni interview program is. I can suggest, however, that it might be nice to fish or cut bait and either offer the interview to everyone or can the program. As it stands, things don’t look quite right.

  3. Ms. Griesemer, I find it sort of alarming that you are making assumptions about our pilot interview program without getting the facts first. Your comments above show a lack of understanding about why we chose to roll out this program in stages and why we selected the cities noted above. A quick email or phone call to me would have provided you with facts rather than reckless speculation. Shawn Abbott - Director of Admission

  4. Shawn,
    I deeply regret any misunderstandings and certainly did not mean to alarm you. Please feel free to use this forum to enlighten readers. I am particularly anxious to correct any inaccuracies, especially as I went to great pains to use information provided on the Stanford University website.

  5. Our pilot program is just that - experimental and exploratory, nothing more, which is why we rolled it out to just 6 regions (and to just 3 more this year). All regions were chosen based on lengthy research and discussion about our yield, diversity and alumni volunteer resources in each location. Of course we would love to pilot the program globally and immediately but training more than 1,000 interviewers was necessary in order to offer interviews to the first 9. We will need thousands of additional volunteers to expand more. More than 400 students apply from the city of New York alone, making this an incredibly tough program to roll out to 30,000 applicants. DC was up for consideration as a pilot city but we determined that the geographic complexity of the District, Maryland, and Virginia would be tough to manage during these first two years. Certain regions were simply easier for us to define, explain and manage (e.g. students are only offered an interview in NYC if they live in one of the 5 boroughs). The jury is still out on whether or not this program is worth our efforts, but at the very least, surveys to alumni suggest they love this opportunity to be involved with Stanford and to meet our applicants. Likewise, admission officers reading the applications from the first 6 cities suggest that they appreciated the additional information about each interviewed candidate - though admit that rarely did their own evaluations change as a result. Thus far, there has been a negligible affect on our yield of those interviewed and admitted. As a result, we'll expand to 3 more cities and evaluate the program's continued operation.