Nov 16, 2015

Alumni interviews: 'Rules of the Road' revisited

Alumni interviewers should not be asking for grades and scores.

When I first published the ‘Rules of the Road’ listed below in 2009, 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 six years later, the problems persist. One local student recently had his interview scheduled in a noisy bar during Happy Hour.  Another student reported that the interviewer set up video equipment to record the event at a Barnes and Noble coffee shop. Way too many interviewers have been described as late, rude, dismissive and condescending.

“One thing I advise students is that if the setting doesn't ‘feel’ right (either pre- or during the interview), to leave the site and to contact the admissions office, sharing what occurred and requesting another interviewer,” said Susan Sykes, an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) based in Minneapolis.  “I believe that colleges would be appalled by such poor judgment by their representatives.”

And the poor judgment extends to the lead-up to the interview.

Jacqueline Hicks Grazette, an Annapolis-based IEC writes about the experiences of a student who looked up an interviewer on the internet and found embarrassing blogs and imagery, some of which involve sexual and “bad boy” postings, the kinds of activities which could get a student expelled from college. “The events are from this year, not from when the interviewer was a teenager.”

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.

But this goal can backfire if the interviewer is arrogant and thoughtless.

“Unfortunately, I think some alums enjoy the interview process because of the ‘perceived power’ it gives them rather than seeing it as an opportunity to guide prospective students,” explained Glenda Durano, an educational consultant with offices in New Mexico. “Perhaps they need to ask themselves why they are actually serving as interviewers.” 

Alumni interviewers are generally untrained volunteers who vary in terms of actual interview 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.

“Colleges should think about the need to present interviewers who will have some gravitas and strength of character that would make parents and students comfortable the person actually is competent and mature enough to write a fair assessment of the candidate," explained Grazette.  "Because alumni are not perfect, colleges should make clear what are safety mechanisms if a student feels he or she is approached inappropriately or subjected to unethical questions and statements from an alumni interviewer.”

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.

Years ago, my son was contacted by email the night before his “Ivy” 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. Ten years later, interviewers for this same prestigious New England college are still asking for pre-interview questionnaires to be completed, according to several counselors with students interviewing in the coming weeks. And although a number of Ivies have instructed interviewers not to ask for grades and scores, this one appears to have no such rules.

While not wishing to question the professionalism or dedication of most alumni interviewers (I was one too), perhaps it’s time to remind alums (and admissions offices) of a few interview fundamentals:
  1. Make contact promptly. Once the interview assignment has been made, contact the student as soon as possible. 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. Note: bars are not appropriate places for interviews.
  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 grades, scores 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 sure your social media presence reflects well on you and your institution.  Crude jokes and inappropriate pictures are obvious problems, but also consider how your public persona might be interpreted by families with different cultural or political views. There should never be a question about the “fairness” of the interview.
  9. 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. Avoid being contentious or cross-examining the student—this is not the time to pick a fight. And, leave the trick interview questions at home.
  10. Don’t ask where else the student is applying.  The National Association for College Admissions Counseling has banned this question on applications starting next year. Take this as a hint as to the appropriateness of the question and don’t try to circumvent the rule by including the request in the context of an interview.
  11. Set personal biases aside. Avoid value judgments and never make an applicant feel that his/her accomplishments are “silly” or insignificant.
  12. 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.
  13. Don’t bring children to the interview.  Arrange for childcare or reschedule if necessary.  A crying baby or a wandering toddler is distracting for both the interviewer and the interviewee. A young parent who is taking on this role should be responsible and respectful of hardworking and eager students.
  14. Dress appropriately.  Again, we suggest students show respect for their interviewer by dressing appropriately. Interviewers should also recognize this is an important event for the student. Sweatpants or cutoffs and a stained t-shirt (or one with a questionable logo) don’t represent your institution well.
  15. Avoid conflicts of interest.  It seems obvious to say you should not be interviewing children of friends or friends of your children.  In fact, it’s wise to stay away from interviewing students who attend your child’s school. And think about other connections that could be perceived as conflicts of interest. No one wants to think the interview process is “rigged.”
  16. 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.
  17. Turn your cellphone off. It’s simple courtesy. If you’re too busy to conduct an uninterrupted interview, postpone or cancel.
  18. 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. And leave the video camera at home.
  19. Speak well of the competition. It reflects poorly on you and the institution you represent to do otherwise.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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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