Confessions of an College Interviewer

Jay Mathews

For 20 years I volunteered as a Harvard-Radcliffe admissions interviewer. Applicants to the college, sometimes as many as a dozen in a year, came to my home for an hour’s chat. I have taken a break from interviewing, but since the interview season is beginning, I want to share what I have learned about this occasionally perilous part of the college admissions process.

Most colleges do not require interviews, as Harvard does, but many encourage them. Sometimes alumni conduct them. Sometimes the interviewers are college admissions office staff, including undergraduate interns. But the routine is similar in most cases, and I think any college applicant who has a chance to be interviewed by a college high on his list should do so. Interviews are not as important as the teacher and counselor recommendation letters in your application, but they give you one more chance to display the personal qualities that selective colleges give such weight to.

The two-page “Personal Interview Report” that I filled out on each student asked me to “please choose a quiet location and give the applicant your undivided attention, providing a positive and pleasant experience.” I tried to do that, talking with each of them in my living room. Usually there were no interruptions, except when our white mixed terrier, Mickey, wandered in.

Every applicant I met was an earnest and intelligent young person, but Harvard was not interested in such general descriptions, so I filled out the report that asked me to make some judgments. “Beyond the paper record of test scores and grades,” the report’s guide for interviewers said, “tell us your impression of the student’s intellectual curiosity, tenacity, academic goals and capacity for originality and growth. Please give examples, such as the applicant’s observations about courses, research, books, public issues. Does the student seem genuinely interested in academic work? Has the student made use of intellectual potential and of personal opportunities?”

I was also asked to “please assess the student’s major activities outside the classroom, whether based in school or in the wider community, and including paid or volunteer work, family obligations and other personal pursuits. Does he or she demonstrate ability, commitment or leadership potential that would suggest the possibility of extracurricular or athletic contributions at Harvard and Radcliffe?”

And finally, they wanted me to judge the applicant’s character: “How did the candidate impress you in personal terms? In noting particular strengths and weaknesses, be as specific as possible. Can you comment on character and values as shown by attitude toward school, home, friends? Will she or he be liked and respected by roommates, House members and faculty? Are there unusual circumstances in her or his background? How will she or he fare in our complex environment? Quotations from the applicant’s comments during the interview are helpful in conveying an impression of the candidate’s enthusiasm and vitality.”

Besides that report of 500 to 1,000 words, I had to affix numbers to the applicant’s name based on Harvard’s rating scale, from 1 (future Nobel laureate) to 6 (potential embezzler) scale. I usually chose numbers at the higher end (2s or 3s) to describe their academic, extra-curricular, personal and overall qualities.

Some guide books encourage the widespread view that going to an old college with a big name like Harvard is the best thing that could happen to a young American. Such a feeling, although based on myth [see my article Better Than Famous ], makes already nervous applicants vulnerable to mistakes when they go into an interview.

Some of my favorite examples of brand-obsessed nonsense come from a 1997 book, “A Is For Admission: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges” by Michele A. Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer. Not only did Hernandez assign great value to offers of admission from well-known colleges, but she encouraged the idea (doing otherwise would not have been in her book’s best interests) that the choice of who goes and does not go to these schools was a predictable phenomenon that could be manipulated by the most astute participants.

I have a different view. I shared it with every applicant I interviewed. My little speech went like this:

“This can be an irrational process, like being struck by lightning. Harvard and schools like it pick some applicants for reasons that elude me and reject some that I think are wonderful. You should realize that with your fine record you are going to get into a splendid college. You are lucky to be living in a country with the strongest and most open system of higher education in the world. Wherever you go, that place is going to have what you need. You just have to be ready to grab it when you get there.”

Sometimes I got looks of recognition and agreement. Sometimes, I think, my words were dismissed as a back-handed way of telling the applicant he or she was not good enough. I did my best to persuade these young people that they would be much better off if they did not worry about how famous their college was.

High school seniors who apply to selective schools may seem nervous and apprehensive, but just the act of applying means they have unusual confidence in themselves. At the very least, the fact that they have applied to such competitive schools (except in those cases where their parents bully them into it) shows that they understand how good they look in comparison to most of their classmates. It is psychologically useful for them to feel that way. Such confidence will make them more likely to seek out challenges. Risk-taking almost always brings rewards.

But they can sometimes be too confident. Hernandez’s book inadvertently exposes one of the worst consequences Ivy ambition–a feeling on the part of the applicants that they are the chosen people, smarter and stronger and worthier than even the adults they must please. Here is Hernandez’s assessment of Ivy League admissions officers: “They may consist of graduate students, former teachers, spouses of professors and college staff; and career administrators. The majority of this group did not graduate from any highly selective college, let alone an Ivy League one. . . . [Many] are not expert readers . . . and most of them are not scholars or intellectuals. . . . What I am trying to say without shocking too much is that the very best of applicants will often be brighter than many of those who will be evaluating them.”

Oh my. I can only imagine, with horror, what might happen if an applicant accepted this analysis as a guide for proper interview behavior. It is not a good idea to think you are smarter than other people, particularly those from whom you need a favorable report. Say, for example, a young applicant in the middle of an interview mentions his term paper on progressive education and, trying to be helpful, says, “Maybe you haven’t heard of John Dewey, he helped launched that movement.” Or what will an alumni interviewer think when he asks an applicant about her science fair entry and hears these words: “Well, this gets very complicated, but I will try to summarize it for you.”

They don’t mean to be insulting. But take that nose-in-the-air attitude, encouraged by Hernandez and other devotees of the Ivies rule school, add the usual teenage awkwardness, and you send signals that will hurt when it is time for the admissions committee to make crucial judgments of character.

An interview is not designed to help the college decide how smart the applicant is. It is a search for personal qualities that will assure that no matter how brilliant the student’s academic record, she can deal with other people and create a congenial and productive atmosphere on campus.

Here are some tips and warnings. If you are going to be late for an interview, just call ahead and let the interviewer know. Never be early to an interview at a private home. (The interviewer might still be combing his receding hairline, a process I hate to rush.) Dress neatly, but coat-and-tie or skirt-and-pantyhose is not necessary.

What kind of questions do interviewers ask? There are all kinds, but they generally come down to inquiries about three personal characteristics–inquisitiveness, originality and demeanor.

Many interviewers will ask what you have been reading outside of class and what you think about those works. They want to see if you have the kind of mind that is naturally curious and enjoys learning beyond what your teachers demand. Interviewers will also ask your views on current events, or teenage culture or even educational practices. They are usually not testing what you know of the details of such topics, but seeing if you have thought about such matters.

Handling these questions is tricky. You should be honest. It is impossible to be interesting if you are saying things you don’t believe. But there is a risk you may say something the interviewer disagrees with.

Too bad. Take the risk. The best interviewers, the ones who have influence with their admissions committees, will applaud a dissident view. Maybe you will offend an interviewer or two, but do you really want to attend a college that allows such a stiff-necked person to interview applicants? And as I said, you are going to get into a good school anyway, so why compromise your values to make a favorable impression on people who won’t appreciate it?

The ultimate point of the interview is to show that you are a good person–polite and honest and with a sense of humor about the unnerving admissions process. That means you have to be, as you have heard several hundred times, yourself. And that requires a strong-minded attitude about your interviewer.

Please don’t take Hernandez’ advice and assume you are smarter than the admissions official or alumnus/alumna conducting the interview. But keep in mind, in an emergency, that you may be better at handling yourself in an interview than the interviewer is.

There are interviewers who get carried away with the power, small as it is, of participating in the application process, and say things they shouldn’t, like telling you that you will be accepted, no doubt about it, or trashing the offerings of rival universities. A few interviewers quiz applicants, trying to see if they are as knowledgeable as their A in calculus or their summer in Honduras or their genetics laboratory internship would suggest. Some of interviewers have difficulty framing a question and force long silences that make some interviewees wonder if they have somehow offended the seemingly powerful stranger.

Don’t think that way. Do your best. And have some of your own questions, a requirement for any good interview. In any awkward silence, just ask the interviewer why she likes that school, and if she went there, what she got out of it. That should get her going.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to have some fun. You can be sarcastic. You can tell jokes. You can relate personal anecdotes. Many colleges wisely instruct their interviewers to keep the conversation low-key.

And if the interview doesn’t work out, particularly if the interviewer has seemed distracted or inebriated or abusive, there is a solution. Just call the admissions director’s secretary and politely ask for another interview. Any college worthy of your attention will honor such a request.

I turned myself in once after I behaved improperly at an interview. A very pleasant young man with a splendid business career ahead of him said he had not taken any Advanced Placement courses, despite the fact that his high school had one of the strongest AP programs in the country. I am still embarrassed by my reaction to this. I told him I thought he had been very poorly advised. I said I did not see how anyone could expect admission to a selective college without risking at least one challenging high school course.

He was visibly upset, and yet it took me a few minutes to realize that I had gone way over the line. I was not there to set admissions criteria. My job was to find out what kind of person he was. Toward the end of the interview I apologized and told him he still had many good choices ahead of him. I arranged for him to see another, less biased, interviewer. But if God is just, the day will come when I need a job and he will be the senior vice president in charge of hiring.

Keep in mind that none of us is perfect. When you shake hands with your interviewer, remember that he or she, like me, is human. I have written scores of articles and columns on college admissions, and am about to publish a book (Harvard Schmarvard, out in late February) on that subject. Yet I screwed up as an interviewer and might do so again.

You also will commit errors in your interview. There may be questions you cannot answer and sentences you may utter that make no sense. But if you ignore all that, and enjoy the conversation, acting as if the interviewer were a favorite aunt just trying to catch up with your life, everything will turn out fine.

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© 2002 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive
© 2003 Gale Group

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