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Stanford Adds Alumni Interviews

May 13, 2011

Alumni interviews have for decades been part of the admissions process at elite private colleges. Their role has sometimes frustrated applicants, and left them guessing about strategies. Over the years, the process has also annoyed many alumni. A 2002 article in The New York Times quoted a Cornell University alumnus talking about how all of the candidates seem the same: "If I see another valedictorian, I may throw up." And Cornell doesn't even call the sessions "interviews," preferring the term "contact meeting" to stress that the alumni aren't deciding who gets in.

Still, alumni interviews are the norm at elite colleges -- with a more common complaint of alumni of late, as documented recently by Bloomberg, being that they don't have enough influence to make the interviews worth their time.

Historically, the most prominent outlier has been Stanford University, which hasn't had alumni interviews. On Thursday, however, Stanford announced that a three-year test of alumni interviews in 12 geographic areas had been a success and that the university would start expanding its alumni network so that within about three years, all applicants could be offered an (optional) alumni interview.

So why does a university with no shortage of applicants (more than 34,000 this year, resulting in a 7 percent admit rate) make such a change?

Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, said in an interview Thursday that the pilot program showed that the alumni interviews "add texture" to the applicants' portfolios. In about 10 percent of the cases, he said, the report of the alumni interviewer influenced the decision one way or another.

Given the size of its applicant pool, Stanford admissions staff members do not interview applicants. As a result, Shaw said that "the human dynamic" can be lost in an application -- and alumni reports can add that.

Alumni interviews have been criticized for favoring wealthier applicants, who may move in the social circles of alumni of elite colleges. The Stanford Daily last week editorialized against alumni interviews, making just that argument. "Regardless of correction protocols that the admissions office may try to build into alumni training, interviewers will either overcompensate or disadvantage underprivileged applicants, in both cases yielding tainted information," wrote the student newspaper.

But Shaw said that the university tracked the impact of alumni interviews on the candidacies of applicants from different demographic groups. He said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or whose parents didn't attend college, were as likely as wealthy applicants to be helped by an alumni interview.

Further, he said that many of the wealthier applicants didn't do themselves any favors in the way they presented themselves. Many of them came in "overly packaged," Shaw said, and that turned off the alumni, who were looking "for honesty," and not for presentations that came "from consulting services."

Shaw said that the university viewed the alumni interviews both as providing more information to the admissions committee, and as building a connection with the prospective applicants.

He stressed that Stanford has heard all of the complaints about alumni interview programs, and said that may be an advantage. "We're able to take into account what we've heard," he said. In particular, he said that it is important to select alumni with care, and then provide them with significant training. "You can't do this with mismatched interviewers," he said.

In the end, when the results of the pilot program were presented to faculty members and others, Shaw said, "people were moved by how much they saw added" to the understanding of applicants.

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