The mystery behind the college interview

Posted by Neal Schwartz on January 30, 2018


What is the difference between an on-campus interview and an alum interview?

Why doesn’t the school that my daughter is applying to require an interview?

My daughter was just asked to schedule an alum interview? What should they do?

Did she not get in because of her interview?

There are a multitude of questions regarding the interview, and unlike the consistency students, parents, and counselors understand about academics, AP’s and SAT/ACT tests, the interview is a different animal altogether.

Prior to the Common App and the increasing number of college applicants, interviews were expected as a part of the process. Now, with the sheer number of applicants, it is not possible to grant every student an interview on campus. Schools that promote geographic diversity and publish that their current students come from X states and X countries need to offer alum interviews or travel directly to the communities and schools to hold local interviews


Fact #1 - On Campus interviews are limited at most schools

college interviewThe advantage of the on-campus interview is that demonstrated interest is confirmed somewhat by the trip itself. It may also be possible to meet with the admission rep responsible for the student’s state, county or city. If that occurs, the rep is likely to be in their comfort zone and more able to listen. On the other hand, due to the volume of candidates, the interviewer is not always someone with a salaried position in the admissions department and may not be responsible for that student’s home region, which could be a disadvantage.


Fact #2 - The timing of the interview is important

Due to scheduling, some students may be granted an interview before they submit an application, whereas others may only do so AFTER they submit their application. A student with an earlier interview may not be as practiced and additionally may be less interested than that same student AFTER they have visited other schools and have submitted their application.


Fact #3 - Interviewers may be either a responsible admissions person, an alum or other college representative

The alum interview is the most curious element of the college process, as there are varying degrees of training for the alum. Typically, the alum does not receive their list of interview candidates until AFTER the application is submitted. Due to the complexity of the application, it is standard practice that the alum interviewer only gets the student’s name and contact information and does NOT get to see any data from their application.

Fact #4 - Interviews are either informational or evaluative

This is one fact that is difficult for parents, students and counselors to deal with. In the business world, the winning candidate is usually one who succeeds in the interview. Sometimes, but not always, that is true in the college admissions process. Even when an alum is interviewing a candidate, they are at a severe disadvantage in that they are NOT able to view the student’s complete application, including recommendations, etc. Their role is to evaluate the student’s presentation skills, personality, and strengths, without the other background information. Compare this to the business world where the interviewer almost always has a copy of the resume and other information in front of them. Also, the alum interviewer is not always privy to the directives of what type of candidates the school has or is seeking. Often, only a written report will be submitted and incorporated into the overall file.

When was the last time you went on an informational interview? Were you trying to buy something? Was somebody trying to sell you something? Were you choosing to buy a home? Were you engaged in a conversation to work with a financial advisor or wealth manager? Let’s be clear, think of evaluative as having direct influence on the decision, and informative as merely shopping. The former is made by the college, and the latter is to help the student decide if they have enough information to make a valuable decision.


Fact #5 - Oftentimes the Alum is engaged in the interview process for the Alum’s benefit (not for the student’s)

This point is difficult to swallow, especially for those applying to the top 100 schools in the country. Strong alum connections are one of the reasons that students are attracted to top schools. If you are in the “club,” it can be a huge benefit. “Club” members typically thrive on trusting other club members first. The, “You can’t go wrong by hiring a Princeton Grad,” saying is prevalent in much of our society. But let’s break this down into its elements:

  1. Alums are unpaid volunteers and may have a varying degree of commitment to their interview responsibility.
  2. Although the college will briefly educate alum interviewers, there is a gap in admissions and college knowledge that is not bridged by the college’s efforts.
  3. Getting Alums to interview is one of the best ways for a college to keep them involved and connected. The reason that this matters is that there are parallel efforts with many alums to solicit gifts to the college.
  4. It is not clear what level of impact alum interviews have on the ultimate admissions decision.
  5. Most alum interviewers are NOT given any application information about the student in advance, presenting little ability to engage in anything but a report back to the college
  6. The ultimate decision maker is some combination of the admissions officer responsible for the territory/region and the admissions committee.


Fact #6 - The Cause and Effect of the College Interview is not as clear as the Business Interview

With admit rates at the most competitive schools between 5% and 20% for qualified candidates, it is hard to determine whether the interview was the reason that a student was, or was not, admitted.

Many parents relate their business interview experience to the college interview, but there are some distinctions that should be noted:

Business InterviewBusiness interview.jpg

  • It is rare that someone would be hired in business unless they had a strong interview
  • Sometimes great interviews do help candidates land jobs.
  • Business Interviews are usually granted after the resume and other information is reviewed.
  • Interview screening is done by those that are not the Business owners

College Interview

  • Not all colleges interview, which begs the question about its overall usefulness.
  • Alums are similar to the non-business owners, (described above), in that they don’t have to live with their decisions.
  • Alums cannot be the decision makers, based on their minor role in the process.

 other business interview.jpg

What students should do on their interviews:

  • Be themselves - Be comfortable
  • Demonstrate their passion(s)
  • Learn to listen
  • Ask pointed questions
  • Know the school


Why the interview is still a good thing regardless of the outcome: 

No matter what the outcome, the overall college interview opportunity is huge and should be valued as a gift. The skills practiced within the interviews: contacts that may be established, demonstrations of confidence, poise, integrity, etc. will be helpful for future jobs, internships, graduate school, etc.


If you have a high school student and want to get started on the right path, contact us at 914-273-2353, or visit us at: 



Topics: college admissions, admission advice, college advice, admission trends, college interview


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