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How important is the admissions interview?

I asked a number of admissions experts to gauge the value of the admissions interview, a venerable summer ritual and the subject of a story published Monday.

Many selective colleges offer interviews. A few, including Georgetown, require them. Harvard and a few of its Ivy League peers clearly put considerable weight on the interview; one gets the sense that an applicant who turns down a request to meet with a Harvard alumnus or alumna is not likely to gain admission.

Lots of other colleges offer interviews and strongly encourage students to participate, but the program reaches only a tiny fraction of applicants. The limitations of the program put the college in a tricky spot: if they put too much stock in the interview, they might tilt the applicant pool in favor of students who have interviewed.

Here are some statistics:

In an annual survey, the National Association for College Admission Counseling asks hundreds of colleges to rate the relative weight of more than a dozen factors in their admission decision.

Grades and test scores always come out at the top of the list -- half or more of colleges give them "considerable importance." Other factors -- the essay, class rank, letters of recommendation -- are given considerable weight, though not quite so much as grades or test scores.

What about the interview? A mere 11 percent of colleges attached "considerable importance" to it in 2008. That's a higher number than in 2003-05, when just 9 percent of colleges signaled its importance. But the number was in the mid-teens a decade earlier. In other words, the interview may be enjoying a modest comeback.

That statistic might not tell the full story.

Consider: a rising share of colleges, 21 percent as of 2008, put considerable importance on the applicant's "demonstrated interest" in the school: actions taken by the applicant that show he or she is relatively likely to attend if admitted. This matters because students are applying to more and more colleges, and the "yield" of admitted students who attend is gently declining. The interview, perhaps more than any other single factor, demonstrates an applicant's interest.

There's little doubt that applicants and their parents attach great weight to the interview at colleges that offer them. Too much weight, some admission deans say.

"Their perception is, they want to do whatever is possible and whatever is necessary to ensure that their young person gets to the front of the line," said Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford. "They see it that way. It doesn't have as much influence as they think it does."

Shaw suggests that the interview contributes "probably around 10 to 20 percent" toward an admission decision. If you consider that grades and test scores make up perhaps half of the equation, then that makes the interview a close third or fourth on the list.

(It turns out I misunderstood what Mr. Shaw was saying here, so please disregard that paragraph.)

Other admission experts won't get quite so specific. John Latting, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins, described the weight of the interview there as "modest."

Harvard may be another story. More than two-thirds of applicants are invited to interview by alumni. It's very nearly required of them.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman, put it this way:

"Whenever possible, the vast majority of students who are ultimately admitted to Harvard College have been interviewed, primarily by alumni/ae. . . More generally, I would note the emphasis that we put on the interview process in our public statements about the admissions process."

In a statement earlier this year reacting to the growth in Harvard's applicant pool, admissions director Marlyn McGrath said, "The help of alumni/ae interviewers is more important than ever as the Admissions Committee chooses a small number of students from an ever-increasing applicant pool."

Yale's Web site tells applicants college officials "strongly encourage" the interview, even though, like Harvard, Yale does not require the interview and claims that no one who does not complete an interview will be put at a disadvantage.

Clearly, some applicants worry about this. Take a look at this advice on Brown's Web site:

"Please keep in mind that it will not negatively affect your application if you do not meet with one of our alumni volunteers."

Colleges that reach a smaller fraction of their applicants through interviews can only do so much with those meetings. As Eric Furda, dean of admissions at Penn, said in today's article, "we need to be judicious in how much emphasis we can put on the evaluation aspect," given that only about one-third of Penn's applicants interview.

Georgetown has worked to limit the growth in its applicant pool -- by opting out of the Common Application, among other measures -- so that its admissions staff can continue to interview all of its 18,000-plus applicants every year.

"We pride ourselves on a "holistic" admissions process and this personal contact between school and applicant is one of the most important symbols of that and one I hope we don't lose in pursuit of ever higher numbers of applicants," said Charles Deacon, admissions dean.

Eileen Wilkinson, an educational counselor in Bethesda, said she believes many regional and moderately selective colleges use the interview to gauge an applicant's enthusiasm for their institution -- the "demonstrated interest" discussed above.

"They can ferret out the level of enthusiasm in a particular college," she said. "They're trying to assess, Do you really want us?"

Leslie Kent, an educational planner based in Fairfax, said she's recommended interviews to all of her clients save one, a young woman who was "very shy."

"It can be a tipping point for a student if they interview well, or something to avoid if a child is shy or uneasy with that kind of presentation," she said.

"I would never pass up a chance to interview if the student is comfortable with it. It's a chance to be something other than numbers and letters."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  August 2, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Admissions , Students  | Tags: Georgetown interview, Harvard Ivy League interviews, admissions interviews, college interviews  
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