An Inside Look at Alumni Interviews

An Inside Look at Alumni Interviews
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on January 25, 2021

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Applying to college is stressful, as we all know. Picking schools, filling out forms, navigating the financial aid maze, and writing essays can be daunting enough, but the angst meter ratchets up a few notches during face-to-face interviews — those pressure-packed interrogations that ultimately determine your educational fate.

Not really, but it might seem that way.

I've witnessed such angst numerous times during my five years as an alumni interviewer for my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Like many colleges, Penn relies solely on alumni to provide interviews to prospective students.

Among the Ivy League schools, for example, only Yale offers on-campus interviews with admissions representatives (or college seniors). All others in the Ancient Eight leave the task to alumni volunteers (save for Brown, which this year is eschewing interviews in favor of introductory videos submitted by applicants).

Although alumni interviews at Penn are optional, applicants almost always take advantage of the opportunity. Last year, alumni interviewed 96% of first-year applicants.

Although these interviews are optional, applicants almost always take advantage of the opportunity. In fact, last year Penn alumni interviewed 96% of first-year applicants, and the number conducted makes Penn's program the largest such effort in higher education. Turning down the offer naturally wouldn't send a positive message about one's interest in attending.

The interview season falls into two phases: early decision (ED) and regular decision (RD). For ED, interviews occur in the fall; for RD, they occur in January and February. In all cases, it's our job as alumni to reach out to students and facilitate the interview process.

Normally I conduct interviews in public places such as coffee shops (inviting students to your home is prohibited), but given current COVID-19 restrictions, all interviews this year are virtual. Nothing is recorded; I take notes, write up a report, and submit it to the admissions office.

What I Ask Students in Alumni Interviews

Before I get into what I ask students, let me be clear about what I don't ask. I don't ask students about their grades, class rank, or standardized test scores. We aren't provided that information, and if a student mentions any of this during the conversation, it's not because I've inquired.

I also don't ask where else a student is applying, where my school ranks among their preferences, or what the student's top choice might be. During the ED round, those concerns are of course moot.

That said, here's what I do ask.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

This question is about as open-ended as it gets. I want to hear students' elevator speeches, how they present themselves to the world, what aspects of their lives or personalities or interests they emphasize, and what they consider most important.

What are your favorite subjects or courses?

I assume students will mention courses related to their intended major, but I'm often surprised when they note something completely different that piqued their interest or involved a beloved teacher. Here, I look for students to evince a passion for learning and intellectual curiosity, whatever direction that might take.

What is your favorite part of your school experience outside of class?

Colleges want well-rounded, engaged students — not just bookworms — so this question explores what extracurricular activities students might pursue once on campus. Most mention sports, academic clubs, music and theater, debate, and Model UN. Increasingly, students are committed to social causes and service learning, which resonates with colleges, especially urban schools like Penn that seek active campus citizens committed to their community.

How do you spend time when you're not in school?

Some students feel the need to reinforce their academic seriousness with answers such as studying, reading, and tutoring. That's fine, but I assume students like to have fun, whether that's by hanging out with friends, going to the mall, cooking, or binging the latest Netflix series. Nothing wrong with that. I want a more complete picture of the person — not just the student.

What's the biggest challenge you've overcome?

This character-revealing question provides an opportunity for the student to discuss family or other personal issues, social and interpersonal concerns, or something as elementary as overcoming language barriers or moving five times before high school. It's not meant to pry or make the student uncomfortable, but rather to allow them to demonstrate how they've cleared obstacles to become the person they are today.

What are your long-term goals?

This is a fairly straightforward question, but I'm often surprised by how specific students get. For all their diverse interests and activities, some students are paradoxically single-minded about academic and career pursuits. They know what they want to major in, what advanced degrees they intend to seek, and what professions they aspire to obtain.

It's okay to be somewhat undecided about one's career trajectory at 17. Saying, "I want to be a lawyer," is preferable to saying, "I intend to double major in economics and physics, study intellectual property law, and become a patent attorney."

Why Penn, and what draws you to the program you've applied to?

I like to see if students have done their homework. If they say, "I want an urban school, and I hear Penn has a good biology department," then I know they haven't dug very deep. Students don't have to be experts on the school, but using a few specific examples and discussing why they'd be a good fit goes a long way toward demonstrating real interest.

Applicants during the ED round usually nail this question — as they should, given that Penn's their first choice — and they're much more likely to have toured the campus (COVID-19-related constraints notwithstanding).

What I Hope Students Ask Me in Alumni Interviews

I then turn the tables and ask students if they have questions for me. I preface this part of the conversation by pointing out that even though I have firsthand experience of what it's like to be a student at Penn, that experience occurred three decades ago. Someone who graduated five years ago would be better equipped to discuss campus culture, the students who attend, clubs and activities, facilities and amenities, and current faculty. Still, it's a perspective students seem to value.

I hope students ask why I chose the university, whether it met my expectations, what I enjoyed most and least about my time there, and if and how my education prepared me for the world. One student recently asked me why I volunteer to interview applicants, which I thought was an intriguing query.

Asking good questions shows a student's level of interest and can help RD applicants further sort out differences among schools.

Alumni Interviews: A Small Piece in a Complex Puzzle

Evaluating college applicants is part art and part science. For alumni interviewers, it's all art. Again, we don't know the statistical side of your candidacy. We can assume a certain level of academic achievement based on where you're applying, but anyone is free to apply anywhere. All we can judge you by is a 30-minute first impression gleaned through an informal conversation.

Our reports reflect just that — impressions. We're asked what we "think" about each candidate, whether we "believe" this student might thrive at the university, and what led us to these conclusions. Our recommendations are speculative at best. It's an imperfect system yet a valuable addition to the applicant's portfolio.

Our reports reflect just that — impressions. We’re asked what we “think” about each candidate, whether we “believe” this student might thrive at the university, and what led us to these conclusions.

How valuable? I can't say how much the alumni interview report weighs in the overall analysis. I imagine in most cases these evaluations reinforce what admissions folks already know. But perhaps every so often they discover something about a student that wasn't revealed through the formal application. Maybe that something tips the scale in the student's favor.

And to answer the question of why I volunteer my time doing alumni interviews, it's because I want to give back to the university in some small way and help a new generation of talented students make informed decisions about their education and future.

Feature Image: mentatdgt / Shutterstock

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