Interviews are regaining a foothold in college admissions process

One-on-one campus meetings had been declining until recently, but the human dimension can help schools distinguish among hundreds -- even thousands -- of straight-A applicants.
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

WILLIAMSBURG -- Lucy King's passion for the trombone was too big to fit on a college application. So she traveled to the College of William and Mary last month to tell someone about it in person.

"You can't really beat having a face-to-face communication," said Lucy, 17, a senior from Carlisle, Mass.

The public college and other selective schools are rediscovering the admission interview, a ritual that had fallen out of favor in recent years because of concerns about equity and expense.

With tens of thousands of applicants at many institutions, colleges are more desperate than ever for any scrap of intel that might distinguish one straight-A student from another. As a new admission cycle begins this summer, colleges are finding there's nothing like an interview to bring out revelatory details.

Lucy King talked about the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School concert band. Another William and Mary visitor challenged his interviewer to pick a number from one to 1,000 and then calculated its square in his head. Someone else recounted his feats as a world-champion wooden-duck carver. Students have danced, done comedic impersonations and showed YouTube videos.

All of this plays out in six closet-size rooms under the admissions office, where trained college seniors meet with probable applicants for half-hour sessions while anxious parents wait in a reception room upstairs.

But interviews don't always help. Some overwrought William and Mary applicants have broken down in tears. One young man asked his interviewer to rate the looks of female students on a 10-point scale. Another decided mid-interview to take a call on his cellphone.

A good interview or bad one can help admission committees sift through a crowded field.

"It seems like everybody who applies is the captain of their cross-country team, is a section leader in their orchestra, is in National Honor Society, has 1450 SAT scores, has a four-point-something ridiculous grade-point average," said Nick Velleman, who interviewed Lucy. "When everyone is like that, then we start looking for the people who really stand out."

But few institutions have the resources to meet with 10,000 or 20,000 prospective students, one at a time.

Worth their weight?

College interviews were on the wane until recently. By 2007, most Ivy League schools had halted formal campus interviews, with the exceptions of Yale and Harvard. The sheer number of visitors had become unwieldy, and the endeavor seemed unfair to those who lived far away and could not afford travel expenses.

"We felt that students who managed to come to campus were not reflective of the diversity of our applicant pool," said Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College.

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