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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.

But the interview appears to be making a modest comeback. Some colleges are finding new ways to make personal connections on a large scale.

Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth reach more applicants than ever through their global alumni networks. Stanford University launched an alumni interview program two years ago in six cities and is offering its first interviews in the Washington region this year. The effort will reach about 5,000 students, a fraction of Stanford's 32,000 applicants.

In 2008, Wake Forest University in North Carolina began offering interviews via webcam, using the Internet telephone service Skype.

Debate persists about the value of interviews. Admission officials gently encourage the belief among applicants that a face-to-face meeting will help their chances. But they play down the interview's role in the admission process and fight the perception that it bestows an unfair advantage.

Surveys of college officials suggest that interviews typically are less important than grades or test scores but more important than extracurriculars. The share of colleges attaching "considerable importance" to the interview rose from 9 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2008 on the annual survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some schools, including the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia, do not offer formal interviews. Others, including American University, offer "non-evaluative" interviews that are said to be for informational purposes only. Johns Hopkins and George Washington universities offer interviews and use them in admission decisions. Georgetown University requires them.

Many colleges that offer interviews struggle over how much weight to assign them, lest they penalize students who can't meet face to face.

"We need to be judicious in how much emphasis we can put on the evaluation aspect," said Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, whose alumni interview about one-quarter of applicants.

Starting a relationship

For many high school students, the interview is the first step in an intricate courtship with prospective colleges. Interview season starts in the summer, before most students have started college applications. Most colleges let applicants initiate interviews. At some competitive schools, the invitation must come from an alumnus.

Small, private colleges generally value the interview more than large, public universities. The face-to-face meeting is particularly important at moderately selective regional colleges, partly as an indication that the applicant will attend if admitted.

Hood College, a private liberal arts school in Frederick, reinstated interviews a few years ago after letting the program lapse. Towson University, a state institution in Baltimore County, will begin interviewing applicants by WebEx videoconference this fall.

William and Mary, which was founded in 1693 and is the nation's second-oldest college after Harvard, revived its interview program six years ago. The college had stopped granting interviews in the 1990s because its applicant pool was too large. That dilemma remains. But admissions officials say they now face a bigger problem: choosing whom to admit.

Asking applicants to travel to campus was less of an issue at William and Mary than at some of its private peers, because most applicants live in Virginia.

William and Mary students interview about 11 percent of the school's 12,500 applicants, at a rate of 36 students a day, in sessions that run through the summer. Students who interview are admitted at a slightly higher rate than others. Once admitted, students who have interviewed are nearly twice as likely to enroll, said Wendy Livingston, senior assistant dean of admissions.

"When you're talking about students of this high of a caliber," she said, "it's often the personal and intangible details that help us make the decision."

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