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Interviews are regaining a foothold in college admissions process

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; A01

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.

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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