Alumni interview program offers perspective to applicants

May 11, 2012, 2:06 a.m.

The Class of 2016 admission cycle, the first after the Office of Undergraduate Admission announced the permanent installation of alumni interviews, saw similar success for the program. A three-year interview pilot program proved popular among both applicants and interviewers, and the University endorsed its full implementation in the next “five years or so,” according to the Admission Office.

When the current program reaches its full capacity, the Office of Undergraduate Admission expects to work with around 10,000 to 12,000 alumni to interview around 30,000 to 40,000 applicants. During the most recent application cycle, about 10 percent of applicants were granted the interview option. According to Assistant Dean of Admission Debra von Bargen, the vast majority took advantage of the opportunity.

These students had high school zip codes in the Atlanta, Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham and Washington, D.C., areas; attended school in the states of Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Virginia; or studied internationally in Ireland and the United Kingdom. As the program expands to more areas, the Office of Undergraduate Admission is also seeking to develop options for students in areas such as China and India that have growing applicant pools.

To determine the value of the program, the Office of Undergraduate Admission evaluated alumni response and the overall impact of interviews on decisions made by the admission committee.

According to von Bargen, benefits included allowing the applicant to expand on his or her ideas and interests, gain a personal connection to Stanford and present him or herself to the admission office in a more informal light.

“We hope to get a sense from the conversation between the interviewer and the applicant what it might be like to have this particular individual join the Stanford community,” von Bargen said in an email to The Daily. “Our interviewer training stresses this last point, that the interview is designed as a conversation, not a quiz, and sets the Stanford program apart from many others.”

The training that alumni undergo includes a series of sessions with admissions officers and alumni chairs and a new online presentation, in order to expose interviewers to sample questions and conversations.

“I prefer the word conversation because I believe that’s how interviews should be conducted and not a Q&A session,” said alumni interviewer Taara Hassan ‘03 in an email to The Daily. “Fortunately, all of the applicants I interviewed were so ‘rich’ in their lives and at such a young age that it was very easy to be naturally interested in what they had to say and share without forcing anything.”

Alumni interviewer Steven Jewell ‘74 expanded on the insight gained by these conversations.

“It helps flesh out a person beyond what can be seen in the written word and on a computer screen,” Jewell said. “It provides additional insight into the person’s motivation and what excites them intellectually. In worst cases, it corroborates the written record, but on occasion it actually provides something quite unexpected and very helpful for assessing the candidate.”

Nicole Himmel ‘15 participated in an alumni interview as part of her application and described the experience as casual and helpful.

“We met up at a little café, and he asked me about myself, what characteristics I thought I was the best at, what my friends thought about me, fun questions,” Himmel said.

In addition to providing prospective students a forum to elaborate on information already presented in their applications, the interviews are also a way for applicants to talk about other circumstances that affected their academic or extracurricular life in high school.

The interviews are not required, even when available to students, but are merely an option for applicants who wish to participate, in areas where an alumni interviewer is available.

“I would definitely recommend it [doing an interview] to anyone who’s applying to Stanford,” Himmel said. “It can only help you. I asked him about a lot of the interdisciplinary stuff and he had majored in his own interdisciplinary major, so that was cool getting that information from him.”

The interview process also provides alumni the opportunity to re-engage with their alma mater and gain insight into Stanford’s future.

“The optional interview process…exposes prospective students to Stanford’s ‘living history’ by interacting with [alumni] and allows for asking questions from those who had the amazing opportunity to experience the Farm,” Hassan wrote. “But it also allows [alumni] to remain connected and see firsthand the amazing individuals that may become part of and contribute to Stanford’s unparalleled learning environment.”

Moving forward, the Office of Undergraduate Admission has not set a specific timeline on the complete integration of the alumni interview option for all candidates but is planning gradual expansion of the program in the coming years.

“Our big challenge at the moment is creating a robust, user-friendly technology system to help us manage the expansion,” von Bargen said. “We are moving ahead, but with great care that we do it right from the outset. Because ours is a young program, relative to our peer institutions, we know we have many opportunities to improve and refine the program as we grow, and our alumni seldom hesitate to offer suggestions.”


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