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How important are college interviews?

Woman interviewingWelcome to November, seniors. Just when you think things can’t get any busier, they get busier! Just as you’re trying to complete those supplemental essays and keep up with your schoolwork, people tell you that you really ought to be interviewing with reps from all your favorite colleges.

But, since most schools claim these interviews are “optional,” it’s tempting to skip the stress and focus on the essays. Of course it’s tempting! But should you? Just how important are college interviews?

In recent years, colleges, admissions counselors, alumni and parents have hotly debated the value of the college interview. Some claim interviews play little role in the admissions decisions at many schools and ought to be phased out. Others argue the interview can give an applicant a leg up and is very important. Who should you believe?

First, it depends on the school. Some schools—even those in the top tier—simply don’t offer interviews. Amherst doesn’t interview. Nor does Berkeley. Nor do most state schools. At those schools it’s not an issue.

I strongly recommend those “recommended” interviews

Other colleges, including MIT, Wellesley, Barnard, Pomona, Swarthmore and Haverford, say interviews are “recommended.” Translation: if you don’t sign up for an interview, you better have a darn good reason.

Schools like these are especially concerned with the “fit” between student and institution, and they don’t believe that’s likely to happen without face-to-face contact. At some schools, especially the smaller ones, admissions officers—rather than alumni or students—conduct the interviews. Of course, this is the best opportunity for an applicant, since admissions officers are the ones making the decisions.

If you’re applying to one of these schools, you should absolutely do the interview if you can possibly manage it. It’s your chance to demonstrate why you and that college would be “perfect together.”

Is it true that “non-evaluative” interviews don’t count?

In the next category are schools that offer interviews that they say are “informational” and “non-evaluative.” Their purpose, these colleges maintain, is to give applicants the chance to ask questions and get answers. Williams College has such informational “one-to-one conversations” during the summer.

Vassar also offers interviews that are also supposedly “non-evaluative.” But some alumni interviewers for the school say they must fill out questionnaires after such meetings. One thing they’re asked is to note whether they’ve observed any “red flags” in the applicants’ comments or behavior.

Evidence such as this suggests that, even when schools claim their interviews don’t really count, they probably do count to some degree. Take this as a lesson to be on your best behavior, no matter what kind of interview you attend. Arrive on time, act polite but engaged and be sure to ask questions to show you’ve been thinking about the school and whether it would be a good fit for you.

How much do the interviews that count count?

More typical, however, are colleges that offer interviews that they say are evaluative but don’t weigh too heavily in the selection process. All the Ivy League schools fit into this category, in one way or another. They generally offer interviews conducted off-campus by alumni. In you live near a big city, there’s a good chance you’ll be offered an interview near your home. (Yale is the exception; in addition to off-campus alumni interviews, it offers some on-campus interviews, conducted by Yale seniors.)

Most of the Ivies—and many other colleges too—say their interviews’ main purpose is to give applicants face-to-face contact with one of their school’s ambassadors. But, they concede, they do ask their interviewers to rate the applicants and provide detailed observations. If a case is undecided,the interviewer’s comments could push the decision one way or the other.

Alumni interviewers for some schools, like Harvard, are known for their far-ranging and in-depth interviews, during which they sometimes take copious notes. How seriously does the admissions office take such reports? Even the interviewers don’t know for sure. But one Harvard alumni put it this way, “My reports must count for something, because, when they are late, I receive testy emails admonishing me.”

Go for it if you can

All things considered, it makes sense to sign up for college interviews if you possibly can. No matter what the format, an interview offers you an opportunity to learn more about the school. It also lets you express your interest in a genuine and personal way. In the best-case scenario, you might catch somebody’s attention with your intelligence and charm and that person might file a glowing report on you.

A strong interview can’t make up for a poor academic record and disappointing essay. But it might add sparkle to an already appealing application package. In today’s competitive admissions climate, it’s smart to take every opportunity to shine that comes your way.

For tips on how to ace your interviews, click here.

– The College Strategist