College Application Interviews, Part 1: What’s the Value?

My experience with interviews is that they are generally valueless, unless they are very valuable. 

Most colleges do not require interviews. Of colleges that offer interviews, some require them, most don’t. Interviews are often presented as informational only: the college is giving you information, not collecting it from you. Since most applicants cannot travel to a school far from their home, it is unfair to give privileged students an additional opportunity to present themselves. 

However, there are a few issues to consider. First, colleges are motivated to select students who will then select their college. Demonstrated interest is one factor. If you look at the college’s self-declared decision-making factors, you will see that “Level of Applicant’s Interest” is a “Considered” factor. This is especially true of small selective liberal arts schools. If an interview is an option, either on campus or with a local alumnus, take it. 

Another way interviews are valuable is if the admissions officers finish reading your file and still have a question. There may be some information in the file that is in conflict with other information. Some in-school college counselors do not have time to get to know students well, or they lack experience writing reports for selective schools. This is especially true at schools with high counselor turnover. The interview becomes a good assessment of a student’s character.

One former admissions officer reports that if the applicant’s information has been summarized, and the student is being discussed, and the interview report comes in during the discussion (alumni reports invariably come in toward the end of the review process), then the admissions committee pauses to the interview report because it is new information. For the applicant this means he or she get a bit more consideration.

Interviews become very valuable if there is uncertainty or discomfort with an applicant. Since 1979 I’ve interviewed close to 100 students for Harvard as an alumni interviewer. One thing that has stood out is that if a student has not been interviewed and Harvard is seriously considering admission, Harvard nudges the local alumni coordinator to arrange an interview. The opposite is true if the university has not received an interview report from a weak candidate. I’ve been called at the last possible moment to interview a student. 

And I’ve spoken directly, at the admissions office’s initiative, in three cases:

  • A student with a weak academic record but a compelling personal story. I wrote in my report that he could be a candidate for a post-graduate year. An admissions officer called to talk about how a post-graduate year might work for the student.
  • A student who had a stellar academic record but a poor first interview. I was assigned to a second interview, without knowing about the first interview. I heard about it, though, because the student started the conversation by complaining that he/she had to meet with me. The admissions office wanted to know if this student was always abrasive.
  • A student who was exceptional in every regard. I was called after I submitted the interview report but before the admission letter went out. The admissions office wanted to discuss how best to recruit the student.