In my last post, I laid out four reasons why you should schedule that “optional” alumni interview advertised on universities’ pages for prospective students. In today’s post, I’ll describe how to hold a conversation that is valuable for you, and for your alumni interviewer, as they draft their report for the admissions committee.
Remember, an alumni interview is different from a more formal admissions interview. An alumni interview won’t take place on campus, but might be at a coffee shop, library, or in your interviewer’s home. For this reason, it’s certain to be more informal, meaning you should be prepared to speak on a range of topics less directly connected to your application materials. But what should you plan to discuss if not your ACT and SAT scores, grades, and academic successes?
1. Share your story
An alumni interview can be an excellent opportunity to highlight information tangential to your written application— for example, details about your trajectory that may not fit into the general common application questions or personal statement prompts. Some of these details may be nonacademic and of a lower-priority for your written materials, but, nonetheless, provide a more comprehensive picture of you as a well-rounded young person. Maybe you spend every Sunday baking, trying out new recipes to share with family and friends. Perhaps that’s not something you’d include in your application, but it certainly suggests you’re a creative, yet detail-oriented person, who loves to share their talents with others. Other details may be too distant in time to weave into your personal statement, such as the summer camp you attended during elementary school. It may be that it was that summer camp that first inspired your interest in nature and, later, your commitment to the sciences. Is this essential information for the admissions committee to review? Probably not, but it does distinguish you as someone whose interests are not superficial, but rather long-standing, and founded in a substantial personal experience.
2. Express your interest
In my previous post, I mentioned many universities’ concern with their yield rates— that is, the rate of students who are accepted and choose to enroll. A low yield rate implies that a university might be many students’ back-up choice or safety school, whereas a high yield means the majority of students who applied intend to attend— with a high yield clearly reflecting more positively on a university than a low yield rate. With colleges more and more concerned with their yield rate, as opposed just to the number of applications they receive, admissions officers are paying close attention to factors such as whether a student applied early action or decision, as well as other factors that might indicate their intention to enroll, such as whether they’ve attended prospective student events. Scheduling an alumni interview is one factor that’s taken into consideration, as is how much interest you express during your interview. In fact, guidelines for admissions processes I’ve encountered explicitly ask about this “interest factor,” recommending questions such as, “Does the student seem genuinely interested in our university?” and “Do they seem to have researched who we are?”
Such questions get to the heart of one factor universities consider— and this factor is one you can control. Preparing for these questions by knowing details about classes you might take, professors you’re excited to learn from, or even the dorm you might live in show you’re excited about what your life might look like at a given school. When preparing for your alumni interview, it’s important to note down such details and frame questions that are genuine, but also make clear you’ve done your research.
3. Ask about personal experiences, at college, and post graduation
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s important to remember that admissions officers are professionals with commitments to universities that reflect that specialized relationship. Most did not attend the universities they now represent, except in the case of universities who intentionally hire their own graduates. What this means is that the alumni interview might be your only opportunity to ask about life on campus from someone who can reflect on that experience from some distance. While the current students you’ll meet on campus visits will be more than willing to share details of student life with you, they will have little ability to compare the undergraduate experience to other environments— whether at other universities or in other stages of life; they may not be able to put the experience in context in the same way an alumnus could. A common refrain I hear from my undergraduate friends is “I never realized how unique our experience was until I left and met people who went to other universities!” With a bit more perspective, alumni are best positioned to be able to put the undergraduate experience in context, particularly when it comes to questions about future careers and other postgraduate opportunities.
If I had to identify a thread that runs through each of these suggestions, it would be that of substance. Your interviewer is willingly giving their time to talk with you, but they want to learn about you as a young person and scholar. The least successful interviews, in my experience, are those that reiterate what is already available in a written application. There’s no need to list the classes you’ve taken, share your GPA, or the percentile your test scores signify— those pieces of information will already be available to the admissions committee. Instead, focus on sharing your passions, interests, and what excites you about your upcoming college experience. An alumni interview can be a chance to build on your in-paper application, while also gathering more information to help inform your decision as to where you should apply, and, perhaps, attend!
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