Why you should opt-in to the (optional) alumni interview

college admissions interview prep

You’ve labored over the first draft of your personal statement, requested letters of recommendation, and taken the SAT one last time— and, finally, winter break arrives. With it comes ample free time to commit to the “optional” elements of the college admissions process, such as college visits and what I’ll discuss today: the voluntary “alumni interview.” 

During the busy college application period, it’s reasonable to wonder whether an alumni interview is necessary. Does it actually help your case, given that alumni interviewers aren’t members of the admissions committee?  Why not just wait until your chosen colleges schedule official interviews?

As an interviewer for my own undergraduate institution, I’ve now seen the alumni interview process from both perspectives: as a high school student applying to college, and now as a recent alumna. While questions as to the importance and utility of alumni interviews are valid, today I’ll share some insights on just what the process might offer, and why you should opt-in.

Reason #1: Alumni can offer insight you cannot glean from websites or admissions personnel

An alumni interview is inherently different from a formal admissions interview, handled by the university’s admissions personnel. While representatives from Admissions Offices are able to speak on the logistics of the application and admissions processes, on details related to specific degree programs or majors, and on university procedures and policies, alumni interviewers are unlikely to have up-to-date information about formalities at their alma maters. What they can offer, however, is the perspective of someone who actually attended your chosen school.

It’s worth remembering admissions personnel, while holding much expertise, rarely attended the universities where they work. While they likely have a sense of what it’s like to be a student at their university, their information is always second-hand, depending on which students they’ve met on-the-job. For this reason, while they might be able to speak about the “culture” of a university in a general sense, they’re less likely to be able to express how that “culture” surfaces in students’ day to day experiences of attending classes, participating in extra-curriculars, and living in the dormitories.

Reason #2: Alumni interviewers are from your community

Most universities offering alumni interviews allow you to search their databases by city and state, meaning you’ll be able to meet your interviewer in your hometown, rather than talking with someone based elsewhere by phone or Skype. This can be a real advantage, particularly if the university you’re applying to has a population that differs substantially from your home community. Regional differences in culture— for instance between the South, the Midwest, and the coastal US, or between more rural areas and major cities— can be substantial, and may affect your adjustment to a new educational setting in ways you aren’t expecting. Your alumni interviewer will be able to help you know what to expect in this regard, especially if they are originally from your area. Different communities have distinctive dynamics when it comes to their populations, and certain experiences, such as those of minority students, first-generation college students, or students from particular socio-economic classes, might become more or less salient at the college level. These are differences alumni can help you anticipate— ones that admissions personnel, with little insight into your community or high school experience, cannot begin to address. 

Reason #3: Alumni interviews can be scheduled early in the application process

While formal admissions interviews take place after you’ve submitted your application, alumni interviews can be scheduled at any point during the admissions process, with some universities even allowing prospective students to interview ahead of their senior years. In such cases, the alumni interview can act as a useful first-step, even helping you narrow down your list of college options by asking initial questions about a university’s “fit.” Scheduling an alumni interview early in your senior year— as you begin to collect your materials and draft your written application— can be a smart choice, too, as alumni might offer advice that can strengthen your materials. 

Reason #4: It’s unlikely to hurt your chances

Like visiting campus as a prospective student, the impact an alumni interview will have on your chances of admission is hard to gauge, particularly given that different universities have different policies. Most alumni interview processes, however, involve written reports that go into your file, meaning that even if such feedback isn’t considered in the admissions decision, it can be determinative if you’re “on the bubble,” between being accepted versus waitlisted, or waitlisted versus rejected. Just the fact that you opted to have a conversation shows interest— a factor more and more universities are taking into consideration, particularly as the number of applications per student rises. Universities want to protect their yield rates, meaning they want students who want them. Pursuing an alumni interview is just one more way to demonstrate your enthusiasm about what a given university might offer. With this in mind, even if an interview doesn’t go perfectly, or is a little awkward at points, just the fact that you scheduled one works in your favor.

Once you’ve decided to “opt-in” to an alumni interview, the next step is to prepare for your conversation. Stay turned for my next post, which will tackle that question head-on.