The elite-college admissions process has become a frenzied, commodified race to pick up as many points as possible. It’s gotten so intense that, for many applicants, it’s as if leaving one card on the table—even if it’s a card the dealer has explicitly said will not yield a full house—is akin to busting on purpose. Plenty of universities don’t offer interviews at all, and, as evidenced by the NACAC study, many others do so for reasons other than substance. And so, as the pressure to get into the right college continues to weigh heavily on high-school seniors, it is perhaps time to consider why schools continue to offer interviews in the first place, and to question whether the practice could be done away with entirely.
Certainly there are schools that give weight to the interviews and make them available for virtually every applicant, and that accessibility is crucial if the practice is to have any sort of impact on an application. Take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example. MIT—which received 20,247 applications last year and accepted just 7.2 percent of those students—is transparent about the import of the interview: The school’s admissions website says that 10.8 percent of applicants who opted to participate in an interview or had it waived were accepted. The same was true for just 1 percent of those who didn’t.
Stu Schmill, the dean of admissions at MIT, said the school treats the interviews as another avenue to get to know students, especially because not everyone communicates as well on paper as they do in person. MIT deploys an army of trained alumni around the world to help out with this component of the application process. Students who can’t meet with an interviewer face-to-face are typically offered the chance to have a chat via Skype.
But MIT’s interview system is far from the norm, and at some schools, participating in the conversations is just like showing up for a campus tour: another way to demonstrate interest. Bari Norman, a former admissions officer at Barnard College and Columbia University who co-founded the college-consulting company Expert Admissions, said that at a small number of schools, interviews are evaluative, but at many others, they’re purely informative. At these latter institutions, Norman said, the interview is a chance for an applicant to have a personal connection with the school, and it isn’t a particularly meaningful component of the application process, which is “primarily an academic competition on the front lines.”
And yet, it is easy to imagine that when highly competitive schools like Yale, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and Emory profess to offer “optional” interviews, capturing a slot can feel like a commitment test. To an overstressed applicant competing with thousands of other candidates, the word “optional” feels like it comes with a wink and nudge, even if that’s not the reality.