The Futility of College Interviews

They’re a stressful and often irrelevant component of the application process. Is it time to do away with them?

A person with an umbrella walks outside on the Princeton University campus.
Mel Evans / AP

The prospective student on the other end of the phone was frantic and desperate. She had already called my alma mater’s admissions office at least twice and seemed to know what I was going to say before I started my sentence.

The student was ineligible for the optional alumni interviews offered to most applicants, and she was ostensibly aware that this last-ditch effort was unlikely to change the reality: She simply lived too far from where they were offered. I reassured the student that this wouldn’t hurt her chances of being accepted, but still, she begged me to give her a slot, offering to fly hundreds of miles to participate in a 30-minute conversation she was convinced would make or break her future.

Interviews, which kick off for some schools just after the January 1 regular-decision deadline, are in some ways like other aspects of the college-application process: stressful and mysterious. But unlike elements such as transcripts and personal essays, they’re often extraneous. In its 2017 State of College Admission report, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that just 4.7 percent of colleges view interviews of “considerable importance” in admissions decisions—meanwhile, 46 percent of schools said the conversations were irrelevant.

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.

Interviews can in turn be the source of yet another perceived power imbalance between the haves and have-nots when trying to get into college. Students who have access to SAT tutors, college coaches, and essay editors already have a huge leg up. Offering optional interviews—often within specific geographic constraints that automatically leave out applicants in various corners of the world—further widens the chasm. Even if the interviews don’t actually have a vast impact on admissions decisions, it remains true that some students get the chance to show another side of themselves while others are left behind due to no fault of their own.

Schmill at MIT said students who are often inadvertently handicapped in the admissions process because they don’t have access to the same resources often benefit the most from the interviews, at least when it’s an option offered to everyone: “These interviews can be particularly important and helpful for students who come from under-resourced backgrounds, who maybe don’t have the same kind of help in filling out their application,” Schmill said. “Our interviewers are trained to try to draw out the kind of information that we’re interested in … and so these interviews can really serve as an equalizer for our applicants.”

That these students are those who stand to benefit most from the conversations makes the lack of universal access all the more problematic, especially as higher education wrestles with inclusivity.

Perhaps all schools could either commit to speaking to everyone, like MIT, or go the way of the University of Illinois, where interviews are not offered to any prospective student. Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the decision is simply a matter of logistics. The school receives around 40,000 applications a year, and talking to everyone would present intense cost and organizing challenges. Plus, admissions officers do not consider demonstrated interest as a component of the application.

Ultimately, though applicants stand to benefit from speaking with alumni who have first-hand experience at a university, doing so through a mysterious interview process does not benefit students.

“In theory, it would be nice if there was another form of contact, but if it’s not really considered all that much at the end of the day in terms of tipping the decisions, then I say there’s a lot of stress for kids, they have a lot of demands on their time, as do alums,” Norman said. “So, you know, give them the break. If it really doesn’t matter, just don’t offer them.”