Acing the Alumni Interview

How to make a positive impression and gain a fresh perspective.

At competitive colleges and universities, there’s often little that separates one student from another—at least on paper. To help gain a better understanding of an applicant as a person, schools may hold alumni interviews. 

Some institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania, make an effort to offer an interview to every applicant. Alumni volunteers are sent notification when a student in their geographic region applies. From there, an interviewer like Leonard Bernstein will reach out to schedule a meeting. “The purpose of the interview, essentially, is to help the admissions person get beyond the paper,” says Bernstein, a 1980 graduate who now lives in Merion Station. “It’s just another factor that maybe could push a close decision one way or another.” 

Most schools don’t make interviews a requirement, but they do encourage them. The interviews are typically conversational, last about 30 minutes, and are conducted in public places. Colleges often give volunteers a sense of what they’re looking for, sometimes suggesting questions. Common topics include school subjects, what a student might want to major in, and nonacademic activities. “I want to get a feel for the areas that they’re most invested in and then find out if they are pursuing those to the best of their ability,” says Dorothy Bedell, a 1970 graduate of Bryn Mawr College who’s been conducting alumni interviews for 19 years. 

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Interviewers often do that through a series of questions, ranging from “Why do you want to go here?” and “What do you like to do outside of school?” to “What qualities and characteristics are most important to you in a school?” and “How would you describe yourself?” 

“Nine times out of 10, what happens in the interview is confirmed on paper. There are situations that students need to talk openly about, or that are hard to describe in an essay or capture in their recommendations,” says Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College

Bock also notes that interviews give students a chance to contextualize their applications, such as a someone who has fewer activities because he or she has a part-time job. They have room to discuss their interests and share aspects of their personalities that can’t be part of the application. 

Asking meaningful questions is another important part of the process. “One of the clear things is if they are asking questions to which they could easily have found [answers] on the web,” says Bedell. “It indicates a lack of interest.”

Bernstein says, “What impresses me is not the questions, but the stories.” 

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Beyond making an impression, alumni interviews are a prime opportunity to get a first-person perspective from a former student. “It’s nice if they ask you about your experience, even if it’s unrelated to their interests,” says Bernstein. 

“Prospective students do care about engaging with someone who’s been a student here. Alumni volunteer interviews are really valuable in that way,” says Mary Maier, director of admission at Haverford College, where she’s also an alumna. “What they want is a personal connection. It helps them imagine themselves on the campus.” 

Interviews are weighted differently in the admissions process from school to school. “Students always worry that we don’t value an alumni interview as much as we do an on-campus interview,” says Maier. “But they’re just as valuable to us. For many students, it just wouldn’t be possible to interview if they didn’t do an alumni interview.” 

Following the interview, a volunteer alum is asked to submit an evaluation, which can range from a written essay to bullet points with a summary of the conversation. Swarthmore asks for both a numeric rating and a written evaluation. “We’re less concerned with the rating than the written evaluation,” says Bock. 

Others, like Haverford, ask for only written answers. “Each student has different strengths and interests and is going to be able to express those differently in an application,” says Maier. “For some, the most important thing might be the alumni interview.”

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