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The GAO Report: Role of Interviews in Undergraduate Admission

My dear editor wanted a reflective piece on the past three months I’ve spent in D.C. and my subsequent return to the Farm. Briefly speaking, the reintegration process has been rather arduous. Like many of my Stanford in Washington peers, I am experiencing a kind of cultural shock–undoubtedly thrilled to the back (people here actually smile! The OMG amazing weather, laid-back atmosphere), yet there is a sense of dislocation from having spent a quarter away.

The healthy dose of pragmatism as result of time in the real world raises questions concerning the value of our liberal arts degree and exacerbates the tension of junior year. The increasing awareness of the transient nature of the Stanford experience brings the dilemma of whether to spent our remainder time acquiring practical skills or doing what we actually enjoy (immersing in humanities, leadership roles, company of some incredible people) into sharper focus.

My tendency for delayed processing means that the promised column will probably be delivered at a later date. So instead, I am going to talk about one of my favorite subjects, undergraduate admission. Admission has remained a topic of intense interest for me despite having being in college for three years. Perhaps it is linked to how the admission is a dynamic field that influences the state of higher education, offering fascinating insights into the zeitgeist or that fact that like many others, the drama of my own experience applying to college has not yet been forgotten–the American system can be totally byzantine to navigate for students abroad.

On Dec. 11, the Office of Undergraduate Admission accepted 13.5 percent of the 5,566 early applicant pool, offering admission to 753 restrictive early action applicants. The number of restrictive early action applicants, a non-binding option that allows admitted students until May 1 to respond to the University’s offer is the highest in Stanford’s history, increasing by almost 3.8 percent from last year.

There are many possible topics of contention regarding the admission philosophy at elite institutions like Stanford. Questions arise concerning the fairness of legacies consisting approximately a fifth of the Class of 2013, the possibility of increasing the number of international students from its current proportion of seven percent (lower than the average 10 percent of the Ivies) or the type of student that the University accept. Some friends are convinced that the holistic admission principle is doing no favor to enhancing intellectualism at Stanford, as it selects superficially engaged polymaths; I disagree.

However today, the topic will focus on the importance of expanding the pilot alumni interview program, the latest evolution in Stanford’s application policies to all regions for future admission cycles. After the inaugural year in 2008-09, optional interviews are now offered to applicants attending high school in nine metropolitan areas that represent a cross section of the applicant pool, including New York City, Portland, London and the state of Massachusetts.

Currently, most of our peer institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown, offer personal interviews as part of the application process. There are several compelling reasons for requiring this step. A face-to-face exchange constitutes a mutually constructive exchange. Applicants are offered an opportunity to learn about Stanford in a unique manner by listening to alumni discuss firsthand experience in academics and student life. The admission committee can learn about the candidate from another perspective, beyond the written materials. Additionally, it serves as a tool to recruit exceptional candidates from peer institutions, potentially improving Stanford’s yield rate. The interview initiative, operated by Stanford’s Outreach Volunteer Alumni Link (OVAL) is a meaningful and tangible way of keeping alumni emotionally and intellectually engaged in the future of their alma mater.

Stanford is currently undertaking an evaluation of the interview pilot’s inaugural year. While there are legitimate concerns since interviews are inherently a subjective exercise, these can be forestalled. For example, alumni participants should be provided with a formal set of guidelines and procedures before they are accepted as interviewers. There are mechanisms already in place to ensure that an interview’s bias does not negatively impact upon the applicant’s admission prospect.  The interviewer’s perspective is one of many factors–grades, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations, extra-curricular activities and essays–considered by the admission committee. The submitted interview report does not supplant other aspects, but might warrant further scrutiny on an applicant. There should also be avenues available for students to offer feedback to the University regarding their experiences.

Then, there are those who claim that interviews are unfair because they do not reflect realistic potential for scholastic success. Stanford receives applications from thousands of candidates who all look great on paper. Most of them can handle the academic rigor of a Stanford education. However, the strength of American higher education is that it looks beyond the numbers. College means much more than success classes. Stanford’s reputation is based on a student body that brings diverse talents and aspirations. And interviews are an appropriate medium to gauge that.