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Shaw, alumni elaborate on interview program

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The alumni interview program is transitioning from its pilot stage to become a permanent Stanford fixture, a change that administrators and alumni say will yield “great ambassadors” for the University.

The Faculty Senate Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid approved the program in April, after they had initially designated it as a pilot three years ago.

“We really didn’t know, to be honest, which way the faculty would go on this,” said Richard Shaw, dean of Undergraduate Admission. “The faculty, who really asked a lot of important, pointed questions, ultimately decided that they felt comfortable with it and that they were willing to get behind it.”

The decision, largely based on 17 case studies reported by alumni over the past three years, saw one major benefit to adding optional interviews to the Stanford undergraduate application.

“They ultimately concurred that an interview can add texture to an applicant’s file,” he said. “The human dynamic, meeting a person…either validates what you read in the file or it adds to it.”

One major concern raised, according to Shaw, was the availability of “enough alumni nationally to be able to meet the expectation of the volume.” He also mentioned “the question of equity” as a key point, referring the issues related to training interviewers and ensuring that they perform their tasks consistently.

According to Shaw, “the idea of access — do people have access to the interviews themselves? — and the question of what might they add to the applicant’s candidacy” were two other commonly cited concerns.

Steven Jewell ‘74, an alumni interviewer based in Portland, said it is imperative to understand that the interviews are “not strictly evaluative” meetings, but rather “conversations with applicants.”

“As an interviewer, I am trained to view myself as an ambassador for Stanford, not as a quasi-admissions officer,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “Many [applicants] have misconceptions about Stanford and the college application process. Stanford alumni are in a good position to help applicants learn what Stanford can offer them and to clarify misunderstandings.”

Interviewers are trained extensively. Admissions officers conduct 90-minute training sessions during their travels around the country and local alumni officers conduct follow-up sessions. Each interviewer is also given a reference handbook with sample questions, which Jewell called “comprehensive and excellent.”

Among the pros of the program, Jewell points to the financial benefit that will be derived from interviews through continued contact with the wide alumni base.

“One third of Stanford’s funding comes from gifts, and tuition only covers 60 percent of the cost of an undergraduate education,” he said. “So, alumni giving is vital to making a Stanford education affordable to all undergraduates. Additionally, engaged alumni volunteer thousands of hours of their time each year helping the University achieve its mission.”

Concerns that have been raised about alumni interview programs include the worry that students of lower socioeconomic status will be disadvantaged and that the lack of consistency among interviewers could bring unfair subjectivity.

Shaw deemed the first concern as “stereotyping.”

“Whether [applications] are low-income or first-generation or from a rural area or whatever the case may be, they already have a proven track record, and they’re quite capable of talking about themselves and what’s important to them,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as interviewers to bring that out.”

As for the second worry, Jewell noted that the “talented and devoted alumni base” serves as “great ambassadors for the University.” Still, the system is not perfect.

“Some interviewers will be more effective than others,” he said. “Continued training and support will help address this issue.”

Shaw stressed that the interviews are strictly optional; those who opt against them will not be disadvantaged during the admission process. He noted the admission office’s understanding of the discrepancies in applicant situations.

“Their schedules don’t have time, or they live in places where they just cannot get to an interview site, and so the thing to understand here is that it’s a piece of information that can be considered in the file, but in no way does it penalize the student if they choose not to do,” he said.

The pilot program included 12 interview locations, which Shaw says were chosen because of the “strength of the alumni presence in those communities.” The locations were Atlanta, Denver, London, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh/Durham, Washington D.C., Massachusetts and Virginia.

The official program proposes seven new locations for the 2011-12 admission cycle: Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Singapore, Oregon and Minnesota.

The permanent program is still in its infancy and has a number of years before its capacities meet the needs of a constantly growing applicant pool.

“Our intention here is to roll out over a period of years; it’s not all going to happen at once,” Shaw said. “We need to build these things effectively, constructively, and build the leadership around them as well as the technology behind them.”

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