The Problem with College Interviews

Victoria Vale

Oh, the dreaded college interview. The moment you actually have to prove you’re a functional, charming, coherent human being to someone who graduated from your dream school. Simply google “college interview” and you’ll find article after article reminding your adolescent self to dress well, speak politely, and above all else, “be yourself”. Because after all, colleges just want to get to know you beyond your application, right?

But as I sat at Starbucks at 8 o’clock at night, across the table from an enraged, middle-aged man shouting political nonsense at me, I had to wonder how legit this system actually is.

Personally, I wasn’t overly concerned about the interview process. While I’m not too great at the talking-about-myself thing, I’m relatively comfortable speaking to adults, so I figured it would just be an hour of polite smiles and explaining my extracurriculars. And honestly, what’s the worst that can happen? Probably just that you run a little late or freeze after a question. And as scary as those possibilities are, aside from a sudden need to barf on your interviewer, most of the potential mess-ups you can have are preventable with enough preparation.

But it’s when you’re only ten minutes into the conversation and your interviewer starts angrily calling your teachers and guidance counselors “f***ing idiots” that you start to see who the real variable in your interview is: not you, but the alumni.

Seniors often worry about the interviewer they’ll have: whether they’ll be stoic or talkative, encouraging or critical. But even in our sleep-deprived, overstressed states, we still remain a little naïve about the process. Alumni interviewers are unpaid volunteers. Their training consists of maybe one or two information sessions; Stanford University explains on their Admissions Volunteers page that volunteers are “welcome to attend alumni training workshops every year, though only one training program is required”. It’s not surprising that volunteers have almost complete agency over the way they conduct their interviews—colleges have faith in their graduates’ abilities to speak to 17 and 18-year olds. And while most of the time interviewers probably do a good job, there are no guarantees as to who we will be sitting across the table from.

And then there’s the issue of “being yourself” with this random stranger who, in a way, holds the key to your future. About an hour into the interview, my interviewer, let’s call him Mr. S, started expressing his take on the election and the state of America. He talked for a while about how there is “no racism in America” and Trump “said some bad things, but that’s just men talking”, referring, of course, to Trump’s “locker-room talk”.

In any other scenario, I would have had no problem expressing my vehement disagreement with those statements. Here, however, I hesitated; calling your interviewer wrong doesn’t sound like the best way to make a good impression. But then again, why not express an opinion? I was the one whose ideas were being interviewed, and if Mr. S was going to bring up politics, then surely he was open to a political discussion.

So I opted for a very safe, “I didn’t like how Trump’s campaign attracted some racist people”, which avoided calling Trump racist, calling all his supporters racist, or even claiming the racist crowd was attracted intentionally. Aka, no room to be offended.

Well, Mr. S didn’t like that. He stared at me with wide eyes, shouted “that is so offensive I can’t believe you just said that I can’t talk to you”, then stood up and continued to shout “we have to leave right now we are done I can’t talk to you”, and started to walk out.

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve found a new worst-case scenario for a college interview.

As I sat there watching my highest reach school’s interviewer walk away in outrage, time seemed to slow down. While I was tempted to just let him leave and be done with his leaning across the small table, wide eyed, shouting about cons and idiots and liberals, I knew I couldn’t do that. I remembered he had told me I needed to “know the facts”, so I invited him to tell me said facts, and thus began another hour of political barrage. At that point, I wasn’t going to try directly arguing again, so I just asked counter-questions until he tired of hearing himself speak, two and a half hours after the start of the “interview”.  

The dynamic that played out through that last hour was interesting. Had any other adult made the claims Mr. S made during his political rant, I would never have hesitated to voice a counter-opinion.

The difference comes down to power. While your teachers and your parents’ friends and your coaches do hold the superior position that comes with being grown, Mr. S had the potential to be my connection to an elite school, and he knew it. The interviewer sitting across from you knows how hard you have worked and how much time has been put into your years of school and applications, and as a part of that application they are the dominant figure in the conversation. As a result, they are able to do things like force controversial political opinions down your throat without threat of being countered.

But here’s what makes an alumni interviewer different from any job interview: the huge influence the alumni has over your application is, in large part, a misconception.

Google “are alumni interviews important?” and you will see article after article of admissions officers stressing the importance of getting an interview and making a great impression, and warning that anything else could detract from your application. And while I am not claiming that good interviews don’t benefit your application, the whole idea that a bad interview or no interview detracts from your application is crap.

My guidance counselor and I contacted Mr. S’s school to inform the admissions office of the way he was conducting interviews. One of the questions we asked the Dean of Admissions at this elite school was what would happen if, based on our differing political views, Mr. S wrote a horrible report. She responded with the often-dismissed idea that good interviews are included in the application review, and bad ones are ignored. I, of course, questioned the validity of that practice, and was surprised to hear that the bad reports are discarded before they even reach the decision committee. As for the question of whether no report gives a bad impression, she responded that there are a variety of random reasons why a student could be missing an interview report. The committee, then, cannot assume anything, and thus it has no effect on the decision.

While I cannot speak for every school, it seems reasonable to assume that if crazy-selective schools aren’t judging you for a bad report, others aren’t either. Thus that whole power-play by the aggressive interviewer is evened-out—these random adults don’t actually hold the key to your future.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to end this piece for a few days now, but I’m still not really sure how this whole experience has made me feel. The feeling I have been able to place is a strange twinge of disappointment—not really the emotion I was expecting. Beyond being a way to learn more about you, colleges do always say that interviews are meant to be a resource for potential applicants to learn more about schools, beyond the endless email spam. But when paired with the constant anxiety brought by applications, calculus grades that are much too low, and just being perpetually tired, my interview experience just added to that notion of a conspiracy against high-school students, making them work just to knock them down. And while, after years of dealing with the ACT and College Board, I’m not surprised by that result, I think it sucks a lot.