Alumni Interviews

This year the alumni interviews at a number of schools were a touch more stressful than usual.

Usually an alumni interview is a relatively relaxed exchange done to gain a sense of how applicants present themselves, engage in conversation, and express their curiosities across a range of subjects. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s an element, a small one, of the college admissions process, these interviews could be one of the more enjoyable and interesting conversations a student might have about a college of interest. It often rewards an applicant with a unique perspective of the school.

Possibly it’s the flood of applicants to the usual selective schools: the Ivy Leagues, Georgetown, MIT and Northwestern, that made a number of this year’s interviews stiff.

The first question asked at an MIT interview (and at Harvard, Yale and Northwestern interviews as well) was, ‘tell me about yourself’. There is nothing too unusual about such a question at an interview.  This is a typical question asked by an HR person at a job interview. In preparation many applicants create what is called the elevator pitch: they have about 60 seconds (90 seconds maximum) to tell who they are and why they are a perfect match for the school, and then the interview launches on an upward trajectory.

Consider, however, that most of the applicants do not have seasoned interviewing skills, in fact for many this is their first interviewing experience. The ensuing questions, mentioned to me by students, included what would you do with $20 million? Assume you couldn’t attend college—what would you do instead? Such questions were more characteristic of a high pressure interview-- what one might expect from the admissions officers, not the alumni interviewers. Possibly the alumni interviews have been ratcheted up because the expectations are that those vying for these most select colleges know the ropes and are prepared to play hardball.

If you’re still preparing for alumni interviews (most should be completed by this time, but you never know) besides having an elevator pitch at your ready, there are a few pieces of advice to consider.    

Before the interview, if you have the interviewer’s name, do a Google search and try to find out something about her. It’s always more comfortable to see a picture of the interviewer ahead of time and have a sense of her background. That will also allow you to pull together a few icebreaker questions around a hobby or other interest she might have.

Research the school well, especially a department that you might major in, such as economics. All of us like to meet with someone who is well informed, enthusiastic, and well spoken, which is exactly the way you want the alumni interviewer to perceive you. In a recent alumni interview with Northwestern, one of my students was enthralled with the Northwestern football team’s overture to be recognized by the NCAA as employees and thereby set up a collective bargaining agreement. Now, granted, this could be a sensitive topic, but the student couldn’t help himself and the alumni interviewer was equally interested: mentioning it set off an animated discussion.  

In the flow of dialogue, be yourself and attempt to find out who this alumni interviewer is. The more you can glean from her observations of the school, the more finer aspects of the school you’ll discover from one seasoned with the campus. With alumnae, however, realize that many have been off their campuses for possibly several years and do not know all the current aspects of curriculum offerings or even physical changes to the campus.

Come with a ready set of questions. At the end of most interviews you’ll be asked is there anything else you’d like to know about MIT? Have two or three questions to engage the interviewer’s wisdom: “In your opinion, what one course would you recommend without reservation to any freshman?

No matter how brutal the question, or how awkward moments might be, the trick is to control what it is you can: be prompt, be polite, and follow with a thank you note, or email. Show her you are composed of the right stuff: a great match.